In sorrow shalt thou eat all thy days

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In sorrow shalt thou eat all thy days

Post by ThreeperMan on Mon 13 Jul 2009, 06:37

In sorrow shalt thou eat all thy days

Archaeologists have traditionally placed hunter-gatherers at the bottom of the social evolutionary heap. Some have given the impression that the most interesting thing about hunter-gatherers is that they finally gave it up and started farming - the only question is why it took them so long.

But contrary to popular belief, agriculture is not an inevitable advance. We call hard but boring work `the daily grind', a reference to milling cultivated grain, and current research is showing that you didn't take up farming unless you had to. This is quite clear from the archaeological record. Until very recently archaeologists were scouring the Near Eastern Epipalaeolithic (c 20-10,000BC) for the earliest traces of farming, because that was where they assumed you should find the first developments towards full Neolithic agriculture. The classic weasel word `incipient' sometimes crept in - you could claim `incipient agriculture' without having to specify either what you meant, or produce much evidence. When grains of cultivated barley were found at Wadi Kubbaniya in Egypt, it was proclaimed that people were `already' farmers 16,000 years ago. But when the grains were radiocarbon dated they turned out to be modern, probably carried into the early layers by ants.

All the evidence is that the final huntergatherers in the Near East were just that - hunter-gatherers, with no thought of incipiently becoming anything else. Agriculture was apparently forced on them by a short sharp period of drought, which threatened the productivity of the wild resources they had been collecting. One response was to replant seeds of the wild grasses people had been collecting, in the hope that this would assure supplies. It was their bad luck that harvesting and replanting caused a genetic change in the grasses - a non-shattering seedhead. Once this happened the plants could no longer reproduce by themselves, but for ever had to be replanted by humans - an unforeseeable catastrophe.

Europe at this time was populated by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. We know that farming from the Near East was to replace their way of life, but Mesolithic people of course did not know this. The Mesolithic is sometimes presented as a period of progress leading up towards agriculture, with simple groups (ie, nomadic, egalitarian) in the Early Postglacial, followed by complex ones (more sedentary, socially hierarchical, using cemeteries) in the later Mesolithic, which appeared just in time to move on to the next stage - Neolithic agriculture.

But this is faulty reasoning - what would complex groups have done if Near Eastern agriculture had not conveniently arrived? It also goes against the evidence. Sedentary groups who buried their dead in cemeteries are found in the later Mesolithic, to be sure; some created the Ertebølle shell middens of Denmark, and those at Muge and Sado in Portugal. But these people weren't interested in agriculture. The Erteb›lle stuck to its hunter-gatherer (and fisher) way of life for over 1,000 years after making contact with nearby farmers. The Muge and Sado groups ignored the new economy for nearly as long, even though they were surrounded by farmers some of whom were building megaliths just a few tens of kilometres away. So the complex groups, often said to be en route to farming, are in fact the ones that held out longest - exactly the opposite to what the progress theory would predict.

In the Baltic there is even evidence that the earliest farming was jettisoned and people reverted to hunting and gathering. The island of Gotland is a superb laboratory for examining this. In the Early Neolithic the island was occupied by farmers with sheep, cows, pigs, cereals, and even a token megalith. But in the Middle Neolithic, the Pitted Ware inhabitants moved back to the coast, hunted seals, and fished; of the land mammals only pigs remain, and they are very large and show a classic seasonal hunting pattern - though it is not known whether they were feral descendants of the earlier domestic pigs, or a deliberate introduction of wild boar for hunting. The latter may have been quite a common practice - consider the red deer that were released on Sardinia at the start of the Neolithic, or the fallow deer on Cyprus, Crete and Rhodes.

So why are the complex groups found mostly in the Late Mesolithic? I argue that it is to do with the survival of evidence. Such groups are based on plentiful resources, which coastal regions more often provide. Early Mesolithic and Upper Palaeolithic coastlines are now under water because of the Postglacial sea-level rise, so complex hunter-gatherer groups of those periods are just not visible. The coasts of southern Europe would have been highly productive; can we really claim that the painters of Altamira and Lascaux were somehow too primitive to exploit them?

Dr Peter Rowley-Conwy is a Reader in Archaeology at the University of Durham

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