Gradual decline in mobility with the adoption of food production in Europe

Christopher B. Ruff, Brigitte Holt, Markku Niskanen, Vladimir Sladek, Margit Berner, Evan Garofalo, Heather M. Garvin, Martin Hora, Juho Antti Junno, Eliska Schuplerova, Rosa Vilkama, Erin Whittey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

92 Scopus citations


Increased sedentism during the Holocene has been proposed as a major cause of decreased skeletal robusticity (bone strength relative to body size) in modern humans. When and why declining mobility occurred has profound implications for reconstructing past population history and health, but it has proven difficult to characterize archaeologically. In this study we evaluate temporal trends in relative strength of the upper and lower limb bones in a sample of 1,842 individuals from across Europe extending from the Upper Paleolithic [11,000-33,000 calibrated years (Cal y) B.P.] through the 20th century. A large decline in anteroposterior bending strength of the femur and tibia occurs beginning in the Neolithic (∼4,000-7,000 Cal y B.P.) and continues through the Iron/Roman period (∼2,000 Cal y B.P.), with no subsequent directional change. Declines in mediolateral bending strength of the lower limb bones and strength of the humerus are much smaller and less consistent. Together these results strongly implicate declining mobility as the specific behavioral factor underlying these changes. Mobility levels first declined at the onset of food production, but the transition to a more sedentary lifestyle was gradual, extending through later agricultural intensification. This finding only partially supports models that tie increased sedentism to a relatively abrupt Neolithic Demographic Transition in Europe. The lack of subsequent change in relative bone strength indicates that increasing mechanization and urbanization had only relatively small effects on skeletal robusticity, suggesting that moderate changes in activity level are not sufficient stimuli for bone deposition or resorption.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7147-7152
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number23
StatePublished - Jun 9 2015


  • Bone strength
  • Europe
  • Mobility
  • Neolithic

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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