Isotope analysis documents transition to agriculture in the Balkans

Mesolithic foragers were gradually assimilated into farming communities.

The Iron Gates are a series of gorges situated on the Danube between the Carpathian Mountains and the Dinaric Alps. In the early millennia after the last Ice Age, the region supported a number of sedentary or near-sedentary Mesolithic communities. At the sites of Lepenski Vir, Padina and Vlasac, fishers exploited migratory sturgeon, catfish, carp and other species (Borić, 2002).

There is no evidence for long-distance interactions during the early Mesolithic period from 9500 to 7400 BC, but these increased during the period from 7400 to 6200 BC. Archaeological evidence is based on the presence of the marine gastropods Columbella rustica and Cyclope neritea, which must have come from coastal regions more than 400 km (250 miles) away. This period was characterised by long-lasting and evidently successful communities. A large number of burials have been excavated, with bodies typically in the extended supine position characteristic of Mesolithic inhumations (Borić & Price, 2013).

The period between 6200 and 6000 BC saw a Mesolithic to Neolithic transition in the region, and was characterised by cultural hybridity (Borić & Price, 2013). At Lepenski Vir, remarkable trapezoidal, semi-subterranean, flat-roofed dwellings were constructed on the banks of the Danube (Borić, 2002). They varied in size from 5 to 30 sq. m. (54 to 320 sq. ft.), with the wider ends facing the river. The floors were dug 0.5 to 1.5 m (1 ft. 8 in. to 3 ft. 3 in.) into the terraced slopes of the river bank, and were surfaced with reddish limestone plaster. Inside, elongated pits lined with limestone blocks served as hearths (Mithen, 1994; Borić, 2002). Many houses contained burials, although burials were also placed outside houses (Radovanovic, 2000). Human/fish anthropomorphic sculptures carved from boulders were also found in many of the houses. These have been interpreted as evidence of a belief system characterised by a totemic relationship between humans and the fish that were so vital to their subsistence economy (Borić, 2005). In addition to these indigenous elements, Neolithic elements including pottery and polished stone axes appeared at Lepenski Vir (Borić & Price, 2013).

At this stage, the lack of domesticated animals at suggests that subsistence patterns remained unchanged. Mortuary practices were still characterised by typical Mesolithic extended supine burials during this period. However, the Early Neolithic site of Ajmana, in the downstream area of the gorges, was contemporary with these indigenous forager communities. By 6000 BC, further changes were evident in the region with the first appearance of crouched/flexed burials characteristic of the Neolithic period. The trapezoidal buildings of Lepenski Vir were replaced by more typical Neolithic constructions, and there was an increase in the number of settlements across the region as a whole (Borić & Price, 2013).

In total, over 500 graves have been excavated from the Mesolithic and Early Neolithic periods in the Danubian Iron Gates, and stable isotope analysis of the remains has provided considerable insight into the transition to agriculture in the region. Dietary data inferred from carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of bone collagen suggests that after around 6200 BC, there was a shift from the Mesolithic reliance on the locally-abundant fish to a cereal-based diet. Strontium isotope data from dental enamel indicate that at the same time, burials of non-local first-generation migrants increased significantly. These burials are predominantly of the crouched/flexed type. Notably, 87Sr/86Sr ratios of these migrants fall both above and below local values, suggesting that they originated from at least two geologically-distinct regions. The dating of remains suggests that they might have arrived in several waves (Borić & Price, 2013).

Paradoxically, it appears that during the earliest stages of the Neolithic in southeastern Europe, Neolithic farmers were more mobile than the indigenous foragers, who remained tied to their Danubian fishing niche. The data from Lepenski Vir shows that during the transitional period, more nonlocal women than men were buried at the site. The suggestion is that women came to the site from Neolithic communities as part of an ongoing social exchange. At the same time, the numbers of Neolithic-type artefacts at the site testify to an increasing Neolithic presence in the region, and the Mesolithic way of life came under growing pressure. The period of co-existence lasted for two centuries between 6200 and 6000 BC, but in the centuries thereafter the foragers were completely absorbed into the farming communities and their way of life finally vanished (Borić & Price, 2013).


1. Borić, D., The Lepenski Vir conundrum: reinterpretation of the Mesolithic and Neolithic sequences in the Danube Gorges. Antiquity 76 (294), 1026–1039 (2002).

2. Borić, D. & Price, D., Strontium isotopes document greater human mobility at the start of the Balkan Neolithic. PNAS 110 (9), 3298–3303 (2013).

3. Mithen, S., in Prehistoric Europe, edited by Cunliffe, B. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994), pp. 79-135.

4. Radovanovic, I., Houses and burials at Lepenski Vir. European Journal of Archaeology 3 (3), 330-349 (2000).

5. Borić, D., Body Metamorphosis and Animality: Volatile Bodies and Boulder Artworks from Lepenski Vir. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 15 (1), 35–69 (2005).


Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author