Monthly Archives: May 2012

Review of Tropical Neolithic flows

Michael Petraglia at Ancient Indian Ocean Corridors blog draws our attention to a quite interesting review on the Neolithic of the various regions surrounding the Indian Ocean, all them of rather tropical climate:
I strongly recommend full reading as I can only dedicate some space here and the study, while not really long, covers many diverse aspects of plant and animal domestication and translocation around the Indian Ocean. 
South Asia and Africa
First the authors deal with the issue of how the most important tropical crops of South Asia, which are mostly of African origin, arrived there. They conclude that the transfer took place at the very end of the Harappa (IVC) period, rather than earlier, even if it is confirmed that Harappa and the Persian Gulf (but not yet East Africa apparently) kept trading relations since much earlier. These African crops (millet and sorghum specially) were critical, as we know, in enabling the expansion of farming towards Southern India.

In return India gave Africa the zebuine species of cow, which, after hybridization, fueled the expansion of East African pastoralists into Equatorial areas.
This route between East Africa and South Asia is declared to be the precursor of the spice trade of later days:

The first hint of this spice trade comes from the findings of valued black peppercorns that were used to fragrance the nostrils of the deceased Pharaoh Ramses II (c. 1200 BC) (Plu 1985). This spice is endemic only to the wet forests of southern India (Asouti & Fuller 2008: 47), and in all likelihood was supplied by hunter-gatherer groups to coastal groups (Morrison 2002).

Tropical Asian crops
Another section deals with the transfer of diverse crops between South and SE Asia (and even as far as New Guinea).
Indian pulses migrated to the East, while a number of other crops (areca nut, sandalwood, betle leaf and maybe banana) did in the opposite direction. The origin of mangos and lemons is also discussed and seems distributed between both regions. 
Many of these flows may have been from approximately the same time as the African-Indian connection, in the late 2nd millennium BCE.
The Malagasy connection
Finally a third layer of agricultural flows appear to connect SE Asia with Africa, the most notable being the banana, but also yams, taro and chickens. 
This one seems most likely related to Austronesian (Malay) flows in westward direction, leading to the formation of the Malagasy people and the colonization of Madagascar. 
In their journey westwards, the proto-Malagasy appear to have left some maritime vocabulary in Sri Lanka, SW India and the Maldives, where they also left their outrigger technology. A variant of this one, with two outriggers, is also widespread through East Africa, from Somalia to Mozambique and, of course, Madagascar. 
The Austronesians would have spread these crops and the chicken to Africa, bringing also possibly some commensals like the rat, the mouse and the Asian shrew, as well as a weed. Some of these may however been introduced in several episodes.

Claim that Danubian Neolithic people had classes

Or so is what new research has led many to think.
R. Alexander Bentley et al., Community differentiation and kinship among Europe’s first farmers. PNAS 2012. Pay per view (for six months or depending on your world region).


Community differentiation is a fundamental topic of the social sciences, and its prehistoric origins in Europe are typically assumed to lie among the complex, densely populated societies that developed millennia after their Neolithic predecessors. Here we present the earliest, statistically significant evidence for such differentiation among the first farmers of Neolithic Europe. By using strontium isotopic data from more than 300 early Neolithic human skeletons, we find significantly less variance in geographic signatures among males than we find among females, and less variance among burials with ground stone adzes than burials without such adzes. From this, in context with other available evidence, we infer differential land use in early Neolithic central Europe within a patrilocal kinship system.

Many details on the burials are freely available in the supplemental material. The necropolises (many individuals each) are from a diversity of sites between Slovakia and Alsace: Aiterhofen, Ensisheim, Kleinhadersdorf, Nitra, Souffelweyersheim, Schwetzingen and Vedrovice.
The key relevant finding seems to be that most males buried with adze have lower Sr87/Sr86 ratio in their tooth enamel than those buried without grave goods, suggesting that they were more likely be original from the more fertile loess lands than the others, the preferred location of Linear Pottery Culture sites (also Danubian Neolithic or LBK by its German acronym). 
Women overall also had lower Sr87/Sr86 ratio, suggesting that most had come from other less fertile districts. This last also implies patrilocality, surely dismantling the idea of Gimbutas of a matrilocal “Old Europe”, which was already very much discredited (notice that this is not important in regard to her most important theory: the Kurgan model of Indoeuropean expansion, which is only very tangentially related to this matter). 
However my first impression is that drawing such radical conclusions from evidence which is only somewhat significant (I see many non-adze men who have below average strontium ratios and also a good number of adze men with high Sr ratios) and not at all absolute, seems a bit risky on first sight.
Whatever the case that is what they claim: that Danubians had classes or castes or some sort of social hierarchy and differentiation since the very beginnings. Sadly they have not researched what could have been a complementary source of information: DNA. 
Sources: Eureka Alert, Science, BBC, Pileta[es].

Western Danubian overlapped with pottery styles
that can be aboriginal or Cardium-derived
(source: Westward Ho!)

Climate change dried up the Sarasvati sending Harappans eastward to the Ganges

Before and after
That’s what new research seems to claim: before c. 1900 BCE there was a stable moonson on the Thar Desert feeding what is now known as Ghaggar-Hakra River (seasonal) but mythologically referred to as Sarasvati River (a major hub of the Indus Valley Civilization or Harappa culture).
This, according to the researchers of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) caused that people already living in the banks of that river had to emigrate eastwards towards the Ganges, where monsoons were still stable but where the fertility was not good enough to support large cities as in the West.
Source and more details at the press release and at WHOI.

See also: Dispatches from Turtle Island (Andrew has a nice review of some of the wider implications).


Another decorated cave discovered in Ardèche

The Ardèche or Ardacha region, so-named for a tributary of the Rhône, is one of the most important and older districts of modern human presence in SW Europe. Its importance was underlined with the discovery of the Grôte Chauvet, the cave of lions.

Now another discovery has been made in the same area with a decoration of what seems to be a horse head. The finding actually was made in 2011 by some speleologist but kept secret till it was researched preliminarily.

Sources[fr]: Pileta, France 3, Paleos Blog.


Neolithic village found at Prague

The Neolithic settlement is found in the northern district of Bubeneč in a bend of the Vltava river that was found to be a good place to live at by those earliest “Czech” farmers. It had good defenses, plenty of water and easy access to fertile lands to work.
According to archaeologist Radek Balý:
We found two longhouses from the Neolithic. One of the big houses was rectangular in shape and was about 7,000 years old. The other was trapezoidal and was about 6,500 years old. The only remnants of the buildings that we found were the holes and grooves left by wooden structures, so we know the circumference and have a few relics of the way the houses were divided. We also found a burial that was composed of big ceramic pottery full of pieces of ashes and bones, standing on a big, flat stone. It was covered by a small bowl and two other flat stones. That find is about 3,000 years old. We found another grave in the research area, but it was very disrupted. We can say that it was much older, but that’s all we can say for now.

Source: Archaeology News Network.


Neolithic culture found in Southern Arabia

Al Magar horse statue

The Al-Magar culture, dated to c. 5500-3500 BCE, belongs to a period more humid than today. It has some very beautiful art but, crucially, raises questions on the time and place of the first domestication of horses. 

Why? Because the art of the culture is full of what can be horses (wild or domestic) and other equids like the onager. Of course, equid skeletal remnants are also abundant.
While the source of this news snippet is very enthusiastic about the possibility that the area may have been home to a parallel horse-domestication event, no specific evidence is provided other than the statues there being thousands of horse remains (hard to drag from hunt site if these would have been wild) and the ability of those early “Arabs” to build large sedentary settlements. Nothing conclusive… but suggestive indeed.
Source: Horsetalk.

Edited on May 25th (new text in red, removed text slashed out).


Neolithic village and ship found underwater in Croatia

The finding has been made offshore the town of Umag-Umago (Istria). The village, established on wooden pillars (probably on shallow water) is dated between the Late Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age. 
The ship, measuring 6m long and 2.4m wide, was made with the technique of plank-sewing (or stitching), known to have been used also in Atlantic Europe. It has been carbon-dated to the first millennium BCE (latest Chalcolithic or early Bronze Age).
Lots of animal bones and pottery fragments have also been found.
Ref. La Vanguardia[es], Parentium[hr].

Iberian Chalcolithic and Bell Beaker map

A reader asked me about the actual extension of the Bell Beaker phenomenon “in the Basque Country”. I do not have complete data right now for all the historical Basque area but I could provide some for the Iberian Peninsula at least. Notably this map (there seems to be some major confusion about the real presence of BB):

Click to enlarge
I have also provided some more generic info on the Chalcolithic and Bell Beaker, specially in Iberia, in a new dedicated page
The discussion thread for that page is this one.


Did dogs contribute decisively to our success vs. Neanderthals?

UP dog with mammoth bone from Premosti
That’s the theory proposed, with some archaeological support, by Pat Shipman at American Scientist (found via Pileta). Not only dog skulls have been found in what appear to be farewell rituals (with a bone between the teeth for example) but these findings always correspond to cultural contexts associated with our kin, such as Aurignacian and never with Neanderthals. 
Being allied with dogs certainly offered some key advantages when hunting, argues Shipman, very specially when finding the prey, a skill for which we are not too well prepared, lacking a fine sense of smell, something demonstrated in modern hunt contexts. 

Domesticating dogs clearly improves humans’ hunting success and
efficiency—whether the game (or the dog) is large or small. The same
must have been true in the Paleolithic. If Neandertals did not have
domestic dogs and anatomically modern humans did, these hunting
companions could have made all the difference in the modern
human–Neandertal competition.

A miscellaneous matter that Shipman considers at the end of the essay is whether the well known ability of communicating silently by looking at each others’ eyes may have helped to this human-dog cooperation. Apparently dogs are also able to follow the direction of the eyes of a human and infer commands or directions from that. This may have been a product of selective breeding but in any case it is something that it’s there and is part of human-dog communication.
See also category: dog in this blog and its predecessor.

Update (May 19): Millán mentions in the comments section that there are some studies from a century ago that claim that Neanderthals might have domesticated dogs first:

It is not clear however if these claims can withstand the passing of time, they are after all from the time of Pitdown Man, when Archaeology was still a bit confused and confusing – but also when the pillars of modern Prehistoric understanding were first laid.


Video: visualization of ice sheets and sea level on Europe since LGM

Hat tip to Marnie for this great finding. 
The video-animation has been developed by Adrian Meyer and Karl Rege, from the Zurich University of Applied Sciences.
It begins at 19,000 BCE (or 21,000 years ago and extends several millennia into the future according to predictions). Most of the action is concentrated right after c. 0:50 mins, which corresponds with 10,000 BCE (latest Upper Paleolithic and semi-official beginning of the end of the Ice Age).
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Posted by on May 10, 2012 in climate, European prehistory, Ice Age