Mostly: Genetic study shed light on rise of agriculture in Stone Age Europe
One of the most debated developments in human history is the transition from hunter‑gatherer to agricultural societies. This week’s edition of Science presents the genetic findings of a Swedish‑Danish research team, which show that agriculture spread to Northern Europe via migration from Southern Europe.
“We have been able to show that the genetic variation of today’s Europeans was strongly affected by immigrant Stone Age farmers, though a number of hunter-gatherer genes remain,” says Assistant Professor Anders Götherström of the Evolutionary Biology Centre, who, along with Assistant Professor Mattias Jakobsson, co-led the study, a collaboration with Stockholm University and the University of Copenhagen.
“What is interesting and surprising is that Stone Age farmers and hunter-gatherers from the same time had entirely different genetic backgrounds and lived side by side for more than a thousand years, to finally interbreed,” Mattias Jakobsson says.
Not surprised by this, it’s what people have been finding for quite a while now. I was kind of expecting a larger sample though. Read the whole thing.
Brad Lepper summarizes a new paper on H-G astronomy: Earthworks created for more than farming
Many of Ohio’s ancient earthworks are aligned to astronomical events, such as the apparent rising and setting of the sun or the moon on key dates in their cycles.
The main axis of the Octagon Earthworks at Newark, for example, lines up to where the moon rises at its northernmost point on the eastern horizon.
Clearly, ancient Americans were paying close attention to the sky, but why?
This question is considered in a paper by Canadian archaeologists Brian Hayden and Suzanne Villeneuve published in the current issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.
As one might expect from Hayden, much of it comes down to feasting, one of his major areas of inquiry. They surveyed modern H-G’s and determined that many of them kept astronomical time for various reasons apart from determining planting and harvest times. Haven’t read the actual paper yet, and I may not be able to; I went to the journal site and can’t even get to the abstract. Will try to remember to get it in the near future.
Soybean adoption came early by many cultures, archaeologists say
Human domestication of soybeans is thought to have first occurred in central China some 3,000 years ago, but archaeologists now suggest that cultures in even earlier times and in other locations adopted the legume (Glycine max).
Comparisons of 949 charred soybean samples from 22 sites in northern China, Japan and South Korea — found in ancient households including hearths, flooring and dumping pits — with 180 modern charred and unburned samples were detailed in the Nov. 4 edition of the online journal PLoS ONE, a publication of the Public Library of Science. The findings, say lead author Gyoung-Ah Lee, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon, add a new view to long-running assumptions about soybean domestication that had been based on genetic and historical records.
I’m wondering what the earlier beans were used for, perhaps in addition to (or instead of?) human consumption. . .livestock feed maybe?
At least not around here: University of Oregon archaeologist says native people in Pacific Northwest ‘Not simply hunter-gatherers’
Native people of the Pacific Northwest were more than “hunter-gatherers,” says University of Oregon archaeologist Madonna L. Moss. The natives of the Pacific Northwest were fishermen and food producers, as well as stewards of their environment who timed their fishing practices to promote the production of salmon and the other fish that they relied on.
Moss focuses on the label “hunter-gatherer,” in chapter three of her new book “Northwest Coast: Archaeology as Deep History” (Society for American Archaeology Press). Moss says the “moniker has outlived its utility” for the people who inhabited the land from Alaska to Oregon long before European explorers arrived.
I was all set to disagree, but although the article makes her sound rather strident about it, she’s basically correct: there’s not a clear and shining line between “hunting and gathering” and “agriculture/domestication” or food production. And there’s not a strict correspondence between subsistence strategy and social organization. OTOH, I don’t really consider fishermen as equivalent to farmers or animal husbanders either; the latter exhibit a degree of control over the environment and breeding of their charges that fishers just don’t. Still, no doubt a worthwhile book for those interested in this area.
Archaeologists find earliest domestication of chickens in China
Chickens began being domesticated in China about 8,000 years ago, far earlier than in the rest of the world,according to a recent study on fossils uncovered in north China’s Hebei Province.
Archaeologists said they had unearthed 116 fossil specimens from 23 types of animals, including pig, dog, chicken, tortoise, fish, and clam, at the Cishan Site, a Neolithic village relic in the city of Wu’an.
Not much there, but they suspect they were already being used for eggs as most of the bones were from males — they don’t directly state why they suspect these were food remains, but I guess we’ll just have to assume that.
Excavation of islands around Britain to establish origins of Neolithic period
Archaeologists at the University of Liverpool are investigating three island groups around Britain to further understanding of why, in approximately 4,000 BC, humans altered their lifestyle from hunting and gathering to farming the land.
Some scholars believe that this change occurred due to colonists from the continent moving into Britain, bringing farming and pottery-making skills with them, but others argue that the indigenous population of Britain adopted this new lifestyle gradually on their own terms.
To shed new light on the debate, archaeologists, in collaboration with the University of Southampton, are excavating three island groups in the western seaways and producing oceanographic models to understand what sailing across this area would have been like in 4,000 BC. The team will also construct a database of 5th and 4th millennium occupation sites.
It will be interesting to see how they interpret what they find. It could be that people were moving over bringing farming with them (along with their artifacts) or diffusion of farming practices and trade/exchange with artifacts, although if everything was coming over as a set piece, one would tend to argue for migration. I believe in other parts of Europe genetic evidence has trended towards migration of agriculturalists rather than diffusion of practices.
UPDATE: More at The Independent.
A computer dating revolution (of the archaeological kind)
The long-lost ‘history’ of prehistoric Britain, including our island’s first wars, is being re-discovered – courtesy of innovations in computer programming as well as archaeology.
Using newly refined computer systems, developed over recent years by programmers at Oxford University, archaeologists from English Heritage and Cardiff University have for the first time been able to fairly accurately date individual prehistoric battles, migrations and building construction projects.
Rather an infuriating lack of detail on the actual method! There’s a blurb at the end, but it’s definitely worth looking into. Which I shall do. Eventually. I, as a hacker myself, like the idea of coding to discover something new.
I downloaded and read the Bowles paper referenced here. I liked it (ref at end). He’s basically arguing that, since the productivity of initial farming seems to have been less than that of foraging and produced worse individual health outcomes, why did it spread in the first place? Most of the paper involves calculation the relative productivities of farming vs foraging. Tricky for a number of reasons. And he assesses the various risks associated with each. One is interesting:
Fourth, by reducing diet breadth, cultivation increased risk exposure, for
a serious nutritional shortfall is likely to occur if one relies on one or two crops
rather than on many wild species.
Not sure I buy this, although it’s probably a gross simplification in order to adequately model it. In theory, yes, but I think the assumption here is that foragers were less likely to experience food shortages, which my reading of the health data for both groups indicates is not the case. One significant problem in my view is that early farmers didn’t solely subsist on one or two farmed species; they were important, yes, but even in Dynastic times in Egypt — an agricultural economy of there ever was one — they still obtained a lot of wild or semi-wild species, both animal and plant.
From foraging to farming:
Was farming more efficient than foraging? Did the easily hunted animals die out? Did the environment change?
A new study by Samuel Bowles of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico argues that early farming was not more productive than foraging, but people took it up for social and demographic reasons.
In Monday’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bowles analyzed what it would take to farm under primitive conditions. He concluded farming produced only about three-fifths of the food gained from foraging.
I like the demographic angle, not sure about the rest though. I just downloaded the paper and will read it soon.
Over here I mentioned a somewhat odd paper (chapter in a book really) that I’m reading that argues that fertility, rather than mortality, is the key to explaining differential demographic profiles. Admittedly, I still don’t really understand the reasoning but I’ve only been through it once.
He did mention some things that are interesting though. From what I’ve been reading lately, and as I’ve mentioned so may times you’re probably sick of it, is a general observation that fertility seems to have increased with the onset of agriculture and/or sedentary settlement patterns that may have been the reason why such systems became fixed even though individual health seems to have taken a hit. Hence, this link of higher fertility = sedentism/agriculture. But it seems it’s a bit more complicated, at least in the western hemisphere.
Now, in this paper he (McCaa) reviewed the fertility rates and life expectancies of a wide range of populations covering the prehistoric (pre-1500 BB) up through the historic. What he found was that in the period prior to 1500 BP fertility was quite low, around 2.3 (gross reproduction ratio, which seems to be the number of female children) and an average life expectancy of 34 years. He describes this as a “low pressure” system where population growth is limited by fertility rather than mortality. I’ve discussed this before, with low fertility among mobile hunter-gatherers being possibly controlled by natural (e.g., low body fat, extended weaning) or cultural (e.g., infanticide) means. Some of this “ancient” period includes horticulturalists which have relatively high fertility and mortality.