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Ash, Abigail

Farming and Forging: Stress, behaviour, and health in central European populations from the dawn of agriculture to the rise of the Roman Empire

PhD Candidate: Abigail Ash
Supervisor: Professor Ron Pinhasi
Funded By: (opens in a new window)European Research Council


Health in an archaeological context is difficult to define as soft tissue manifestations and physiological symptoms of ill-health cannot be witnessed. Where pathology is expressed skeletally, the study of archaeological populations can provide important insight into how specific diseases may have occurred and spread over generations, and the incidence of non-specific indicators of stress can track similar patterning in physiological disruption to body systems, though the exact etiology of such disruption often cannot be determined. These two skeletal markers therefore provide an archaeological proxy for general levels of health in past populations.

A number of factors may impact the health of individuals and populations: the environment in which the body grows; immunity, both innate and acquired; and the direct or indirect impact of culturally prescribed behaviours which may segregate access to dietary resources and restrict or promote contact with pathogens and stress-promoting situations (Roberts et al. 1998). Changing behaviour from Mesolithic to modern times with the adoption and intensification of agricultural practices, increasing population size and density, introduction of metalworking, opening up of trade networks, and the violence, warfare and invasions that accompanied widening global communications, is expected to increase stress and pathogen loads of populations and result in the general decline in health that is seen when comparing modern industrial and hunter-gatherer populations (Cohen 1989). However assumptions about the uniformity of Neolithic practices across continental Europe have been questioned and there is a growing awareness of population level variability within larger cultural groups (Watson 2003).

To examine how this variability may have impacted the health of local populations this study focuses on the area in central Europe initially occupied by the Linearbandkeramik culture from 5500 BC. The remarkable homogeneity of cultural practices across more than 50 000 km2 of land and almost a millennium in time was followed by expansion of agriculture at the borders of the LBK and diversification of culture within the primary geographic region (Barker 2006: 357-364). This provides an ideal focus for examining the changing patterns of behaviour and health both through time and within a cultural group contiguous over a large area with a broadly similar environment.

This study aims to quantify changing patterns of health and disease, on both an individual and a population level, within a core skeletal series in Central Europe dating from the appearance of Neolithic practices in Europe until the rise of the Roman Empire, and to examine the relationship between changing patterns of health and socio-behavioural evolution. Achievement of this aim and the direction of study is guided by four research questions:

  • How homogeneous was health in the Linearbandkeramik across its geographical and temporal spread and what implications does this have for the current conception of uniform cultural behaviour?
  • Do populations with similar burial practices show similarities in the expression of non-specific indicators of stress and does differential prevalence of indicators between demographic groups follow diversification of burial treatment?
  • How far can the variable expression of joint degeneration within and between populations be considered the result of behavioural differences?
  • Is there a stable association between non-specific indicators of stress through time and what does this suggest about the etiology of these indicators?

Fourteen populations were examined for the presence of five non-specific indicators of stress; porotic hyperostosis, cribra orbitalia, non-specific infection, joint degeneration, and linear enamel hypoplasia. Joint degeneration provides a measure of mechanical stress that might be linked with certain repetitive actions (Jurmain 1991) and the remaining four indicators are suggestive of nutrient deficiency and pathogen load (Steckel et al. 2002).


Barker, G. 2006. The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: why did foragers become farmers? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cohen, M.N. 1989. Health and the Rise of Civilization. London: Yale University Press.

Jurmain, R.D. 1991. Degenerative changes in peripheral joints as indicators of mechanical stress: opportunities and limitations. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 1: 247-252.

Roberts, C.A., M.E. Lewis & P. Boocock 1998. Infectious disease, sex, and gender; the complexity of it all. In A.L. Grauer & P Stuart-Macadam (eds) Sex and Gender in Paleopathological Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 93-113.

Steckel, R.H., P.W. Sciulli & J.C. Rose 2002. A health index from skeletal remains. In R.H. Steckel & J.C. Rose (eds) The Backbone of History: health and nutrition in the western hemisphere. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 11-60.

Watson, P.J. 2003. Investigating agricultural transitions: a comparative perspective. In A.J. Ammerman & P. Biagi (eds) The Widening Harvest. The Neolithic transition in Europe: looking back, looking forward. Boston: Archaeological Institute of America. pp. 27-41.

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