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From Foraging to Farming in Northwest Europe


To understand the transition from foraging to farming, using cutting-edge scientific techniques.

This project has been remarkably successful, revealing much about both the final hunter-gatherers, and the first farmers. The hunter-gatherers were not always the small nomadic groups usually envisaged. Blick Mead (just two kilometres from where Stonehenge was later built) was a major settlement. Aurochs (wild cattle) were the most common animal. Isotopic analysis of samples down an aurochs tooth (see Image A below) revealed the diet of this animal at about fortnightly intervals over more than one year. Remarkably, the animal did not migrate. Stable resources like this sometimes enabled hunter-gatherers to achieve large stable population groupings. This has led to a major reconsideration of the relations between resident hunter-gatherers and the first immigrant farmers. Our preconceptions have been based on recent Europeans with guns, encountering hunters with stone-tipped arrows. In prehistory, local hunters had both better technology and better local knowledge than the incoming farmers, and the initial contacts between them were skewed in the hunters’ favour. 

Aurochs Tooth

Image A above: An Auroch tooth

The earliest farmers lived in small scattered communities. There was little forest clearance, but Carbon isotopes reveal that cattle (the most common animal) grazed exclusively on grass, evidently in very small clearings. This was true both at Coneybury (again near Stonehenge) and sites in Scandinavia. Farming was intensive within the clearings, using ards (scratch ploughs). Nitrogen isotopes from grains show that cereal plots were manured. Oxygen isotopes from cattle teeth show that births were spaced over several months of the year – presumably so that fresh milk was available in winter (dairying was common everywhere). Individual cattle were moved long distances, presumably so the small herds were sufficiently genetically diverse. Most of these traits are present at the Early Neolithic feasting site of Coneybury, where Sulphur isotopes revealed that the cattle came from three different farms. The uniquely high number of roe deer probably indicate that some surviving hunter-gatherers were present as well – the only such evidence so far in Northwestern Europe. 
This farming regime is remarkably – and most unexpectedly – sophisticated, each clearing a ‘farming engine’ providing everything needed. This was quite similar to early European farms in North America (see Image B below) This level of sophistication could not be achieved by local hunter-gatherers experimenting with farming. It must indicate the immigration of skilled and experienced farmers from Central Europe. This puts into context the latest aDNA findings from human bones. aDNA in pig bones agrees: the earliest domestic pigs were imported ultimately from the Near East. Only later was there a near-complete genomic turnover as European wild boar were locally domesticated.

Drawing of a settlers log cabin in a clearing within a Forest
Image B above: Early Euorpean farm in North America

We organised a major session at the 2017 EAA conference in Maastrich, resulting in the recent publication of a landmark volume covering early agriculture all across Europe. 
An unexpected spin-off was the development of a method enabling the sex determination of humans from enamel peptides in teeth. The Leverhulme Trust allowed us to redeploy £500 towards this, resulting in an important publication in collaboration with the University of Brighton.


  • Dr. Kurt Gron was in Durham on a Newton International Fellowship (until January 2016, PR-C sponsor).
  • The Leverhulme Trust funded Dr. Gron for three further years (September 2016 – August 2019 PR-C PA).
  • A different perspective on the Late Mesolithic received further support for Dr. Gron from the Leverhulme (started September 2019, PA Janet Montgomery, Co-A PR-C). 

Major Collaborators  

  • Dr. Theo van Ascher, RAAP Archaeological Consultancy, Netherlands 
  • Dr. Adrian Green, Salisbury Museum
  • Prof Arkadiusz Marciniak, Adam Mickiewicz University, Posnan, Poland
  • Dr. Poul-Otto Nielsen, National Museum of Denmark
  • Dr. William Patterson, University of Saskatchewan, Canada
  • Prof N.A. Stewart, University of Brighton
  • Dr. Lasse Sørensen, National Museum of Denmark

PDRAs, PhD students

Dr. Kurt Gron 

Bryony Rogers (undergraduate, now a PhD student)

Key publications

Major edited volume

  • 2020. Gron, K.J., Sørensen, L. and Rowley-Conwy, P. (eds) Farmers at the Frontier: a pan-European Perspective on Neolithisation (volume of 20 papers). Oxford: Oxbow Books.   


  • 2018. Rogers, B., Gron, K.J., Montgomery, J., Gröcke, D.R. & Rowley-Conwy, P. 2018. Aurochs hunters: the large animal bones from Blick Mead. In Blick Mead: Exploring the 'first place' in the Stonehenge landscape. Archaeological excavations at Blick Mead, Amesbury, Wiltshire 2005–2016, eds. D. Jacques, T. Phillips and T. Lyons, 127–152, 213-214. Oxford: Peter Lang. doi: 10.3726/b11044.
  • 2016. Rowley-Conwy, P. and Piper, S. 2016. Hunter-gatherer variability: developing models for the northern coasts. Arctic 69(5), 1-14.  doi:
  • 2014. Rowley-Conwy, P. 2014. Foragers and farmers in Mesolithic/Neolithic Europe, 5500-3900 cal BC: beyond the anthropological comfort zone. In Wild Things: Recent Advances in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Research, eds. F.W.F. Foulds, H.C. Drinkall, A.R. Perri, D.T.G. Clinnick and J.W.P. Walker, 185-201. Oxford: Oxbow Books. 

First farmers 

  • 2020. Rowley-Conwy, P., Gron, K.J., Bishop, R.R., Dunne, J., Evershed, R., Longford, C., Schulting, R. and Treasure, E. The earliest farming in Britain: towards a new synthesis. In Farmers at the Frontier: a pan-European Perspective on Neolithisation, eds. K.J. Gron, L. Sørensen and P. Rowley-Conwy, 401-424. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
  • 2019. Frantz, L.A.F., 11 others, Gron, K.J., 78 others,  Rowley-Conwy, P., 7 others, and Larson, G. Ancient pigs reveal a near-complete genomic turnover following their introduction to Europe. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116(35), 17231-17238. (Gron and Rowley-Conwy are listed as two of the seven authors who actually wrote the paper)
  • 2018. Gron, K., Rowley-Conwy, P., Fernandez-Dominguez, E., Gröcke, D., Montgomery, J., Nowell, G. and Patterson, W. 2018. A meeting in the forest: hunters and farmers at the Coneybury ‘Anomaly’. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 86, 111-144.
  • 2018 Gron, K. J. and Sørensen, L. Cultural and economic negotiation: a new perspective on the Neolithic transition of Southern Scandinavia. Antiquity 92(364):958-974.
  • 2017. Gron, K.J., Gröcke, D.R., Larsson, M., Sørensen, L., Larsson, L., Rowley-Conwy, P. and Church, M.J. 2017. Nitrogen isotope evidence for manuring of Early Neolithic Funnel Beaker culture cereals from Stensborg, Sweden. Journal of Archaeological Science Reports 14, 575-579.
  • 2017. Stewart, N.A., Gerlach, R.L., Gowland, R., Gron, K.J. and Montgomery, J.. Sex determination of human remains from peptides in tooth enamel. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114(52):13649-13654.
  • 2015. Gron, K., Montgomery, J. and Rowley-Conwy, P. 2015. Cattle management for dairying in Scandinavia’s earliest Neolithic. PLoS ONE 10(7). e0131267. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0131267.