Whodunit? The foragers

SUBHEAD: Archeologists have been far too eager to brand ancient cultures as farmers on flimsy evidence. 

By Vera Bradova on 11 February 2015 for Leaving Babylon -

Image above: Hunter-gaterers, or foragers, in what appears to temperate north America. From original article.

Dogs diverged genetically from wolves more than 100,000 years ago, during the previous warm interglacial. Did humans have anything to do with it? The oldest known dog skeletons are from 36 and 33,000 years ago, found in Belgium and Siberia. A child was exploring the Chauvet cave, using a torch to look at the artwork while a dog followed… 26,000 years ago, well before the Ice Age Maximum.

When the cold began to let up, some 17,000 years ago, the people of the Pyrenees living at the Isteritz cave took such good care of a reindeer with a broken leg, it survived for two years (viz Paul Bahn: Pre-neolithic control of animals, 1984, and his response to ongoing controversy). By 15,000 years ago, pictures of horses with rope halters appear in the Magdalenian cave art of SW France.

Foragers created the first magnificent art. They built the first temples and the first high-density towns with thousands of inhabitants. They invented ovens and kilns, cookworthy pottery, wine and beer. They clearly domesticated the dog and probably tamed reindeer and horses.

So perhaps it’s not such a stretch to believe that they also domesticated the pigs, sheep and goats and a whole slew of plants, from grains to squash, gourds, and legumes, to delicacies like chocolate, vanilla, and chili peppers. Even more amazingly, it was rock-shelter dwelling, semi-nomadic foragers who spent hundreds of years patiently experimenting with the unpromising teosinte to bring about maize. Then they spent thousands of years more improving the new tiny-cobbed plant before settling down to grow it as a staple.

If a group of foragers plants a plot of squash near their favorite cave, then comes back in late summer to harvest their bounty, can they legitimately be called farmers? If another group of foragers raises some pigs while living off wild foods (and eating no cereals), can they be called farmers?

If Egyptian foragers throw a bunch of traded domesticated wheat down into the rich alluvial mud on the banks of the Nile, perhaps to brew some beer, but otherwise live the hunting-fishing-gathering lifestyle, how are they any different from the Californian native foragers or the Aborigines who spread some favorite seeds and flooded them by diverting a creek’s spring runoff?

Perhaps we need a new term, one that would reflect the foragers’ sophisticated plant manipulation skills that nevertheless did not, by themselves, lead to the predominantly farming life.

Archeologists have been, in my opinion, far too eager to brand cultures as farmers on flimsy evidence. It appears that farming is much younger than previously claimed. The first farming village was found in Egypt, dated to only 7,000 years ago.

As Melinda A. Zeder, an archeobiologist, states:
This broad middle ground between wild and domestic, foraging and farming, hunting and herding makes it hard to draw clean lines of demarcation between any of these states.

Perhaps this is the greatest change in our understanding of agricultural origins since 1995.
The finer-resolution picture we are now able to draw of this process in the Near East (and, as seen in the other contributions to this volume, in other world areas) not only makes it impossible to identify any threshold moments when wild became domestic or hunting and gathering became agriculture but also shows that drawing such distinctions actually impedes rather than improves our understanding of this process.

Instead of continuing to try to pigeonhole these concepts into tidy definitional categories, a more productive approach would be to embrace the ambiguity of this middle ground and continue to develop tools that allow us to watch unfolding developments within this neither-nor territory.


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