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Learning from Comparison & Neolithic Africa vs. the Fertile Crescent

Learning from Comparison & Neolithic Africa vs. the Fertile Crescent

Inter-site comparisons: look at the similarities and differences between two or more sites

Expands the sample size
Allows us to build a broader understanding of how and why
Explore possible drivers of cultural change by seeing how things turned out similarly or differently over space and time

Regional level synthesis:

Aggregate archaeological data over a larger region
Study synchronic and diachronic variation in cultural traits
Often difficult to do in practice

Differences in documentation
Availability of reports and raw data

Ethnoarchaeology (type of comparison): studying living groups to see the “archaeological” record forming

Socio-cultural ethnography

Depositional bias (what do people throw away vs. toss in the woods, what is organic and not likely to keep in the record)
Technology manufacturing

Why do we do it?

Interpretation difficult with no reference point

Stone tools once thought to be caused by lightening

Archaeologists are less familiar with hunter gathering than hunter gatherers are

Insight into perceptions of natural world
Cultural contact influences spread of ideas and trade goods
How to use prehistoric tools

Source of hypotheses to test against material remains

Expands limits of our imagination

Things we learned from ethnoarchaeology:

Ground stone manufacture
Bead manufacture
Atlatls (bannerstones)
Poison tipped points

Preservation bias:

Case study in Ethiopia:

“tef” was a particular grain; roasting it isn’t necessary to manufacture into flour and bread
So the charring of the seed, etc – wasn’t done

So looking at the record, we would see other grains, but we wouldn’t see tef

So: potential immensity of the gap between what we find and what there was

Tyranny of the ethnographic record:

Range of possible behaviours much broader

Much more possible than what we see in current HG populations
Past conditions different

Reproduce ethnoarchaeology in the archaeological record
Emphasized bottom-up approach of “strong inference”

Experimental archaeology (another type of comparison):

Replicating aspects of material culture to better understand them and the behaviour needed to make them
Hands-on approach
Flintknapping is a very common skill among archaeologists

Things we learned from flintknapping:

How to recognize:

Variation in manufacturing
Tools used in manufacturing

Importance of debitage patterns (debitage is the debris)
Strength of Neanderthals
Importance of raw material
Conservation of raw material

Use-wear studies:

Replicate use of tools to study damage and polish development
Another type of experimental archaeology

Another type of experimental archaeology = re-enactments

Neolithic Transition in Northern Africa

Fertile Crescent:

Favourable environment allowed for intensive harvest of wild grains and pulses

This allowed for sedentism
With this came population increase, complexity increase, organized villages and symbolism, and then after that, domestication

Extensive human occupation of the Sahara (14-4.5kya)

It used to not be a desert – it used to receive a lot of rainfall
As rainfall increased, settlements increased
Gobero (9700 – 8300 ya / 7700 – 6300 BCE):

We actually have a fishing village during this wet phase

Bone harpoons, hooks

Abandoned as desert took back over
Reoccupied again 6kya with cattle added
Changing rainfall patterns

Pastoralism: herding domesticated animals to grazing and watering locations and subsisting off milk, blood, and meat when necessary

These guys follow their animals over long distances


Villages similar to Natufian

15 houses in two rows
Storage pits
Broad diet breadth
Grinding stones

But they already had pottery – in Africa it was right there from the beginning

Nabta Playa, Egypt (10800 – 6200 cal BP):

Controversial but important site
Argued for independent domestication of cattle at 11k cal BP
Early pottery of Khartoum style
Wells, status, megaliths
Early Neolithic (10800 – 8900 cal BP):

Lithic and bone scatters around hearths
Wild millet and legumes
Seasonal settlements when water present
Wells haven’t shown up yet
Early pastoral phase

El Adam type settlements (10,800 – 9800 cal BP):

Endscrapers made on recycled MP tools!
Few grinding stones
Early Khartoum pottery

Status rather than functional given rarity

Possibly early domestic cattle
Mostly gazelle and hare, plus a few bones of jackal, turtle, small rodents, and birds
Interpreted as pastoralists visiting seasonal grazing grounds

Used for by-products rather than meat primarily

“Not widely accepted” that this was cattle

Recent mtDNA of the cattle: suggests separate African domestication (vs. Middle East)

Then arid period when the site was not occupied
Then: El Ghorab type settlements (9600 – 9200 cal BP):

After an arid hiatus
Reoccupied with toolkit of elongated scalene triangles, microburins, grinding stones
Few shards of pottery
Same cattle and desert adapted small fauna

Seasonal water settlements

Then aridity again!

Then: El Nabta type settlements (9100 – 8900 cal BP)

Large oval huts and smaller round huts
Bell-shaped storage pits
Deep wells (2.5 m), some with shallow basins beside for cattle
This allowed for year round occupations (except during summer floods)
Bone points, pottery
20,000 wild seeds of grasses and legumes as well as tubers and fruits representing 80 different morphological types
Possibly domesticated sorghum
Wild or domestic, they were harvesting for long-term storage

The next phase: middle Neolithic (8300 – 7600 cal BP):

Gazelle declines (as in NE, but could be hunting or the aridity cycles)

Wider variety of animals took their place

Introduced domesticated goat or sheep from NE, becomes important meat food
Cattle bones still rare, suggesting by-products favored

No plant remains due to preservation but storage and grinding stones

Houses common in clusters of six plus

Site E-75-8, El Nabta:

No houses, but lots of stone lined hearths
After most sites with no cattle, this one lots of cattle bones

Maybe this was desperate times, and they needed to eat the cattle
Maybe this was a long term occupation and the cattle bones just accumulated over time
Maybe this was symbolic – maybe this place was a ceremonial centre when communities aggregated, where they ritualistic-ly slaughtered cattle and ate them (excavator interpretation)

Late Neolithic (7500 – 6200 cal BP):

Another period of aridity
Larger hearth only sites
Projectile points interpreted as weapons as defense
Site E-75-8 reoccupied and expanded

Same aggregation site occupied
Calendar circle and other megaliths added
Huge blocks make usually empty enclosures

Most burial spaces empty

Complete young adult cow buried in a claylined and roofed chamber below a mound

Six other mound also have buried cow remains

Carved stone slab buried 3.5m below surface

Shaped like a cow? A mushroom?

Nabta playa – summary:

Early occupations took cattle to the Nile valley during dry seasons, traded for pottery
Later innovated deep wells and didn’t need to go to Nile (and potentially have conflicts with the agriculturalists there)

Seasonal population aggregation developed into calendar circle and cow burials

Uan Afuda, Libya ((9000-8000 ya):

Excellent preservation, even longer occupation sequence
“Middle Paleolithic – Aterian?” (Undated)

Aeolian sands (wind-blown) are mixed with MSA lithics
Mixing sands left no other evidence

“Epipaleolithic” (9700-9200 BP):

Microlithic tools
Specialized hunting camp for Barabry sheep (100% of fauna found)

Preservation excellent, only plants were for fire (evidence of absence)
Small hut with multiple unstructured hearths

“Mesolithic Pottery Bearing” (8765-8000 BP):

“Fill” is mix of dung and plants
Specialised fire areas, stone structures
Intensive use of wild plants, grinding cereals
Shift from “procurement” to “processing” of wild foods

Basketry could suggest storage
Painted eggshell
Decorated ceramic
Dung & grass in the back of the cave

“Early Pastoral” (7700-6400 BP):

Pick up the sequence at other sites
Domesticated sheep introduced from Near East (Smith)
Genetically unrelated to today’s African domesticated species
Merimde beni-Salam, Egypt:

Village with domestic cattle, sheep, and pigs all from Near East

Simple graves: bead, an amulet, or a reed mat
Rock paintings of people with cattle
Proximity to early farming sites in the Nile flood zone suggests domestic animals brought in by farmers before being picked up by hunter-gatherers away from the Nile

“Middle Pastoral” (6100-5000 BP):

Alternately occupied lake zones and mountain regions
Fishing around the lakes, mountains for grazing sheep and goats

Exotic lithic materials from lake zones found in all sites
Lake sites also had pits for large ceramic vessels, and hiding places for a few grinding-stones and hand querns

“Late Pastoral” (5000-3500 BP):

Rainfall reduced, lakes dried up

You would think since water is essential for cattle, a reduction would reduce pastoralism
But actually it did the opposite- it allowed the spread of pastoralism through Africa

Because before, the tsetse fly was a natural southern boundary (this fly bad for cattle)
But with reduced rainfall, reduced tsetse fly – cattle can now spread

Helped spread cattle-based pastoralism because the tsetse fly now gone
Focus also shifted towards Nile and other river valleys

Summary of Neolithic Pastoral Africa

Consumed wild grain and animals, fish at times
Small villages formed around lakes

Grinding stones evidence of extensive grain processing
Pottery was first for status, then storage (more functional)
Hunting with pre-domestication control of wild animals (Sheep and possibly cattle)
Domesticated species introduced from Near East, easily adopted
Pastoralism widespread before large farming communities

Middle East (ME) (or Near East, NE)

Wild use intensifies (plants and animals both) (due to Holocene climate change, favourable conditions made wild plants widespread and dense, and gazelle population boomed)
Pre-pastoral conditions

Population increase
Smaller population increase

Complexity increase (pottery not here until after domestication)
Not to the same degree, but pottery as status

Pottery as storage

Community structures
Small village

Same   à true pastoralism


Often new technology is like that (like pottery): first for status, then when it becomes commonplace, it becomes more functional

Textbook, Chapter 9 (9.1)

There is a lot of flexibility in the sequence of events leading to the shift from hunting and gathering to farming
In Africa, pastoral societies based on domesticated animals developed without plant domestication
The development of agriculture in Africa involved the indigenous domestication of plants and possibly animals, as well as the adoption of domesticated plants and animals from the ME
The current arid environment of the Sahara developed only 4500 years ago

Between 14000 and 4500, there was more rainfall, and thus human occupation

During the period of increased rainfall, small villages of HGs developed across Northern Africa

The sites resembled the Natufian societies of the ME (re their size, structures, exploitation of wide range of resources, and use of grinding stones), except they had pottery (which only developed in the ME in the Late Neolithic), and storage pits

g. of this = Nabta Playa, site E-75-6, 9000 years ago

Uan Afudaà pre-agricultural societies of the Sahara, between 9000-8000 years ago

One finding was wild sheep in a pen – so although no domestication, they were employing some form of animal management by capturing animals and keeping them in a pen

Gobero, a fishing village, 9700-8200

The site was abandoned due to aridity 8000 years ago

The earliest evidence of domestication of animals in the Central Sahara = 7000 years ago

No evidence of domesticated plants

First farming villages:

First domesticated plants in Egypt = 7000 years ago
Idea = HGs domesticated plants as a “backup”, and then it took off
In Western Africa, the earliest plant domestication = 3500 years ago

In Africa, as in the ME, small villages predate the domestication of plants and animals

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