Anthropological findings on agricultural origin and dispersals into Europe

Four papers that expand upon the record on the origins of agriculture will appear in a supplement, guest edited by O. Bar-Yosef, Director of the Stone Age Lab at the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, to the August/November 2004 issue of Current Anthropology. Taken as a set, they demonstrate the maturation of the study of agricultural origins through fine-grained regional analyses and new methodological techniques.

Peter Rowley-Conwy in “How the West Was Lost: A Reconsideration of Agricultural Origins in Britain, Ireland, and Southern Scandinavia” shows that the data accumulated during the last 15 years in northwest Europe draws a different scenario from that commonly accepted at present. Rowley-Conwy asserts that rather than the gradual establishment of an agricultural subsistence economy in Ireland, Britain and southern Scandinavia, the process was a rapid “revolution,” perhaps due to depletion of local resources or rapid environmental changes.

Natalie D. Munro’s paper, “Zooarchaeological Measures of Hunting Pressure and Occupation Intensity in the Natufian Implications for Agricultural Origins,” presents plausible background for a sequence of events leading to intentional cultivation, by demonstrating the depletion of animal tissue resources during the Younger Dryas (13,000-11,600 cal BP) in the southern Levant.

“Archaeobotanical Evidence for the Spread of Farming in the Eastern Mediterranean,” by Sue Colledge, James Conolly, and Stephen Shennan, offers a fresh view by examining the seeds, not of cultivated plants, but of weeds, transported by early agricultural populations. They examine archaeobotanical assemblages from the Near East (including Greece), while recognizing the limitations of these datasets due to retrieval techniques and taphonomic issues, in order to define the “crop package” of Near Eastern early farmers. They discuss the evidence for a ’short or long gestation’ period of the domestication process and view the archaeobotanical evidence from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A sites along the Levantine Corridor reflecting rapid cultivation of wild cereals.

The article by Ron Pinhasi and Mark Pluciennik, “A Regional Biological Approach to the Spread of Farming in Europe: Anatolia, the Levant, Southeastern Europe, and the Mediterranean,” provides another angle on population dispersals into Europe based on craniometric analyses of several Epi-Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic samples from the Levant, Anatolia, and across Europe. Consistent with the proposal that Anatolian farmers moved relatively rapidly into Europe, the authors find clear differences between the late Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic Europeans and those of the early Neolithic age.

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