Possible evidence for Mesolithic agriculture in Europe.

Mesolithic agriculture in Switzerland? A critical review of the evidence.

February 2007.  

Accumulating palaeobotanical evidence points to agricultural activity in Central Europe well before the onset of the Neolithic, commonly dated at ca 5500–5200 cal BC. We reinvestigated an existing pollen profile from Soppensee with refined taxonomical resolution by further subdividing the Cerealia pollen type into Triticum t. and Avena t. because the sediments at this site currently provide the highest temporal resolution and precision for the period of interest among all sites in Switzerland. Our new results are in agreement with previous high-resolution investigations from Switzerland showing scattered but consistent presence of pollen of Cerealia, Plantago lanceolata, and other cultural plants or weeds during the late Mesolithic period (6700–5500 cal BC). Chronologically, this palynological evidence for sporadic agricultural activities coincides with a major break in material culture at ca 6700 cal BC (i.e. the transition from early to late Mesolithic). Here, we review possible arguments against palaeobotanical evidences of Mesolithic agriculture (e.g. chronological uncertainties, misidentification, contamination, long-distance transport) and conclude that none of these can explain the consistent pollen pattern observed at several sites. The palynological evidence can, of course, not prove the existence of pre-ceramic agriculture in Central Europe. However, it is so coherent that this topic should be addressed by systematic archaeobotanical analyses in future archaeological studies. If our interpretation should turn out to be true, our conclusions would have fundamental implications for the Neolithic history of Europe. Currently, it is intensely debated whether Central European agriculture developed locally under the influence of incoming ideas from areas where Neolithic farming had already developed earlier (e.g. southeastern Europe) or whether it was introduced by immigrating farmers. On the basis of our results, we suggest that agriculture developed locally throughout the late Mesolithic and Neolithic. Mesolithic trading networks connecting Southern and Central Europe also support the hypothesis of a slow and gradual change towards sessile agriculture, probably as a result of incoming ideas and regional cultural transformation.

Unfortunately I can’t reproduce the whole article here. But I have the conclusion..

Indications of agricultural activity during almost the entire late Mesolithic are recorded in many pollen profiles. It seems highly unlikely that the palynological evidence of cultivated plants and adventive weeds could have originated from sources other than Mesolithic agriculture in the region, though we cannot completely exclude this reservation. The archaeological evidence is still less clear. The few credible radiocarbon dates suggest a chronological framework for the late Mesolithic between 6700 and 5500 cal BC, and the beginning of the proper Neolithic (i.e. agriculture,livestock, pottery and stone axes) around the middle of the sixth millennium BC. There is no credible evidence of bones from domesticated animals (with exception of dogs) from late Mesolithic assemblages, whereas in the early Neolithic goat and sheep (imported animals) played animportant role.

Considering the general palaeovegetational patterns and their chronology, we postulate a connection between the occurrence of the earliest cereal and weed pollen and thes triking cultural change at the transition from the early tot he late Mesolithic.

Equivalent developments can be observed in large parts of Europe. Agricultural adoption by indigenous hunter-gatherers as opposed to the partial or wholesale immigration of agriculturalists is a complex issue. Our combined palaeobotanical and archaeological evidences are in favour of the hypothesis of a gradual change, probably owing to incoming ideas and regional cultural transformation. In the Near East and in southern Europe (Greece, Italy), a pre-ceramic (or aceramic) Neolithic had developed before the onset of pottery-based agriculture. This innovation (cultivation of cereals without ceramic production) reached continental Greece at about the end of the eighth millennium BC and southern Italy at ca 7000 cal BC

Our systematic finds of pollen of cereals and weeds are younger than these dates (first clusters around 6600–6500 cal BC, although one single Triticum pollen grain occurred at ca 7800 cal BC at Soppensee).However, if they represent agricultural activities, such a rapid spread of agriculture across the European continent (reaching almost simultaneously Bavaria in the east and France in the west) could be explained by dynamic Mesolithic (exchange) networks transporting the idea of agriculture. Moreover, the material culture of the Central European late Mesolithic probably developed autochthonously, but with strong influences from the Mediterranean region. Given the striking change in material culture at 6700 cal BC we cannot, however, reject the hypothesis of an immigration of people from southern Europe that may have influenced local Mesolithic groups. Similarly, combined palaeobotanical and archaeological data (gradual increase of pollen indicative of agricultural activity over centuries, high continuity in silex culture) suggest that the proper Neolithic at ca 5500 cal BC developed autochthounously and that immigration of people as suggested for the loess areas of Central Europe was of minor relevance, which is corroborated by recent genetic results.

 Nonetheless, considering the disagreement with other palaeogenetic studies, more localised genetic samples are needed tothoroughly address this question.

The unambiguous proof for early (pre-ceramic) agricultural activities in Central Europe requires finds of cereal macroremains The lack of suchf inds in Switzerland is a consequence of two reasons. Owing to the (humid) climatic conditions resulting in very high biological activity and thus high decomposition ratesin the soils, such grains are seldom preserved in an archaeological context in Central Europe As a matter of fact, Swiss late Mesolithic archaeological excavations yielded no finds of any plants at all, except from charcoal and carbonised Corylus nutshells. Of course, this does not mean that other plant resources were not used by the late Mesolithic people. Instead, it rather mirrors poor preservation conditions and especially the complete lack of systematic archaeobotanical analyses. Given the palynological indications for agricultural activities, the inclusion ofarchaeobotanical, archaeozoological and palynological approaches is highly desirable for future archaeological investigations covering the late Mesolithic period. Indeed,cereal grains may have been occasionally charred (e.g. in orclose to a fire place). Unambiguous evidence such as cereal grains within cultural layers older than 5500 cal BC would imply the presence of a pre-ceramic Neolithic in Central Europe, which would correspond to what is currently called the late Mesolithic period.

One of the plants he names as being common is P. lanceolata, plantian (a wheat field weed). He suggests a moblile life where crops are planted and then left, which would definitely be very interesting. What really needs to be done is sift through the fire remains to find cereal grains.

Interestingly, someone else shares my view that Mesolithic Europeans could have been planting nut trees. Would this be a ‘Mesolithic revolution’?

From ‘The Cambridge World History of Food’.

During the Mesolithic, hazelnut bushes spread rapidly to many parts of Europe, as evidenced by pollen diagrams. This is in contrast to the vegetation development of the earlier interglacials. Hazelnuts are heavy, with low dispersal rates, so that it is very unlikely that the plant diffused unaided to all parts of northern Europe at the same time. Instead, it has often been assumed that hazelnuts were culturally dispersed by Mesolithic peoples (Firbas 1949: 149; Smith 1970: 81—96). Indeed, the distribution of these nuts is recorded by pollen analysis in the Mesolithic layer of Hohen Viecheln at the border of Lake Schwerin in northern Germany (Schmitz 1961: 29).

I suggest that someone takes a trip to the area around Francthi cave in Greece, and starts searching for lentil, almond, pistachio and vetch pollen. If it is absent before about 11,000 BP, that would more or less prove that those plants were imported and cultivated prior to grains, and it would place agriculture in Europe at 2,000 years earlier.

One response to “Possible evidence for Mesolithic agriculture in Europe.

  1. Interesting stuff, isn’t? Where are these quotes from? Look like Tinner etal. Have a look at Behre’s work as well.
    I am very interesting in this topic as I am doing my phd on the subject (see my blog).

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