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, 11 (2), e0148468

Early Life Conditions and Physiological Stress Following the Transition to Farming in Central/Southeast Europe: Skeletal Growth Impairment and 6000 Years of Gradual Recovery


Early Life Conditions and Physiological Stress Following the Transition to Farming in Central/Southeast Europe: Skeletal Growth Impairment and 6000 Years of Gradual Recovery

Alison A Macintosh et al. PLoS One.


Early life conditions play an important role in determining adult body size. In particular, childhood malnutrition and disease can elicit growth delays and affect adult body size if severe or prolonged enough. In the earliest stages of farming, skeletal growth impairment and small adult body size are often documented relative to hunter-gatherer groups, though this pattern is regionally variable. In Central/Southeast Europe, it is unclear how early life stress, growth history, and adult body size were impacted by the introduction of agriculture and ensuing long-term demographic, social, and behavioral change. The current study assesses this impact through the reconstruction and analysis of mean stature, body mass, limb proportion indices, and sexual dimorphism among 407 skeletally mature men and women from foraging and farming populations spanning the Late Mesolithic through Early Medieval periods in Central/Southeast Europe (~7100 calBC to 850 AD). Results document significantly reduced mean stature, body mass, and crural index in Neolithic agriculturalists relative both to Late Mesolithic hunter-gatherer-fishers and to later farming populations. This indication of relative growth impairment in the Neolithic, particularly among women, is supported by existing evidence of high developmental stress, intensive physical activity, and variable access to animal protein in these early agricultural populations. Among subsequent agriculturalists, temporal increases in mean stature, body mass, and crural index were more pronounced among Central European women, driving declines in the magnitude of sexual dimorphism through time. Overall, results suggest that the transition to agriculture in Central/Southeast Europe was challenging for early farming populations, but was followed by gradual amelioration across thousands of years, particularly among Central European women. This sex difference may be indicative, in part, of greater temporal variation in the social status afforded to young girls, in their access to resources during growth, and/or in their health status than was experienced by men.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Fig 1
Fig 1. Map of Central/Southeast Europe with geographical location of cemeteries.
1. Vlasac 2. Lepenski Vir 3. Vedrovice 4. Nitra Horné Krškany 5. Schwetzingen 6. Stuttgart-Mühlhausen 7. Polgár-Ferenci-hát 8. Hrtkovci-Gomolava 9. Brno-Tuřany 10. Ostojićevo 11. Polgár Kenderföld 12. Brno-Maloměřice 13. Tápiószele 14. Pottenbrunn 15. Hoštice. *: this site was used only for regional analyses.
Fig 2
Fig 2. Estimated body size variables by time period and sex.
A) Stature, B) Body mass, C) Brachial index, D) Crural index. Brackets indicate significant differences (* = p<0.05; ** = p<0.01).

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Grant support

This study was supported by funding from the Cambridge Commonwealth, European and International Trust (AAPM), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (AAPM), the European Research Council (RP; ERC Starting Grant, ERC-2010-StG263441), and the Natural Environment Research Council (JTS; NERC Grant Number NE/M/S/2003/00069). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.