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El Sidrón: Working in the Tunnel of Bones cave, where 12 Neandertal specimens dating around 49,000 years ago have been recovered. Image credit: Paleoanthropology Group MNCN-CSIC; Photo by Antonio Rosas)

 

El Sidrón upper jaw: a dental calculus deposit is visible on the rear molar (right) of this Neandertal. This individual was eating poplar, a source of aspirin, and had also consumed moulded vegetation including Penicillium fungus, source of a natural antibiotic. Image credit: Paleoanthropology Group MNCN-CSIC

 

Original Article:

popular-archaeology.com

Ancient DNA found in the dental plaque of Neanderthals – our nearest extinct relative – has provided remarkable new insights into their behaviour, diet and evolutionary history, including their use of plant-based medicine to treat pain and illness.

Published today in the journal Nature, an international team led by the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) and Dental School, with the University of Liverpool in the UK, revealed the complexity of Neandertal behaviour, including dietary differences between Neanderthal groups and knowledge of medication.

“Dental plaque traps microorganisms that lived in the mouth and pathogens found in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract, as well as bits of food stuck in the teeth – preserving the DNA for thousands of years,” says lead author Dr Laura Weyrich, ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellow with ACAD.

“Genetic analysis of that DNA ‘locked-up’ in plaque, represents a unique window into Neandertal lifestyle – revealing new details of what they ate, what their health was like and how the environment impacted their behaviour.”

The international team analysed and compared dental plaque samples from four Neanderthals found at the cave sites of Spy in Belgium and El Sidrón in Spain. These four samples range from 42,000 to around 50,000 years old and are the oldest dental plaque ever to be genetically analysed.

“We found that the Neandertals from Spy Cave consumed woolly rhinoceros and European wild sheep, supplemented with wild mushrooms,” says Professor Alan Cooper, Director of ACAD. “Those from El Sidrón Cave on the other hand showed no evidence for meat consumption, but appeared instead to have a largely vegetarian diet, comprising pine nuts, moss, mushrooms and tree bark – showing quite different lifestyles between the two groups.”

“One of the most surprising finds, however, was in a Neanderthal from El Sidrón, who suffered from a dental abscess visible on the jawbone. The plaque showed that he also had an intestinal parasite that causes acute diarrhoea, so clearly he was quite sick. He was eating poplar, which contains the pain killer salicylic acid (the active ingredient of aspirin), and we could also detect a natural antibiotic mould (Penicillium) not seen in the other specimens.”

“Apparently, Neanderthals possessed a good knowledge of medicinal plants and their various anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, and seem to be self-medicating. The use of antibiotics would be very surprising, as this is more than 40,000 years before we developed penicillin. Certainly our findings contrast markedly with the rather simplistic view of our ancient relatives in popular imagination.”

Neanderthals, ancient and modern humans also shared several disease-causing microbes, including the bacteria that cause dental caries and gum disease. The Neandertal plaque allowed reconstruction of the oldest microbial genome yet sequenced – Methanobrevibacter oralis, a commensal that can be associated with gum disease. Remarkably, the genome sequence suggests Neandertals and humans were swapping pathogens as recently as 180,000 years ago, long after the divergence of the two species.

The team also noted how rapidly the oral microbial community has altered in recent history. The composition of the oral bacterial population in Neanderthals and both ancient and modern humans correlated closely with the amount of meat in the diet, with the Spanish Neanderthals grouping with chimpanzees and our forager ancestors in Africa. In contrast, the Belgian Neanderthal bacteria were similar to early hunter gatherers, and quite close to modern humans and early farmers.

“Not only can we now access direct evidence of what our ancestors were eating, but differences in diet and lifestyle also seem to be reflected in the commensal bacteria that lived in the mouths of both Neanderthals and modern humans,” says Professor Keith Dobney, from the University of Liverpool.

“Major changes in what we eat have, however, significantly altered the balance of these microbial communities over thousands of years, which in turn continue to have fundamental consequences for our own health and well-being. This extraordinary window on the past is providing us with new ways to explore and understand our evolutionary history through the microorganisms that lived in us and with us.” 

Medicine at El Sidrón

While studies have shown that one of the El Sidrón individuals was a left-handed adult female, one other individual is considered the ‘Star of the Show’ by the project investigators. As previous studies have pointed out, this male individual appears to have used his mouth to sharpen the blades of stone tools (rather like a third hand), leading to chipping on the enamel and dentine on his upper teeth. Now, the study of his dental plaque has brought new and quite unique information to light.

“We have evidence that this Neanderthal was self-medicated. We have discovered that the plaque preserved in his teeth contains sequences of the pathogen Enterocytozoon bieneusi which causes gastrointestinal problems, including serious diarrhoea. Additionally, thanks to a hole in his jaw we know he had a dental abscess. Both health issues must have caused him intense pain”, Rosas points out.

What is more, this Neanderthal’s dental plaque contains traces of DNA from both the natural antibiotic fungus, penicillium, as well as from poplar, a tree whose bark, roots and leaves contain silicic acid, the active ingredient in well-known medications.

This is not the first nod in this direction, given that the researchers at El Sidrón had already taken part in a study which clearly showed that Neanderthals recognised the curative and nutritional properties of some plants, since they took camomile and yarrow, most probably to help digest heavy meals.

Exchange of microorganisms between Neanderthals and sapiens

The scientific investigators compared Neanderthal oral micro-biotic data with human samples from Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, African nomads, the first Neolithic farmers as well as from present-day man.

“Micro-biotic information is key to learning about the host’s health. Neanderthals for example have fewer potentially pathogenic bacteria than we do. In today’s human population a link has been seen between oral micro-biotics and a spectrum of health issues such as cardiovascular problems, obesity, psoriasis, asthma, colitis and gastroesophageal reflux”, highlights CSIC researcher Carles Lalueza-Fox, who works at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (a CSIC-University of Pompeu Fabra shared centre).

Furthermore, the dental plaque from the individuals at El Sidrón has also made it possible to retrieve the oldest complete microorganism genome: the ancient Methanobrevibacter oralis, which is now classified as a Neanderthal subspecies. The Neanderthal and modern human strains appear to have diverged between 112,000 and 143,000 years ago, after the two evolutionary lines split.

“Today we know that crossbreeding took place on two occasions between sapiens and those Neanderthals who later lived in the Siberian region, but not with those in Asturias. If there was micro-biotic transfer between the Asturias Neanderthals and sapiens, then perhaps a cross-line existed between them, although we are yet to identify that”, concludes Lalueza Fox.

The El Sidrón cave

The El Sidrón cave, situated in Piloña, in Asturias in northern Spain, has provided the finest Neanderthal collection in the Iberian Peninsula and is one of the most active archaeological dig sites in the world. Discovered in 1994, around 2,500 skeletal remains from at least 13 individuals of both sexes and of varying ages who lived there around 49,000 years ago have been recovered.

The multidisciplinary team which worked at El Sidrón consisted of palaeontologist Antonio Rosas from CSIC’s National Natural Science Museum, the geneticist, Carles Lalueza-Fox, from the CSIC / Institute of Evolutionary Biology’s Pompeu Fabra University mixed centre, and the archaeologist, Marco de la Rasilla, from the University of Oviedo in Asturias.

At El Sidrón, the team developed a pioneering protocol, known as ‘clean excavation’, which minimises the risk of contaminating the early DNA with that of modern-day human DNA from the researchers working on the cave excavation. This allowed both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA to be extracted from teeth and skeletal remains. (Spanish National Research Council)

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Article Sources: Edited and adapted from press releases of the University of Adelaide and the Spanish National Research Council.

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Original article:

Thelocal.se

Diver Jerry Wilhelmsson was out looking for a different shipwreck altogether off the south coast of the Åland islands (Finland’s autonomous Swedish-speaking islands between Stockholm and Helsinki) when he came across an incredible discovery. Sitting in front of him at a shallow depth was an unusually well-preserved 27 metre long shipwreck, complete with anchor, figurehead and hundreds of unopened bottles.

Wilhelmsson and his diving team Baltic Underwater Explorers now have permission to take some of the bottles back up to the surface in the hope that analysis will provide an explanation for where the mysterious wreck came from.

“It’s quite rare to find a wreck in this condition with cargo intact at a relatively shallow depth,” Magnus Melin of Baltic Underwater Explorers told The Local.

“The coolest thing must be the cargo hold with all the bottles. But the whole relatively small wreck, which has a figurehead, is very interesting. To me, the ship itself and its (currently unknown) story are the most interesting things.”

READ ALSO: Why Sweden’s famous Vasa shipwreck is getting a makeover

Speaking to Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, marine archaeologist Marcus Lindholm speculated that the ship’s style suggests it dates from between 1850 and 1870.

But a better way to know for certain is to analyze the contents of some of the hundreds of bottles still sitting unopened in cargo boxes on the wreck.

“We have contact with the local authorities and they’ll come up with a plan on how to continue. Initially some of the bottles will be salvaged to analyze their content,” diver Melin explained.

“We don’t know at the moment what will happen after that, but more non-destructive documentation will be done to identify the wreck.”

Story continues below…

The waters in and around Sweden’s Baltic coast are something of a hotbed for shipwreck finds.

In April, two shipwrecks dating back to at least the 1600s were found in central Stockholm next to the island of Skeppsholmen, once again by chance when divers were examining the seabed before a boating race.

And on a smellier note, in July Swedish scientists discovered what they believe to be 340-year-old cheese on board the wreck of the royal ship Kronan in the waters near Baltic island Öland.

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The ship’s figurehead. Photo: Jerry Wilhelmsson

 

 

 

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cheese_1

Original Article:

qz.com

Alpine cheeses may have been one of our obsessions for over 3,000 years.

A paper published in PLoS on April 21 from researchers at Newcastle University and the University of York in England outlines some of the first evidence that humans living in the Swiss Alps around 1000 BC were able to produce cheeses.

Researchers examined 30 recovered fragments of pots from six different sites among the European mountains. A chemical analysis revealed that the pots had residues of compounds produced when milk from animals is heated, which is an important part of the cheese-making process.

Even though cheese-making had been documented earlier at lower altitudes, making cheese in the mountains was an impressive feat for our ancestors. “Prehistoric herders would have had to have detailed knowledge of the location of alpine pastures, be able to cope with unpredictable weather and have the technological knowledge to transform milk into a nutritious and storable product,” Francesco Carrer, an archeologist at Newcastle University and lead author of the paper, said in a press release. “Even today, producing cheese in a high mountainous environment requires extraordinary effort.”

Why make cheese? When produced during the summer months and stored, it may have provided a high-protein food source for mountain residents during the winter. As the climate shifted and left less land for crops and livestock, cheese may have also served as a less land-intensive food to produce.

Cheese may have also been an ancient form of bling. “The consumption of dairy products and meat were also integral elements in feasting,” the researchers write. They hypothesize that as social class became an increasingly hierarchical, owning and eating products that were more difficult to make demonstrated affluence.

 

 

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Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that Swiss cheesemaking dates back to prehistoric times, paving the way for such delicacies as Gruyere and Emmental.

Source: Iron age man was as fond of Swiss cheese as we are

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Original Article:

eurekalert.org

PUBLIC RELEASE: 8-FEB-2016

Amsterdam, February 8, 2016 – 200,000 fish bones discovered in and around a pit in Sweden suggest that the people living in the area more than 9000 years ago were more settled and cultured than we previously thought. Research published in the Journal of Archaeological Science suggests people were storing large amounts of fermented food much earlier than experts thought.

The new paper reveals the earliest evidence of fermentation in Scandinavia, from the Early Mesolithic time period, about 9,200 years ago. The author of the study, from Lund University in Sweden, say the findings suggest that people who survived by foraging for food were actually more advanced than assumed.

The Mesolithic period, which spanned around 10,000-5,000 BC, marked the time before people started farming in Europe. At this time, researchers previously believed groups of people in Scandinavia caught fish from the sea, lakes and rivers and moved around following the sources of food they could find.

“This is a really exciting and surprising finding that gives us a completely new picture of how the group lived,” said Adam Boethius, author of the study and historical osteology PhD student at Lund University in Sweden. “We’d never seen a site like this with so many well preserved fish bones, so it was amazing to find.”

For the first time, the new research suggests the foraging people actually settled much earlier than previously thought. They stored huge amounts of fish in one place by fermenting them, suggesting the people had more advanced technology and a more sedentary life than we thought.

If the people were more sedentary, they would have been better able to develop culture. This, say the authors, makes the culture more comparable to the Neolithic people in the Middle East, who were traditionally thought to have settled much earlier than their northern European counterparts.

Boethius and his colleagues had been excavating a site at Norje Sunnansund to rescue any artifacts from Mesolithic settlements before a road was built. As they started to dig, they found lots of fish bones, which indicated people had lived there. They then uncovered an elongated pit or gutter surrounded by small stake holes and completely filled with fish bones.

“It was really strange, and because of all the fish bones in the area we knew something was going on even before we found the feature,” said Boethius. “At first we had no idea what it was so we rescued it from the area to investigate.”

The excavation involved 16 archaeologists during five months. Boethius analyzed the feature and the contents and discovered the fish bones were from freshwater fish. He also showed the fish had been fermented – a skillful way of preserving food without using salt.

The amount of fish they found could have supported a large community of people. Given the amount and type of fish found at the site, Boethius believes freshwater sources played a more important role in the development of culture in the area than we thought. He is now working on further research to find out exactly what people were eating, and how this knowledge impacts our understanding of these ancient societies.

Follows in the next post is the first article from Sci-News.com

 

 

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Original Article:

Pasthorizonspr.com

Posted on January 25, 2016

Vag7

Prof. Maureen Carroll
Maureen Carroll is Professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of Sheffield. She has excavated at major Roman sites across Europe, including Pompeii and now Vagnari in Puglia. Her main fields of research, on which she has published widely, are Roman death and commemoration, Roman childhood, Roman clothing and identities, and the archaeology of Roman gardens.

VAG3

Excavating stone-built walls and drains on the northern edge of the village at Vagnari. Image: M. Carroll

Vagnari is situated in the Basentello river valley, just east of the Apennines in Puglia (ancient Apulia), and about 12 km west of the Iron Age town of Botromagno (next to modern Gravina).

After the Roman conquest of south-east Italy in the early third century B.C., Rome had direct links to the region by one of its main roads, the Via Appia. Pre-Roman settlements, such as Botromagno, went into decline from this time, and its land may have been confiscated by the Romans. After the conquest, wealthy Romans of the senatorial class appropriated tracts of Apulian land, and emperors later followed suit, acquiring properties and developing imperial business assets here.

It is in this context that Vagnari is to be understood. Fieldwork and survey by Canadian and British universities here have furnished evidence for a large territory that was transformed in the early first century A.D. into imperial landholdings.

Epigraphic evidence, in the form of stamped roof tiles, provides clear evidence for ownership of this estate: the slaves who made the tiles were imperial slaves.

Since 2012, the University of Sheffield has been conducting excavations in a settlement (vicus) on the Roman imperial estate at Vagnari.

This vicus was at the heart of the estate, and it was its economic and administrative core. The investigations at Vagnari make a significant contribution to the understanding of the involvement of the Roman elite in the exploitation of the environment and the control over free and slave labour from the first century to third centuries A.D. The role of the vicus in manufacturing, exchange, and consumption is a focal point of our research, and we have retrieved clear evidence for a wide range of specialist crafts and industries practiced by the resident manpower. These include iron-working, lead processing, and the production of roof tiles and ceramics. Identifying agricultural practices and the sorts of productive vegetation cultivated at Vagnari also gives a better and more complete picture of the diverse assets of this imperial estate.

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Reconstruction of a large building of the second century A.D. containing a cella vinaria (wine ‘cellar’). Image: M. Carroll and I. De Luis

An exciting discovery in July and August 2015 was a large stone-built complex of the second century A.D. comprising a series of rooms which opened onto a cella vinaria, a wine fermentation and storage room. In this area, large circular plastered basins had been inserted into a thick mortar paving.

vag5

Two large circular plastered basins for ceramic wine vats (dolia). Image: M. Carroll

Each basin held a pitch-lined ceramic container (dolium defossum) with a rim diameter of over half a metre and a body diameter larger than a metre. Dolia were heavy and cumbersome, with a capacity of 1000 litres and more. They were buried up to their necks in the ground to keep the temperature of the wine constant and cool, a necessary measure in hot climate zones, as Pliny the Elder said (Natural History 14.27). Dolia could be used for many years, although they needed to be cleaned regularly, and even fumigated, to avoid contamination of the new wine with which they were filled. The Roman agrarian writer Columella (On Agriculture 12.18.5-7) recommended that dolia should be re-lined with pitch forty days prior to the grape harvest, and the tenth-century Geoponica (6.4), which drew on earlier Roman books on agricultural pursuits, advised the renewal of the pitch lining every year in July.

Such wine ‘cellars’, with anywhere between a dozen and forty or more dolia, are known on private farms elsewhere in Roman Italy and the Mediterranean, but at Vagnari the wine came from vineyards belonging to the empire’s greatest landowner. It is currently unknown how extensive the emperor’s vineyards were, and whether they were in the immediate vicinity of the vicus or on outlying tenant farms. Viticulture required not only considerable capital; it was also labour intensive, especially if it involved preparing new ground for vines, and it took several years before the first harvest could take place. According to Columella (On Agriculture 3.3.8), the standard size for a vineyard was 7 jugera (1.75 hectares), which is what a single slave vine-dresser could cope with. Cato (On Agriculture 11.1) recommended a slave staff of 16 for a vineyard of 100 jugera (25.2 hectares). We do not know how many labourers and specialists were involved in the tending of vineyards and the making of wine at Vagnari, but a workforce of adequate size, along with additional staff recruited ad hoc for the peak season of the harvest, certainly will have been maintained. We have yet to determine whether the wine at Vagnari was for the emperor’s consumption, or for sale or export to raise money for the imperial coffers, but the latter is more likely, given that a profitable return will have been expected on an estate whose primary function was to generate income for the emperor.

We have only explored a corner of the cella vinaria, and revealed three dolia thus far, and there is clearly more of the wine ‘cellar’ to uncover. We expect to find more dolia, probably arranged in regular rows, as in other wine storage areas of Roman date. Excavations in 2016 will clarify the extent of the storage room, the total number of dolia of the emperor’s wine, and the volumetric storage capacity of the structure. We also expect to find other facilities in the complex, such as a wine press and a tank for the pressed grape juice or must. In addition to the costs involved in the preparation of the land, the vines and their maintenance, and the relevant personnel, the buildings, the dolia, and the necessary presses also will have represented a considerable outlay of capital.

It remains to be determined how the rooms adjacent to the cella vinaria were used. Excavated fragments of white and grey marble slabs with traces of mortar on the underside suggests that this stone had been used for cladding of some kind, perhaps as a dado at the base of walls, and a concentration of glass panes at the foot of a wall implies that there were paned windows in the building. Both the marble cladding and the glass windows demonstrate that these rooms were well appointed, possibly because they were used also for domestic occupation, as a large deposit of household waste, including pottery, bone implements, and animal bones as the remains of meals, in a room east of the winery suggests.

Very surprisingly, one of the dolia at Vagnari contained two human skeletons.

It remains an intriguing and challenging question whether we are dealing with victims of a crime, who were hastily dumped in this wine vat, or some other irregular, and illegal, disposal of corpses within the settlement. At any rate, the dolium was clearly no longer in use when the skeletons were deposited in it, because the human remains, soil, broken tiles, and broken pieces from the top of the dolium were mixed together in the fill of the vessel.

This new evidence for viticulture, as well as the archaeobotanical remains revealing the cultivation and processing of cereal crops, shed light on the ancient landscape. All together, these strands of evidence shape our understanding of the diversity of the economy of the estate and the role of the vicus and its inhabitants in organising and managing work and income for the emperor.

For more information, annual reports, and application forms for the 2016 season, see the project website:sheffield archaeology/ imperial winery

The excavations are directed by Maureen Carroll, Professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, in collaboration with the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Puglia. The project has benefited from sponsorship by the British Academy, the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, and the University of Sheffield. Parallel excavations in the Roman cemetery at Vagnari are directed by Prof. Tracy Prowse, McMaster University.

FURTHER READING

For a synthesis of the initial work on the imperial estate, see:
A.M. Small (ed.) (2012), Vagnari. Il villaggio, l’artigianato, la proprietà imperiale. The village, the industries, the imperial property. Bari: Edipuglia

For reports on the recent Vagnari excavations, see:
M. Carroll (2014), Vagnari 2012: New Work in the vicus by the University of Sheffield, in A.M. Small (ed.), Beyond Vagnari. New Themes in the Study of Roman South Italy. Bari: Edipuglia, 79-88

M. Carroll and T. Prowse (2014), Exploring the vicus and the necropolis at the Roman Imperial estate at Vagnari (Comune di Gravina in Puglia, Provincia di Bari, Regione Puglia), Papers of the British School at Rome 82: 353-356

T. Prowse and M. Carroll (2015), Research at Vagnari (Comune di Gravina in Puglia, Provincia di Bari, Regione Puglia, Papers of the British School at Rome 83: 324-326

For research on death and burial and population mobility at Vagnari, see:
T. L. Prowse et al. (2010), Stable isotope and ancient DNA evidence for geographic origins at the site of Vagnari (2nd-4th centuries AD), Italy, in H. Eckhart (ed.), Roman Diasporas: Archaeological Approaches to Mobility and Diversity in the Roman Empire. Portsmouth, R.I.: Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supplement 78), 175-198

 

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 Researchers at the Neolithic site of Mogou, West China, where eastern and western cereals met. Courtesy Martin Jones

Researchers at the Neolithic site of Mogou, West China, where eastern and western cereals met. Courtesy Martin Jones

millet

millet

Original Article:

popular archaeology

December 2015

UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE—New research shows a cereal familiar today as birdseed was carried across Eurasia by ancient shepherds and herders laying the foundation, in combination with the new crops they encountered, of ‘multi-crop’ agriculture and the rise of settled societies. Archaeologists say ‘forgotten’ millet has a role to play in modern crop diversity and today’s food security debate.

The domestication of the small-seeded cereal millet in North China around 10,000 years ago created the perfect crop to bridge the gap between nomadic hunter-gathering and organised agriculture in Neolithic Eurasia, and may offer solutions to modern food security, according to new research.

Now a forgotten crop in the West, this hardy grain – familiar in the west today as birdseed – was ideal for ancient shepherds and herders, who carried it right across Eurasia, where it was mixed with crops such as wheat and barley. This gave rise to ‘multi-cropping’, which in turn sowed the seeds of complex urban societies, say archaeologists.

A team from the UK, USA and China has traced the spread of the domesticated grain from North China and Inner Mongolia into Europe through a “hilly corridor” along the foothills of Eurasia. Millet favours uphill locations, doesn’t require much water, and has a short growing season: it can be harvested 45 days after planting, compared with 100 days for rice, allowing a very mobile form of cultivation.

Nomadic tribes were able to combine growing crops of millet with hunting and foraging as they travelled across the continent between 2500 and 1600 BC. Millet was eventually mixed with other crops in emerging populations to create ‘multi-crop’ diversity, which extended growing seasons and provided our ancient ancestors with food security.

The need to manage different crops in different locations, and the water resources required, depended upon elaborate social contracts and the rise of more settled, stratified communities and eventually complex ‘urban’ human societies.

Researchers say we need to learn from the earliest farmers when thinking about feeding today’s populations, and millet may have a role to play in protecting against modern crop failure and famine.

“Today millet is in decline and attracts relatively little scientific attention, but it was once among the most expansive cereals in geographical terms. We have been able to follow millet moving in deep history, from where it originated in China and spread across Europe and India,” said Professor Martin Jones from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, who is presenting the research findings today at the Shanghai Archaeological Forum.

“These findings have transformed our understanding of early agriculture and society. It has previously been assumed that early agriculture was focused in river valleys where there is plentiful access to water. However, millet remains show that the first agriculture was instead centred higher up on the foothills – allowing this first pathway for ‘exotic’ eastern grains to be carried west.”

The researchers carried out radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis on charred millet grains recovered from archaeological sites across China and Inner Mongolia, as well as genetic analysis of modern millet varieties, to reveal the process of domestication that occurred over thousands of years in northern China and produced the ancestor of all broomcorn millet worldwide.

“We can see that millet in northern China was one of the earliest centres of crop domestication, occurring over the same timescale as rice domestication in south China and barley and wheat in west China,” explained Jones.

“Domestication is hugely significant in the development of early agriculture – humans select plants with seeds that don’t fall off naturally and can be harvested, so over several thousand years this creates plants that are dependent on farmers to reproduce,” he said.

“This also means that the genetic make-up of these crops changes in response to changes in their environment – in the case of millet, we can see that certain genes were ‘switched off’ as they were taken by farmers far from their place of origin.”

As the network of farmers, shepherds and herders crystallised across the Eurasian corridor, they shared crops and cultivation techniques with other farmers, and this, Jones explains, is where the crucial idea of ‘multi-cropping’ emerged.

“The first pioneer farmers wanted to farm upstream in order to have more control over their water source and be less dependent on seasonal weather variations or potential neighbours upstream,” he said. “But when ‘exotic’ crops appear in addition to the staple crop of the region, then you start to get different crops growing in different areas and at different times of year. This is a huge advantage in terms of shoring up communities against possible crop failures and extending the growing season to produce more food or even surplus.

“However, it also introduces a more pressing need for cooperation, and the beginnings of a stratified society. With some people growing crops upstream and some farming downstream, you need a system of water management, and you can’t have water management and seasonal crop rotation without an elaborate social contract.”

Towards the end of the second and first millennia BC larger human settlements, underpinned by multi-crop agriculture, began to develop. The earliest examples of text, such as the Sumerian clay tablets from Mesopotamia, and oracle bones from China, allude to multi-crop agriculture and seasonal rotation.

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