Studies of fertility in the Stone Age show that during the Neolithic (younger Stone Age) something changes significantly. Compared to the Middle Stone Age, the Mesolithic, women began to give birth more often and more children. This begins what will become known as the Neolithic demographic transition.

We know that the world changes throughout history. But that knowledge is somehow semi-knowledge, more intuition and collective consciousness than a true understanding of how much and how the world has changed. In this semi-knowledge, there is no understanding of how much humanity has changed thanks to women.

And we are not only talking about women who made special contributions to science, culture and politics, such as Marie Curie or  Emmy Noether, Vera Rubin, Lisa Meitner, Grace Hopper, Barbara McClintock. Their names are remembered. We are talking about the unnamed mass of women who created humanity because they simply gave birth. Women as human factories.

To understand how women changed the world and humanity, we need to go back to the Mesolithic and see how it differed from the Neolithic. Let’s put things into perspective: the Mesolithic begins, roughly speaking, some 15,000 years ago, and the Neolithic about 8,000 years ago (about 6,500 BC). Here, as a guide, we include Dr. Sofija Stefanović, a professor from the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Belgrade who is engaged in research into prehistoric bioarcheology.

Her special area of scientific interest is the study of the connections between motherhood, giving birth and raising children and the process called “Neolithic expansion”, which describes the increase in the birth rate, i.e. the number of people in the Neolithic. This process of increasing fertility also has another name – the Neolithic demographic transition. thus emphasizing the demographic change compared to the Mesolithic.

Dr. Stefanović is also the main researcher of the project BIRTH (Births, mothers and babies: prehistoric fertility in the Balkans between 10000 – 5000 BC) funded by the European Research Council (ERC).

The project is the first to deal with fertility and birth rate changes that occurred during the Neolithic in this intensity and scope. He thoroughly covered many aspects of the Neolithic, especially fertility in the area of the Central Balkans and Pannonia, with a special focus on Lepenski Vir, early Neolithic sites in Vojvodina, Golokut in Pannonia, Đerdap localities, but also on some samples from Croatia, and a number of important scientific publications were published.
Humanity began in the form of small tribes, scattered groups of nomads who lived from hunting, and harsh life, diseases and uncertainty did not allow them to have larger groups. And since then, humanity has grown to 8 billion. There are estimates that around 117 billion people have been born on Earth. Where did we come from and how did we multiply to become the dominant species? Well, women gave birth to us.

The modern image of women implies wider hips (as they would say “for childbirth”), a narrow waist… Wider hips make childbirth easier, and let’s remember that in the course of evolution, the human head and brain volume grew a little, so childbirth was increasingly difficult. Evolution did its job – women survived who did not die in childbirth due to narrow hips.

“If we compare the pelvises of Mesolithic and Neolithic women, we will notice that those Neolithic women were indeed a little wider, which definitely made childbirth somewhat easier. “Mesolithic women had more elongated and narrow pelvises”, explains Dr. Stefanović.

Alright. We now have evidence that Neolithic women had the anatomical ability to bear more children. But did they really give birth to more? dr. Stefanović says – yes. The evidence for this comes from one of the most unusual places you can imagine. In order to access the evidence, we have to move to the head and the teeth.

Dr. Ursula Wittwer-Backofen, from the Department of Biological Anthropology at the University of Freiburg, noticed a very interesting thing, which allows us to indirectly conclude something about fertility and pregnancies in women. She noticed that the stress of pregnancy is also reflected in dental cement. Based on the TCA method (eng. method of tooth cementum annulation) Wittwer-Backofen, Dr. Stefanović and her team investigated [1] evidence [2] about pregnancies revealed by the teeth of Neolithic women.

When we analyzed the teeth of Mesolithic and Neolithic women, as well as men, in a smaller number but we had them as a control group, it really turned out that in the Neolithic the number of stress lines increased significantly, which in a way is biological evidence of an increase in stress, that is, fertility, which we know from archaeological evidence to have occurred, because the number of archaeological remains has increased. But this is the first biological indicator that this happened“, explains Dr. Stefanović.

What is going on? Why is it advisable to take calcium supplements during pregnancy? Simple – during pregnancy, the fetus draws the mother’s resources, including calcium from bones and teeth. And teeth, like wood chips and fish scales, gain layers of material from year to year.

The body’s exposure to stress and calcium loss is revealed as a line on dental cement that differs from the others. Based on these irregular incremental lines, as scientists call them, it can be concluded that the organism was exposed to some stress. It can be pregnancy, but it can also be some injury, broken bones, so the incremental lines cannot distinguish the cause of stress.

But guess what? Many more of these lines of physiological stress (also called “crisis lines”) were discovered in Neolithic women than in men. And in the Mesolithic there were more lines of stress on the teeth of men. So, in the Mesolithic, men were hunters, they work more, they are more exposed to the risk of injuries, while the Neolithic, as Dr. Stefanović says, was “a kind of calm for men”, they began to live with less stress. At that time, women have multiple pregnancies and each pregnancy and breastfeeding is a source of stress for them and creates irregular, striking incremental lines. However, to make sure there is no confusion – even then women did not just “sit at home” and collect fruits – we have evidence that Neolithic women were also engaged in hunting.

The Neolithic brings new problems to women, from which they have not come out until now, the increased number of children has increased their stress and worsened their health. Normally, it’s not the same if you have one child, or six or seven, your entire biology suffers much more with the greater number of births, and men, quite the opposite, they had more stress in the Mesolithic,” adds Stefanović .

And now we have come to one, equally female role and physiological function – breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is also natural contraception, of course not 100% effective and cannot last for years. While breastfeeding, you naturally stop ovulating. You can’t get pregnant if you don’t ovulate. No ovulation means you won’t even have a period. This control of conception during breastfeeding also has its own name: the method of lactational amenorrhea .

Evidence from the analysis of stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes indicates that women in the Mesolithic breastfed much longer: Mesolithic children were breastfed until the fourth or fifth year of life, and Neolithic children for about a year.

When you consume food, the chemical residues of that food are integrated into our bones. If I am a child and start eating meat, my long bones will remodel. But the teeth are not remodeled. The food that is consumed remains remembered in the teeth. When we analyze children’s skeletons, we take a large number of tooth samples, and it is known at what pace the teeth grow, and we can actually detect up to what moment the child consumed only mother’s milk, and when supplementary feeding began. Using this method, we found that Mesolithic mothers nursed their children much longer on samples from the Balkans, but this has also been shown in other research. In our sample, it used to be up to the fourth and sixth years in the Mesolithic, while in the Neolithic the length of breastfeeding was shortened, in our sample to one year“, says Dr. Stefanović.

It has been proven that there were significant differences in the feeding practices of Mesolithic and Neolithic children [3] . This also meant that women were without ovulation for a longer period of time, although we also know that lactational amenorrhea does not last the entire period of breastfeeding. But this must have had an impact on fertility. During the Neolithic period, women shortened the breastfeeding period and “returned” their ovulation and menstruation more quickly, which meant that they could get pregnant more than once. So what did they feed their children if they shortened the breastfeeding period?

One small artifact from the Neolithic site of Grad-Starčevo reveals something about this. These are spoons that were found to have been used to feed small children [4] . Teeth marks have been proven on them, small incisions that correspond to the bites of milk teeth. Let’s not forget – these were not metal spoons, we are still in the Stone Age and such objects were made of bone. At that time, people grew cereals and domesticated animals, and so they began to cook porridge from milk and crushed grains to feed children.

The production of a new type of baby feeding artifact is likely associated with the appearance of a new type of weaning food, and the abundance of these spoons indicates that new baby porridges became an important innovation in prehistoric baby care.

Thus, the whole community – aunts, grandmothers, fathers, brothers and sisters – could feed the baby, and mothers no longer had to breastfeed as long as in the Mesolithic, when the safest option for a child was to breastfeed for years. By doing so, their period of natural contraception was shortened and they could get pregnant again much faster, and replenish the Earth.


[1] Stefanović, S., Dimitrijević, V., Porčić, M. 2015. Births, mothers and babies: Prehistoric fertility in the Balkans between 10000-5000 cal. BC. MESO 2015 – The Ninth International Conference on the Mesolithic in Europe (14th-18th September, Belgrade, Serbia) Book of Abstracts: p. 28

[2] Penezić, K., Porčić, M., Jovanović, J., Urban, PK, Wittwer-Backofen, U., & Stefanović, S. (2019). Quantifying prehistoric physiological stress using the TCA method:: Preliminary results from the Central Balkans. Documenta Praehistorica, 46, 284–295.

[3] Jovanović, Jelena, Gwenaëlle, Goude, Novak, Mario, Bedić, Željka, de Becdelievre, Camille, & Stefanović, Sofija. (2018). Infant feeding practices and breastfeeding strategies at the advent of the Neolithic in the Central Balkans. European Association of Archaeologists (EAA), Maastricht. Zenodo.

[4] Stefanović, Sofija, Petrović, Bojan, Porčić, Marko, Penezić, Kristina, Pendić, Jugoslav, Dimitrijević, Vesna, Živaljević, Ivana, Vuković, Sonja, Jovanović, Jelena, Kojić, Sanja, Starović, Andrej, & Blagojević, Tamara. (2019). Bone spoons for prehistoric babies: Detection of human teeth marks on the Neolithic artefacts from the site Grad-Starčevo (Serbia).

Publishhed in
13 April 2023
Author: Jelena Kalinić