The spread of farming from western Asia to Europe had profound long-term social and ecological impacts, but identification of the specific nature of Neolithic land management practices and the dietary contribution of early crops has been problematic. Here, we present previously undescribed stable isotope determinations of charred cereals and pulses from 13 Neolithic sites across Europe, which show that early farmers used livestock manure and water management to enhance crop yields. Intensive manuring inextricably linked plant cultivation and animal herding and contributed to the remarkable resilience of these combined practices across diverse climatic zones. Critically, our findings suggest that commonly applied paleodietary interpretations of human and herbivore values have systematically underestimated the contribution of crop-derived protein to early farmer diets.
The crop stable isotope compositions presented here have important implications for the nature and role of early farming, and reveal distinct local or regional strategies in the use of manure. More broadly, the findings provide new insights into the system of relationships connecting Neolithic communities, their crops, livestock, and land. Neolithic farmers made investments, such as manuring with a long-term view to sustainability and territorial claims. This long-term outlook brings into focus a world view that gave rise to spectacular statements of permanence and ancestry, such as the funerary monuments of western Europe, as well as to extreme violence.