Early Agriculture Nearly Tanked Ancient Europe’s Population

While the rise of agriculture allowed human populations to blossom, it also opened the door for catastrophic collapses

A recreation of an ancient English farm
A recreation of an ancient English farm Gordontour

The rise of agriculture changed the world. And we don’t just mean the human world. At its onset, long before the Green Revolution paved the way for vastly improved yields, people were notoriously bad at using the land. To produce our food we used to cut down a staggering number of trees. Deforestation in the western world, driven by land clearing for farming, actually peaked hundreds or thousands of years ago. And, without things like fertilizer or irrigation, or the massive intertwined agricultural system we have today, local shocks—a fire, a drought, a flood—could cut vital food supplies for years.

So, while the rise of agriculture allowed human populations to blossom, it also opened the door for catastrophic collapses. Science News:

Researchers already knew that agriculture in Europe appeared in modern-day Turkey around 8,500 years ago, spreading to France by about 7,800 years ago and then to Britain, Ireland and Northern Europe approximately 6,000 years ago. Farming led to more plentiful, stable food supplies, fueling population growth. But little is known about long-term population trends among ancient European cultivators.

New research looking at the sizes of human populations in ancient Europe found that while agriculture helped populations grow, the burgeoning civilizations were not sustainable.

In most sections of Europe, populations at some point declined by as much as 30 to 60 percent compared with peaks achieved after farming began, Shennan’s team concludes. That population plummet is similar to the continental devastation wreaked by the Black Death, an epidemic that peaked in Europe between 1348 and 1350.

The scientists, says BBC History, are fairly certain that ancient climate change was not the cause of the collapses. The research is a nice reminder that any technology that lets you outpace your natural limits can also send you crashing back down when it fails.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Are We Headed for Another Dust Bowl?

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.