Introduction of farming led to ‘Black Death’-type population collapse

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The introduction of farming into Western Europe 7,500 years ago led to dramatic population collapse, according to new research.

In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers from University College London (UCL) found evidence of decreases in population size as great as 60 per cent.

Looking at the distribution of nearly 8,000 radiocarbon dates from archaeological sites in several regions, and using novel statistical analysis, the team noticed that while there was evidence of a dramatic increase in human activity shortly after farming was introduced, it was not sustained.

Instead the team found, in many regions, proof of population collapse on a similar scale to the Black Death.

While the exact cause of these population decreases remains unknown, the team says farming could have driven population growth to unsustainable levels.

Alternatively, soils could have become eroded, or depleted of nutrients.

Professor Stephen Shennan, lead author of the study, said: “The introduction of farming is widely believed to have led to sustained population growth, but the new evidence we’ve uncovered suggests this large-scale ‘boom-and-bust’ pattern. 

“The reasons behind this trend still remain unknown, but they could have been to do with farming itself.”

Dr Adrian Timpson, a co-author of the study, said:  “The reasons why these populations collapsed so dramatically remains unknown.

“One possibility could be changes in climate, which can affect the suitability and productivity of crops in different regions. But when we looked into this further, we found no conclusive proof of a link."