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The authors of this article consider the relationship in European prehistory between the procurement of high-quality stones (for axeheads, daggers, and other tools) on the one hand, and the early mining, crafting, and deposition of copper on the other. The data consist of radiocarbon dates for the exploitation of stone quarries, flint mines, and copper mines, and of information regarding the frequency through time of jade axeheads and copper artefacts. By adopting a broad perspective, spanning much of central-western Europe from 5500 to 2000 bc, they identify a general pattern in which the circulation of the first copper artefacts was associated with a decline in specialized stone quarrying. The latter re-emerged in certain regions when copper use decreased, before declining more permanently in the Bell Beaker phase, once copper became more generally available. Regional variations reflect the degrees of connectivity among overlapping copper exchange networks. The patterns revealed are in keeping with previous understandings, refine them through quantification and demonstrate their cyclical nature, with additional reference to likely local demographic trajectories.
The focus of this paper is the Neolithic of northwest Europe, where a rapid growth in population between ~5950 and ~5550 cal yr BP is followed by a decline that lasted until ~4950 cal yr BP. The timing of the increase in population density correlates with the local appearance of farming and is attributed to the advantageous effects of agriculture. However, the subsequent population decline has yet to be satisfactorily explained. One possible explanation is the reduction in yields in Neolithic cereal-based agriculture due to worsening climatic conditions. The suggestion of a correlation between Neolithic climate deterioration, agricultural productivity, and a decrease in population requires testing for northwestern Europe. Data for our analyses were collected during the Cultural Evolution of Neolithic Europe project. We assess the correlation between agricultural productivity and population densities in the Neolithic of northwest Europe by examining the changing frequencies of crop and weed taxa before, during and after the population “boom and bust.” We show that the period of population decline is coincidental with a decrease in cereal production linked to a shift towards less fertile soils.
New radiocarbon (14C) dates suggest a simultaneous appearance of two technologically and geographically distinct axe production practices in Neolithic Britain; igneous open-air quarries in Great Langdale, Cumbria, and from flint mines in southern England at ~4000–3700 cal BC. In light of the recent evidence that farming was introduced at this time by large-scale immigration from northwest Europe, and that expansion within Britain was extremely rapid, we argue that this synchronicity supports this speed of colonization and reflects a knowledge of complex extraction processes and associated exchange networks already possessed by the immigrant groups; long-range connections developed as colonization rapidly expanded. Although we can model the start of these new extraction activities, it remains difficult to estimate how long significant production activity lasted at these key sites given the nature of the record from which samples could be obtained.