Domestication and early agriculture in the Mediterranean Basin

In this post we present selected parts of the paper titled “Domestication and early agriculture in the Mediterranean Basin: Origins, diffusion, and impact“, by Melinda A. Zeder, 2008. 


The transition from foraging and hunting to farming and herding is a significant threshold in human history. Domesticates and the agricultural economies based on them are associated with radical restructuring of human societies, worldwide alterations in biodiversity, and significant changes in the Earth’s landforms and its atmosphere. Given the momentous outcomes of this transition it comes as little surprise that the origin and spread of domesticates and the emergence of agriculture remain topics of enduring interest to both the scholarly community and the general public.

Until the late 1990s archaeozoologists relied on morphological changes in target species to identify where and when wild prey animals were transformed into herded livestock. A proposed sharp and rapid reduction in overall body size among archaeological prey populations was the most widely accepted morphological marker of this threshold. Based on this size reduction criterion, the established consensus was that animal domestication (beginning with goats and then sheep) occurred at ca. 10,000–9,500 B.P., ≈1,000 years after the domestication of crop plants in the southern Levant.

My own work on both modern skeletal collections and archaeological caprine (sheep and goat) remains from the Near East finds little support for the almost axiomatic acceptance that domestication results in an automatic overall reduction in body size in managed animals. Rather than domestic status, sex is the primary factor affecting body size in these ungulates, manifested by a marked and consistent difference between larger males and smaller females in essentially all skeletal elements. Environment also strongly influences body size, with increasing heat and aridity positively correlated with smaller size.

What archaeozoologists had originally interpreted as body size reduction associated with initial domestication can now be attributed to differences in the culling strategies of herders as opposed to hunters. In most prey species, hunters focus on large adult animals (particularly males) to maximize return, and the bones of these larger animals generally dominate in prey assemblages generated by hunters. Archaeological assemblages generated by herders, on the other hand, are usually dominated by the bones of smaller females slaughtered after their prime reproductive years. Excess males not needed for herd propagation were harvested at young ages and their more friable bones are usually less well represented in these assemblages.

Although the linkage between domestication and body size was called into question by this research, the marked degree of sexual dimorphism in caprines it documented offered another approach to tracking the transition from hunting to herding. Pronounced differences in the size of male and female skeletal elements make it possible to separate archaeological assemblages into sex-specific subpopulations, which, based on a refined understanding of the sequence and timing of long bone fusion, can be used to generate highresolution harvest profiles for male and female animals capable of distinguishing the prey strategies of hunters from the harvest strategies of herders.

Application of this approach to archaeological assemblages from Iraq and Iran has identified the clear signature of a managed herd of goats (harvesting of young males and prolonged survivorship of females) at the site of Ganj Dareh in highland Iran. Directly dated to 9,900 B.P., the goats from this site show no evidence of size reduction or any other domestication-induced morphological change. Smaller body size and changes in the size and shape of horns [a morphological change clearly linked to domestication] appear 500–1,000 years later than this demographic shift, when managed animals were moved from the natural habitat of wild goats and introduced into hotter and more arid lowland Iran.

Looking back before Ganj Dareh, unusual demographic profiles detected in sheep bone assemblages from northeastern Iraq and southeastern Anatolia dating to 12,000 B.P. may reflect early attempts at manipulating herd demographics to maximize returns. These assemblages show an almost exclusive focus on 2- to 3-year-old males, which is older than expected with herd management but younger than expected with hunting.

Changes in the age of harvested caprines, and possibly demographically driven changes in size consistent with early herd management, are found in southeastern Anatolia at ca. 10,500 B.P.. Sheep seem to be the initial early focus of the transition from hunting to herding in this region, with managed goats arriving from outside the area at ca. 10,200 B.P..

Similarly, demographic evidence for the management of morphologically unaltered caprines (mostly sheep) is found in Central Anatolia between 10,400 and 9,400 B.P.. These results suggest that both sheep and goats were brought under domestication (probably independently of one another and possibly multiple times) in the region that stretches from the northern Zagros to southeastern Anatolia between ca. 11,000 and 10,500 B.P., and perhaps even earlier. Morphologically wild, but managed, goats appear to have been moved relatively rapidly through the region, reaching the southernmost tips of both the eastern and western arms of the Fertile Crescent by ca. 9,500 B.P.. Domestic sheep were spread more slowly and first appear in these regions ≈500–1,000 years later than managed goats.

Archaeological evidence now suggests that pigs were first domesticated somewhere in southeastern Anatolia by 10,500–10,000 B.P. and that the timing of their geographical expansion as domesticates was similar, although perhaps slower, to that of sheep. Morphologically altered domestic pigs are not found in the southern Levant or lowland Iran until ca. 8,500–8,000 B.P. Recent demographic evidence suggests that taurine cattle were initially domesticated somewhere in the upper Euphrates Valley between ca. 11,000 and 10,000 B.P., but, like sheep and pigs, they arrived relatively late in more distant parts of the Fertile Crescent. Morphologically altered domestic pigs and cattle are not found in Central Anatolia until after 8,500 B.P..

Recent work has succeeded in definitively identifying the progenitors of both domestic sheep and goat as belonging to species found in the Fertile Crescent* (Ovis orientalis and Capra aegagrus, respectively). Moreover, in both of these livestock species there are at least four and, in the case of goats, as many as six, genetically distinguishable domestic lineages, or haplotypes. It is not entirely clear, however, whether these different lineages represent spatially and temporally discrete ‘‘domestication events’’ in which different populations of animals were brought under domestication independently of one another. Genetic data for taurine cattle have identified five different domestic haplotypes, at least three and possibly four of which originated in the Fertile Crescent. Similarly, as many as four of the many different lineages of domestic pigs originated in the Near East.

*(NovoScriptorium: We do not agree with the absolute certainty presented here)

Over time hunting strategies aimed at maximizing local availability of wild ungulates developed into active management, with all four major livestock species coming under management over a period from ca. 11,000 to 10,000 B.P. Clear-cut morphological responses to domestication (i.e., changes in horns in bovids and tooth size in pigs) are not evident in these four livestock species until ca. 9,500–9,000 B.P..

Evidence from multiple locations point to a prolonged period of human manipulation of morphologically wild, but possibly cultivated, plants which, in certain species, resulted in the development of morphologically altered domesticated crops. This period of intensified plant management dates at least as far back as ca. 12,000 B.P., with morphological markers of crop domestication (i.e., nonshattering seed heads in cereals) not well established until ca.10,500 B.P.. Agricultural economies reliant on a mix of domesticated crops and livestock apparently do not fully crystallize in the region until ca. 9,500–9,000 B.P..

(NovoScriptorium: You may want to read one of our articles on this


The Diffusion of Animal Domesticates in the Mediterranean Basin

The last two decades has witnessed the rise and fall of a number of models of Neolithic expansion across the Mediterranean Basin. In the early 1980s Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza combined archaeological and human genetic data to frame their ‘‘wave and advance’’ model. This model attributed the westward spread of the Neolithic to Near Eastern colonists who, driven by agriculture-fueled population growth, slowly pushed aside indigenous hunter–gatherers at a predicted average pace of ≈1 km per year.

Objecting to the passive role this model assigned to indigenous Mesolithic people*, a number of researchers subsequently countered with alternative models that awarded local populations a starring role in Mediterranean Neolithic emergence. Early models within this indigenist perspective argued for autochonous domestication of crops and livestock in a process parallel to, but independent of, the Near East. The presence of wild oats, barley, and lentils in Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic levels at Francthi Cave on the eastern coast of Greece, followed by the appearance of fully domesticated barley and lentils in later Neolithic levels, was interpreted as evidence for the local crop domestication. Legumes recovered from Mesolithic cave deposits in southern France were seen as evidence of incipient cultivation, if not domestication, of local wild plants. Evidence for indigenous animal domestication was based on the identification of wild sheep in Pleistocene age deposits in southern France and the presence of domestic sheep and goat remains in Mesolithic contexts in France and Spain. Reports of domesticated pig and cattle remains in Mesolithic (pre-8,000 B.P.) levels from sites in southern Spain were also cited as evidence for the local domestication of these species.

*(NovoScriptorium: We believe that such theories stand totally against Reason and Human Realities of all Time. Passive indigenous populations!? Never and nowhere on Earth. In other words, no colonists from anywhere would be ‘passively’ received in a Human society -and moreover, a Prehistoric Human society- unless a) the indigenous and the colonists were previously related populations somehow, or b) if the colonists were very strong militarily and enforced their presence to the natives -something which is not supported by Archaeological evidence so far)

Genetic studies* have subsequently ruled out European ancestry for domestic wheat, barley, and pulses, confirming the Near East as the source of these crops. Morphological, cytological, hemoglobin, and, most recently, genetic studies have shown that the ‘‘wild’’ sheep and goats found on Mediterranean islands, once argued to be the descendents of the progenitors of indigenous domestic caprines, are instead the feral descendents of Near Eastern caprines. Ruling out the indigenous domestication of caprines and major crop plants did not, however, lead to an embrace of colonist expansion diffusion models for the emergence of Neolithic lifeways in the Mediterranean. Instead, researchers subscribing to the indigenist perspective, especially those working in the western Mediterranean, argued that cultural and not demic diffusion was the primary engine driving this transition. Specifically, proponents maintained that the selective adoption of various elements of the Neolithic package by indigenous populations around the Mediterranean could have happened through trade and technology transfer alone without any direct contact between indigenous hunter–gatherers and colonizing farming populations from the east.

*(NovoScriptorium: Genetic studies in the last few years mostly come up with results convenient for and supportive of the old ex oriente theory that excludes indigenous prehistoric evolution and domestication of animals and seeds in Europe. Archaeological evidence and its analysis shows in the direction of a different picture; There is absolutely no archaeological material proof for movement of Neolithic Near Easterners towards the West. On the contrary, recent evidence shows in the opposite direction, i.e. that Westerners have moved in several waves towards the East, or at least, the Westerners had the naval technology to go to the East and acquire knowledge or goods that they were in need of. Additionally, in Human History, any people/nation that conquered-occupied lands of others boasts for it in his writings and Tradition. There is not a single exception in all known Human History of conquerors claiming that they are…indigenous in a conquered land. Now, in the case of the Greek peninsula, Greek Mythology very firmly states, in every possible way, that the population of the peninsula is indigenous and never came from somewhere else. On the very contrary, there are countless small and big stories of expansions, expeditions, colonizations, movements, towards everywhere on the horizon away from their Center. So, no, we are not at all convinced about these recent ‘Genetic studies’ which refer to Prehistory. All these researches are based on  many assumptions, statistics and questionable quality of DNA samples from thousands of years ago. We suggest a read of the following article

Recent archaeological evidence from the Aegean, for example, no longer supports a model of gradual in-place transition of ancestral Mesolithic cultures into Neolithic cultures. Instead, there appears to have been a sharp decline in Late Mesolithic population levels, combined with the sudden appearance of radically different Neolithic settlements in previously unoccupied locations. As on Cyprus, recent work in the Aegean argues for the arrival of maritime colonists who, at ca. 9,000 to 8,000 B.P., carried many components of the full Neolithic package (plant and animal domesticates, new lithic traditions, and, perhaps a bit later, pottery). Following a leapfrog pattern, these seafaring pioneers established farming communities that selectively focused on favorable environments in coastal Greece and on various Aegean Islands*.

Based on a careful reevaluation of archaeological evidence, especially available radiocarbon dates, researchers now see major discontinuities between Mesolithic and Neolithic cultures in Italy. They argue that Neolithic lifeways were introduced into the Italian peninsula ca. 8,000 B.P. by maritime colonists who first established farming villages on the Apulian ‘‘boot heel’’ region of southeastern Italy. These traditions appear in northwest coastal Italy ≈200–300 years later (ca. 7,800–7,600 B.P.). In southern France, a compelling case can be made for a marked geographic, ecological, and cultural break between interior Mesolithic settlements and coastal Neolithic colonies.

Recent excavation of a coastal settlement in southern France, dating to 7,700–7,600 B.P. and characterized as a beachhead colony of seafaring migrant farmers from mainland Italy, has yielded pottery, domestic sheep, einkorn, and emmer wheat.

Questions have also been raised about the evidence for the early occurrence of domestic animals and pottery in Mesolithic contexts in the western Mediterranean, which had formed a primary foundation of earlier culture diffusion models.

Neolithic settlements with apparently fully formed agro-pastoral economic systems suddenly appear in the Iberian Peninsula as coastal enclaves occupying limestone based soils abandoned by earlier Mesolithic peoples. The initial establishment of these colonies follows a familiar pattern, with farming enclaves appearing in favorable coastal locals around the periphery of the Iberian Peninsula at a steady and quite rapid pace, appearing first on the eastern and southern coasts of Spain at ca. 7,700–7,600 B.P. and on the Atlantic coast of Portugal ca. 7,400–7,300 B.P..

Zilhão’s work in Portugal has also shown that Mesolithic cultures focusing on the intensive exploitation of estuary resources persist for several hundred years after the establishment of these farming enclaves and that the subsequent spread of agricultural economies into the interior likely proceeded through a combined process of colonist expansion, selective local adoption of Neolithic technologies, and the integration of colonist and indigenous populations. Similar patterns of development are hinted at in interior and northern Italy, which seem to lag several hundred years behind coastal areas in the appearance of plant and animal domesticates and other markers of Neolithic adaptations. In southern France, the initial, essentially exclusive, focus on domestic livestock evidenced at the early coastal pioneering sites stands in stark contrast to subsistence strategies of later interior sites that show persistence of hunting along with the utilization of domesticates, a pattern that points to the blending of Neolithic and Mesolithic traditions after initial colonization. Farther east, the disjunction between later Neolithic sites and their Mesolithic and early Neolithic predecessors in the Aegean signals a similar process of dispersal, adoption, and integration*.

*(NovoScriptorium: The more recent Aegean findings lead to other revelations. Of course, the writer couldn’t possibly know evidence found later on. We suggest a good read of the articles below

Genetic studies of modern and ancient DNA from Mediterranean Basin livestock species and their progenitors adds further support, and nuance, to this emerging picture.

Research by Larson et al. has shown that current-day domestic pigs in Europe bear no trace of Middle Eastern ancestry, but instead are most closely related to European wild boar. Subsequent analysis by the same team of mtDNA extracted from archaeological remains has found convincing evidence for the dispersal of Near Eastern pigs into and across Europe between 7,500 and 5,000 B.P.. Surprisingly, subsequent to this initial diffusion, Near Eastern swine are later replaced by domestic pigs of European maternal ancestry, even within the Near East*. Indigenous domestication of European boar also apparently happened several times, with two major European clades indicative of two separate domestication events, and an additional clade, currently restricted to Italy and Sardinia.

*[NovoScriptorium: Recent ‘Genetics/Genomics research’ suggests the following

Abstract Archaeological evidence indicates that pig domestication had begun by ∼10,500 y before the present (BP) in the Near East, and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) suggests that pigs arrived in Europe alongside farmers ∼8,500 y BP. A few thousand years after the introduction of Near Eastern pigs into Europe, however, their characteristic mtDNA signature disappeared and was replaced by haplotypes associated with European wild boars. This turnover could be accounted for by substantial gene flow from local European wild boars, although it is also possible that European wild boars were domesticated independently without any genetic contribution from the Near East. To test these hypotheses, we obtained mtDNA sequences from 2,099 modern and ancient pig samples and 63 nuclear ancient genomes from Near Eastern and European pigs. Our analyses revealed that European domestic pigs dating from 7,100 to 6,000 y BP possessed both Near Eastern and European nuclear ancestry, while later pigs possessed no more than 4% Near Eastern ancestry, indicating that gene flow from European wild boars resulted in a near-complete disappearance of Near East ancestry. In addition, we demonstrate that a variant at a locus encoding black coat color likely originated in the Near East and persisted in European pigs. Altogether, our results indicate that while pigs were not independently domesticated in Europe, the vast majority of human-mediated selection over the past 5,000 y focused on the genomic fraction derived from the European wild boars, and not on the fraction that was selected by early Neolithic farmers over the first 2,500 y of the domestication process.

The emergence of agricultural societies in the Near East at least 12,500 y before the present (BP) was followed by the westward dispersal of farmers into Europe beginning ∼8,500 y BP. This Neolithic expansion was characterized by the human-mediated dispersal of domesticated plants and animals, including cereals, pulses, sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs, all of which were derived from wild species indigenous to the Near East and Anatolia. Given that the wild progenitors of modern domestic sheep and goats were never present in Europe, the presence of their remains in European archaeological sites almost certainly represents populations originally domesticated in Anatolia and the Near East. In the case of cattle and pigs, however, the widespread distribution of their wild progenitors across most of Eurasia complicates the classification of archaeological specimens as wild or domestic, and leaves open the possibility that these taxa were also independently domesticated in Europe. Consequently, the relative contribution of European wild boars populations to the gene pools of domestics introduced from the Near East remains contentious.

(Source: “Ancient pigs reveal a near-complete genomic turnover following their introduction to Europe”, by Laurent A. F. Frantz et al., 2019)

What short of research has lead us to a ‘final and absolute’ conclusion that almost…nothing existed in Europe and every seed and animal came from the East? We could partially understand the argument for Northern Europe because of climate. But Southern Europe and the Mediterranean Basin in general-including North Africa- have and had very good climates for cultivation and at least equal presuppositions for Domestication to take place. On the other hand, let’s suppose for a moment that we accept the ex oriente theory. The Near Easterners would then need maritime knowledge and experience, together with some basic technology to perform such vast colonizations/movements. Archaeological evidence does not at all support such Pre-Neolithic or Neolithic Near-Eastern capabilities (these eventually came at some point during the ‘historical times’). On the contrary, Naval Trade and Sea-faring are confirmed beyond any doubt in the Aegean territory thousands of years ago. What is more rational then? That the Near-Easterners used their imaginary naval capabilities to colonize the West or that the Aegeans may have visited the Near East and brought back to Europe the domesticated seeds and animals? Additionally, Greek Mythology talks about cultural and military expeditions towards the West in very ancient times – long before the historically known colonies around the Mediterranean. There you go; there is even a written ancient record on the expansion of ideas and goods from the East to the West, but not from Near Easterners but, instead, from the Aegeans.

You can read an example here

From the paper titled “Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene seafaring in the Aegean: new obsidian hydration dates with the SIMS-SS method“, by N. Laskaris, A. Sampson, F. Mavridis, I. Liritzis, 2011, we learn that already from the 13th millenium Melian obsidian finds from Francthi prove sea-trade and maritime capabilities of its inhabitants.

You may also find the following articles helpful

And last but not least, the supposed westward movement of Eastern farmers is claimed to have started around 8,500 years B.P.; well, to the disappointment of the supporters of such theories, there are Neolithic settlements -e.g. in Greece- in the West that are…older than this chronological barrier. Some of them predate it by a thousand years! As things stand, we believe that something is very wrong with these ex oriente theories]


Thus it appears that none of the earlier models for Neolithic emergence in the Mediterranean accurately or adequately frame the transition. Clearly* there was a movement of people westward out of the Near East all of the way to the Atlantic shores of the Iberian Peninsula. But this demic expansion did not follow the slow and steady, all encompassing pace of expansion predicted by the wave and advance model. Instead the rate of dispersal varied, with Neolithic colonists taking 2,000 years to move from Cyprus to the Aegean, another 500 to reach Italy, and then only 500–600 years to travel the much greater distance from Italy to the Atlantic. Moreover, rather than entirely replacing or engulfing indigenous foraging populations, these colonists seem to have been restricted to scattered coastal farming enclaves established around the Mediterranean Basin. Although cultural diffusion can no longer be argued to provide a universal explanation for Neolithic expansion into the Mediterranean, it is clear that the movement of Neolithic lifeways out of these beachhead settlements involved selective adoption and adaptation of elements of the Neolithic package by indigenous peoples.

*(NovoScriptorium: What is ‘clear’ is the effort to convince us about the ex oriente theories and nothing else. Even if some animals and seeds indeed came from the Near East -or anywhere else- this does not necessarily mean ‘colonization’ and ‘population movements’, but instead, it could be perceived as a strong indication of propagation of ideas and practices together with exchange of goods –Trade– between the peoples of the Mediterranean, something far more reasonable-even through an ‘intermediate’; the Aegeans. On the other hand, if the supposed colonists were indeed of Near Eastern origins we should be able to have plenty of archaeological material evidence, from all over Europe, to support such theories. But guess what; there is absolutely no archaeological proof for this. Only assumptions, new theories, and…’Genetics/Genomics researches’…)

Moreover, although caprines, cattle, and primary crop plants were most certainly not independently domesticated in Europe, recent genetic data for pigs points to indigenous domestication of local wild boar, possibly occurring multiple times in geographically separate subpopulations. Genetic studies of rye and oats also indicate that the modern varieties of these major crop plants have a European and not Near Eastern ancestry.

Future interpretive frameworks will have to take a more integrated approach, which recognizes colonization, diffusion, and independent domestication as all playing a role in Neolithic expansion across the Mediterranean*.

*(NovoScriptorium: We fully agree on this one)

Recent research has also shown that the dispersal of domesticates and the Neolithic way of life west across the Mediterranean Basin was much more complex and multifaceted than previous prime mover models could accommodate. To varying degrees, in different areas, this process involved elements of demic diffusion, local adoption, and independent domestication. But the outlines of this complex process are just beginning to come into focus. Maritime colonization of the Mediterranean clearly involved not one, but multiple unrelated seaborne migrations. The cultural context of these migratory movements, their causes, their routes, their timing, and their tempo all call out for additional investigation. The southern margin of the Mediterranean Basis along coastal North Africa is essentially terra incognita for understanding the course of Neolithic emergence and seems an especially promising region for future research.


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Maximus E. Niles

Comments for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides & Isidoros Aggelos




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