31 March 2010

Oldest Man Made Structure Found In Greece

A 23,000 year old stone wall in front of Theopetra cave in Kalambaka, Greece (in the middle of the Greek mainland), probably built to protect its residents from cold winds at the height of the last ice age, is the oldest known example of a man made structure.

Some of the what was found, like remnants of fire, flint and quartz tools, early jewelry from deer teeth, animal bones and stone implements, are typical of the Mesolithic human archaeological sites. Other elements of the find were more notable:

Of interest are finds from the Mesolithic age related to ceramic production and cultivation. There is barley, wheat, and lentil in wild (Paleolithic age) form, but also as cultivars, which suggests that these people had discovered cultivation as the result of millennia-long efforts and not as the result of population movements from the Near East.

Implications For The History Of Food

There is considerable evidence that agriculture came to be, first, through collection of seeds from wild plants and probably cultivation of the wild plants, and then through the domestication of the wild species through selective planting with traits that made the plants more useful as food sources.

But, 23,000 years ago is very old for this kind of evidence. Wheat is native to Southwestern Anatolia, and lentils and barley are also part of the ancient Near Eastern agricultural package.

But, cultivation of domesticated versions of these crops is generally dated to around 11,000 to 13,000 years ago, give or take a millennium. Physical evidence can be used to track the arrival of this package of domesticated crops as it radiates from the Balkans to the West and North (and as it expands to the Indus River Valley in the East) over a period of many thousands of years.

The general assumption has been that agriculture didn't arise much before this date, because the ice age climate was not friendly to agriculture, and that it did not in fact arise much earlier than this date because it would have spread widely soon after agriculture using domesticated plants and animals was developed.

The agricultural part of this find that one would expect in Greece something like 8,000-12,000 years ago, not 23,000 years ago, although the existence of the an ancient wall that old does make sense.

This find, if it is dated properly, would put the earliest evidence of domestication of Near Eastern crops in Greece rather than in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East, a few hundred miles to the Southeast. It also implies a much longer span of time between the domestication of plants and their expansion elsewhere.

My strong suspicion is that this is a cave that was regularly inhabited from 23,000 to 8,000-12,000 years ago, and that the evidence of the ancient wheat, barley and lentils are from the later period which the dating methodologies used failed to distinguish. This would still support the less extraordinary claim that the Greek mainland was part of the same cultural community that developed agriculture in the Fertile Crescent and the Levant in the earliest part of the Neolithic Revolution, without necessitating a conclusion that agriculture originated ten thousand years earlier in Greece than it did in the Near East or anywhere else, and only then spread widely after that very long period of isolation.

This would still be significant, because it would indicate that proto-agricultural people were actually cultivating, exporting the idea of cultivation of, and intentionally carrying with them wild version of the crops in the Near Eastern food package in a fairly large geographical and cultural sphere that would have ranged at least from modern day Israel to Kuwait to Turkey and mainland Greece, before the domesticated version of these crops so central to human history emerged.

The more typical view to date, has been that each crop was cultivated in wild form (sometimes hard to localize because the wild crop had a wide geographic range at the time), and then was domesticated in one or two geographically distinct location for each crop, with dispersal of the agricultural crops and cultivation methods taking place only after the more useful domesticated crop arose. The more typical view to date has also been of a highly culturally and linguistically fragmented society that didn't begin to become a cohesive cultural unit until the wild crops were domesticated and that this society then would have been dominated culturally (at least) by people from the original very localized areas where that domestication happened.

An intermediately exceptional hypothesis is consistent with the possibility that the store of wild versions of Near Eastern crops really was 23,000 years old, although the domesticated examples would have to be more recent. If this was the case, then proto-agriculture probably arose around the time of the peak of the last ice age rather than just a few thousand years because it was a necessary reaction to the fact that people were forced to retreat to refugia in Southern Europe and the Near East as glaciers and the cold weather that preceded them creating higher population densities than those to which they were accustomed and reducing available food supplies from hunting.

Regardless of the exact date that it happened, the mere discovery of evidence of organized collection, and probably cultivation, of wild ancestors of Near Eastern crops that do not originate in mainland Greece is significant.

This would also suggest that it is almost impossible to determine the location of the jump from cultivating wild plants to the domestication of those plants, because the pre-domesticated versions of those plants were already being cultivated over a wide area by a geographically widespread culture whose participants had regular contact with each other in time frames to small to distinguish with radiocarbon or other archaeological dating methods. In this scenario, members of the proto-agricultural culture are first cultivating wild crops as a package throughout the Near East and the Balkans and then, once new and improved domesticated strains of the plants arise, spread that domesticated version across the entire Near Eastern and Balkan sphere in a matter of decades or to a couple of centuries or so.

Linguistic Implications

This community might have included, but wouldn't necessarily have had to include in order to be consistent with the evidence, an at least weakly linked, interacting subcommunity of proto-Indo-European language speakers (or speakers of a direct predecessor of proto-Indo-European) in some part of the North end of this Balkan and Near Eastern region. Indo-European languages are associated with early agricultural communities (both herders and farmers) although we don't know for sure if they were a first wave of food producing people, or a later but early wave of food producing people or cultures.

If that proto-agriculturalist subcommunity of proto-Indo-Europeans had a fairly wide geographic expanse, which would be plausible for hunter-gatherers (with a selective edge due to seasonal proto-agriculture) who travel more than true pure horticulturalists, this could also help explain why it has been difficult to localize the homeland of the proto-Indo-Europeans, who have been most plausibly localized to Anatolia, the Balkans or the area of Central Asia between the Black and Caspian Seas associated with the Kurgan culture over periods spanning a period of several thousand years. People who are members of a community whose members regularly interact with each other are less prone to see their languages diverge from each other in the entire geographic area of the community, even over long periods of time.

In other words, the "proto-Indo-Europeans" might have shared a territory that stretched from the Balkans to the Northern Near East and even into the parts of Central Asia associated with the Kurgan culture for thousands of years from a time pre-dating the appearance of domesticated versions of plants.

By 5500 years ago, in the Near Eastern Bronze Age, non-Indo-European language speakers of Afro-Asiatic languages (e.g. Semetic and Coptic languages) and speakers of whatever language family Sumerian belonged to, were engaged in agriculture. But, the could have been either part of the original agriculturalist community in the Near East, or those languages could have arisen as a result of pre-historical events thousands of years later.

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