Tag Archives: domestication

The case for and against cattle domestication and sorghum cultivation at Nabta Playa

First of all a link to a Fred Wendorf paper on Nabta PLaya.

Nabta Playa and Its Role in Northeastern African Prehistory

Nabta Playabasin offers an unprecedented longitudinal view on the emergence, consolidation and complexification on human–livestock relationships, from the early stage of the Early Holocene (c. 11,000 cal. B.P.) to 6000 B.P. The problem of cattle domestication in Northeastern Africa is considered and hopefully ‘‘solved’’ in the light of new mtDNA evidence which suggest an early late Pleistocene split between African, Asian, and Eurasian wild Bospopulations. The paper presents a contextualized analysis of almost all the components of archaeological investigation, including climatic change, culture history of Early to Mid-Holocene Nabta-Playans, the development of social differentiation, and probably ranking with ‘‘labor-consuming’’ megalithic features with the emergence of characteristic features of pastoralideology and religions. As far as the emergence and adoption of new food ways are concerned, the cultural development outlined with the Nabta Playa  archaeological record is important for the understanding of the Holocene prehistory of Africa as a whole.


One of the most interesting bits (my POV) from this paper was the presence of legumes at about 10,000 BC.

One of these sites yielded charred seeds of wild millet and two varieties of legumes (Wasylikowa, report to F. Wendorf 1996)

It also has a reference to possible early domesticated sorghum. Although again the case is bit weak. There’s more reference to it here. The seeds don’t appear to resemble any kind of cultivated sorghum though. They did seem to be harvesting and storing them in large amounts; some of the houses had storage pits for the grains.

Preliminary chemicalanalyses by infrared spectroscopy of the lipids in the archaeological sorghum show closer resemblance to some modern domestic sorghum than to wild varieties (Wasylikowa et al. 1993)

In a later publication (97)  Wasylikowa describes the Sorghum as more likely to be wild, after another study of the seeds showed them to be typically wild seeds. 

Smaller grain size and the lack of any spikelets containing attached branchlets of the inflorescence or rachis fragments suggest that the material harvested and eaten at the Nabta Playa site were of a wild type.

This sorghum doesn’t seem to ‘spread out’, as farmers tend to expand massively into their hunter gatherer neighbours very rapidly. The expansion of domesticated sorgum doesn’t seem to begin until the expansion  of the domesticated donkey, which parallels it’s spread into Asia quite well, and the donkey seems to have been domesticated about 6,000 BP.

It also mentions the barley from this site, once thought to be an ancient domesticate, but now known to be a neolithic contaminant.

The barley recovered from this site during the 1977 excavations (Hadidi in Wendorf and Schild 1980: 347) is regarded as intrusive.

And the first appearance of goats and sheep.

Around 8000 cal B.P. there was an important new addition to the food economy of the Middle Neolithic. Domestic caprovids, either sheep or goat, or both, were introduced from Southwest Asia, probably by way of the Nile Valley (although the oldest radiocarbon dates now available for the Neolithic along the Nile are about 500 years later)

Since the only legumes I know of come from Anatolia, I shall dig a bit deeper into this. This could possibly be a breadcrumb for my ‘proto-Neolithic’ expansion from the near east, circa 13,000 to 14,000 years ago. The paper has made me warm a bit more to pastoralism there in the Holocene, although I’m not sure that it went beyond providing water to keep the cattle around. The claims for dairying are a bit dubious IMO. There’s a link here to a Wendorf item on the Saharan cattle. I think analysing lipids on the surviving pottery from the era might be a good way forward in this case. There have done some kind of analysis along these lines already (sorghum lipids) but there was no sign of milk fats -I’m sure Wendorf would have mentioned them  if they had been found. If there were dairy fats in the pots that would be a different story, a wild cow isn’t going to let a human near her udders. One of my main objections to the very early pastoralism at Nabta PLaya is that it should have seen a population expansion from the area, and to date no sign of that is to be found.

Also, to quote another source…

Grigson’s study concluded cattle from all periods at Nabta Playa were morphologically wild (2000).

Smith’s study: morphologically wild prior to and including the El Nabta/Al Jerar Maximum (7050 – 6150 BC), but domesticated from the Ru’at El Ghanam phase (5900 – 5500 BC) onward

From the Wendorf item on cattle domestication, it states that domesticated sheep, goats etc are all included in the proto Sahelian, but (as he says above) they all arrive with the early neolithic from the near East about 8,000 years ago along with agriculture (they have been shown to be native Asian domesticates, not African, and the date is more like 7,500 years), so the 9,000 year time depth given for proto Sahelian seems unlikely, 7,500 years or younger would make more sense. These Sahelian words appear to be words of Neolithic and not older origin. You’d also expect the domesticated cattle dates in Mali and Mauritania to be a lot older than 4,200 years if the Sahara was the source of very early domesticated cattle.

Another issue is how long it takes animals to show physical signs of domestication. The domestication of Asian cattle now seeming about 11,000 years old) didn’t show any real changes until about 9,500 years ago, a similar situation is seen with domesticated donkeys-they show signs of load bearing and heavy labour for about 1000 years  before they begin to change physically. This would suggest some leeway in the morphologically studies of the cattle. However, there should still have been physically differentiated domesticated African cattle existing right across the Nile region and the Sahara/East Africa by about 7,5000 BP; domesticates spread out quickly, as does pastoralism/agriculture, and there is no sign of fully domesticated cattle at so early a date in Africa. If there were, they should be definably different to the Asian domesticates (through drift) by the time the sheep, goats, and cereals arrive from Asia. So far, domesticated cattle track the arrival of the rest of the neolithic, evidence for domestication in Nabta is still negligible.

Linguistic evidence

The Proto-Northern Sudanic language contains root words such as “to drive,” “cow, “grain,””ear of grain,” and “grindstone.” Any of these might apply to food production, but another root word meaning “to milk” is cetainly the most convincing evidence of incipient pastoralism. There are also root words for “temporary shelter” and “to make a pot.” In the succeeding Proto-Saharo-Sahelian language, there are root words for “to cultivate”, “to prepare field”, to “clear” (of weeds), and “cultivated field.” this is the first unambiguous linguistic evidence of cultivation. There are also words for “thornbush cattle pen,” “fence,” “yard,” “grannary,” as well as “to herd” and “cattle.” In the following Proto-Sahelian period, there are root words for “goat,” “sheep,” “ram,” and “lamb,” indicating the presence of small livestock. There are root words for “cow,” “bull,” “ox,” and “young cow” or “heifer” and, indeed, a variety of terms relating to cultivation and permanent houses

The word for grindstone could date back to about 25k ago, so it’s not likely to be associated with agriculture, and wild grains were being eaten in the area for a very long time, as were cattle. As for the word ‘to milk’, it’s suggestive but again not exactly solid. Pottery in the Sahara does go back that far though, and the main word for pot seems to have derived from water pot, which is interesting. There are cached book links here and here that go into this in more depth, but as they’ve already make a miscalculation for the age of proto Sahelian judging by the inclusion of sheep and goats which dates it securely to the arrivval of the neolithic-as sheep and goats are not native to Africa and only appear when the domesticates are being herded in from Asia. Non- pastoral people in the Sahara were penning and keeping wild animals (Barbary sheep at Uan Afada); so assuming terms that describe fencing in animals must be from domestication is a fallacy. In essence the presence of the words goat and sheep in proto Sahelian, that can only date to the Neolithic, torpedoes a lot of the linguistics argument, and means proto Sahelian probably has a date of 7,500 BP or slightly younger. This would bring proto Sahara Sahelian within the range of the Neolithic as well, as it’s only slightly older (estimated). A link to the Nilo Saharan Language family family tree. In fact, I’d suggest the presence of agricultural terms dates the arrival of the Neolithic, rather than showing agriculture there at an earlier date. This also casts some major doubt on Ehrets dates for proto Sudanic if it’s estimated by the same method.

This linguistic information would really depend on the dating of the age of proto Sudanic. One inaccuracy I’ve spotted in these links is that Proto Indo European is down as 6,000 years old; it’s now estimated at more like 9,000 years, seems to come from Turkey and is a very good match for the start date and location of the Neolithic expansion. There’s another link that discusses the claimed domestication.

So,  predating the Asian domestication seems unlikely (since it now dates pretty reliable back to 11,000 Bp, the same as sheep and goats), and in a lot of African sites domesticated cattle bones don’t show up until sheep, goats and grain do. It’s not convincing for a very early domestication in the Sahara, although there does seem to have been a specific domestication of African cattle at some point, similar to the domestication of the Zebu In Pakistan. My theory is that the Asian cattle just weren’t up to the local climate and parasites and tended to die in droves, making a local domestications necessary. I’d suggest African cattle domestication probably dates to the Neolithic, sometime between 8,000 and 6,000 BP, and so does sorghum.


Earliest date for milk use in the Near East and southeastern Europe linked to cattle herding

Earliest date for milk use in the Near East and southeastern Europe linked to cattle herding
Richard P. Evershed1, Sebastian Payne2, Andrew G. Sherratt3,16, Mark S. Copley1, Jennifer Coolidge4, Duska Urem-Kotsu5, Kostas Kotsakis5, Mehmet Özdoan6, Aslý E. Özdoan7, Olivier Nieuwenhuyse8, Peter M. M. G. Akkermans8, Douglass Bailey9, Radian-Romus Andeescu10, Stuart Campbell11, Shahina Farid12, Ian Hodder13, Nurcan Yalman14, Mihriban Özbaaran6, Erhan Bçakc6, Yossef Garfinkel14, Thomas Levy15 & Margie M. Burton15

The domestication of cattle, sheep and goats had already taken place in the Near East by the eighth millennium bc1, 2, 3. Although there would have been considerable economic and nutritional gains from using these animals for their milk and other products from living animals—that is, traction and wool—the first clear evidence for these appears much later, from the late fifth and fourth millennia bc4, 5. Hence, the timing and region in which milking was first practised remain unknown. Organic residues preserved in archaeological pottery6, 7 have provided direct evidence for the use of milk in the fourth millennium in Britain7, 8, 9, and in the sixth millennium in eastern Europe10, based on the 13C values of the major fatty acids of milk fat6, 7. Here we apply this approach to more than 2,200 pottery vessels from sites in the Near East and southeastern Europe dating from the fifth to the seventh millennia bc. We show that milk was in use by the seventh millennium; this is the earliest direct evidence to date. Milking was particularly important in northwestern Anatolia, pointing to regional differences linked with conditions more favourable to cattle compared to other regions, where sheep and goats were relatively common and milk use less important. The latter is supported by correlations between the fat type and animal bone evidence.

I can’t access the whole text (again), but this puts the earliest dairying in Anatolia at 8,500 years ago

The domestication of sorghum


From this paper.

Sorghum domestication
Arthropological evidence suggests that hunter-gatherers consumed sorghum as early as 8000 BC (Smith and Frederiksen, 2000). The domestication of sorghum has its origins in Ethiopia and surrounding countries, commencing around 4000–3000 BC. Numerous varieties of sorghum were created through the practice of disruptive selection, whereby selection for more than one level of a particular character within a population occurs (Doggett, 1970). This results from a balance of farmer selection for cultivated traits and natural selection for wild characteristics, generating both improved sorghum types, wild types and intermediate types (Doggett, 1970). These improved sorghum types were spread via the movement of people and trade routes into other regions of Africa, India (approx. 1500–1000 BC), the Middle East (approx. 900–700 BC) and eventually into the Far East (approx. AD 400). By the time sorghum was transported to America during the late 1800s to early 1900s, the diversity of new sorghum types, varieties and races created through the movement of people, disruptive selection, geographic isolation and recombination of these types in different environments would have been large (Wright, 1931; Doggett, 1970).

This would date the domestication of sorghum to roughly the same era that the Neolithic arrived in east Africa, about 6,000 years ago, and would seem to be a secondary domesticate. There is a mention in a Wendorf ? article that lipids in a sorghum pot from el Nabta were more like domesticated Sorghum..

Radiocarbon dates place the El Nabta sites between 8,100 and 7,900 B.P. One of these, E-75-6, is much larger than the others and consists of a series of shallow, oval hut floors at–ranged in two, possibly three, parallel lines. Beside each house was one or more bell-shaped storage pits; nearby were several deep (2.5 m) and shallow (1.5 m) water-wells. This site, located near the bottom of a large basin, was flooded by the summer rains. The houses were repeatedly used, probably during harvests in fall and winter Several thousand remains of edible plants have been recovered from these house floors. They include seeds, fruits, and tubers representing 44 different kinds of plants, including sorghum and millets. All of the plants are morphologically wild, but chemical analysis by infrared spectroscopy of the lipids in the sorghum indicates that this plant may have been cultivated. Of the four El Nabta sites that have yielded fauna, two contained bones of a large bovid identified as Bos. The faunal samples from the other two sites are very small.

But it’s not exactly conclusive.

There’s a book reference here for sorghum.

Prehistoric contacts over the Straits of Gibraltar indicated by genetic analysis of Iberian Bronze Age cattle

Prehistoric contacts over the Straits of Gibraltar indicated by genetic analysis of Iberian Bronze Age cattle
Cecilia Anderung*, Abigail Bouwman†, Per Persson‡, José Miguel Carretero§, Ana Isabel Ortega§, Rengert Elburg¶, Colin Smith∥, Juan Luis Arsuaga**, Hans Ellegren*, and Anders Götherström*,††
+Author Affiliations
The geographic situation of the Iberian Peninsula makes it a natural link between Europe and North Africa. However, it is a matter of debate to what extent African influences via the Straits Gibraltar have affected Iberia’s prehistoric development. Because early African pastoralist communities were dedicated to cattle breeding, a possible means to detect prehistoric African–Iberian contacts might be to analyze the origin of cattle breeds on the Iberian Peninsula. Some contemporary Iberian cattle breeds show a mtDNA haplotype, T1, that is characteristic to African breeds, generally explained as being the result of the Muslim expansion of the 8th century A.D., and of modern imports. To test a possible earlier African influence, we analyzed mtDNA of Bronze Age cattle from the Portalón cave at the Atapuerca site in northern Spain. Although the majority of samples showed the haplotype T3 that dominates among European breeds of today, the T1 haplotype was found in one specimen radiocarbon dated 1800 calibrated years B.C. Accepting T1 as being of African origin, this result indicates prehistoric African–Iberian contacts and lends support to archaeological finds linking early African and Iberian cultures. We also found a wild ox haplotype in the Iberian Bronze Age sample, reflecting local hybridization or backcrossing or that aurochs were hunted by these farming cultures.

It seems they were moving cattle across the straits about 4,000 years ago.

Dingoes arrived in Australia about 6,000 years ago, from China.

The dingo may have been introduced on a single occasion to Australia

Dingo, APA genetic analysis of the Australian dingo suggests the dogs tagged along on an epic expansion of people out of southern China around 6,000 years ago.
An international team claims dingoes descend from a small group that could have been introduced to Australia in a “single chance event” from Asia.

Evidence from mitochondrial DNA suggests that the wild dogs arrived on the continent around 5,000 years ago.

The work appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Peter Savolainen of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, and colleagues think the introduction of the dogs may be associated with the spread of seafaring Austronesian-speaking people throughout South-East Asia.

The Austronesian culture had its origins in south China, expanding from Taiwan via the Philippines to Indonesia.

Although dingoes are now wild, they descend from domestic dogs that accompanied these Austronesians on their voyages.

Family tree

The new data comes from an analysis of dingo, dog and wolf mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) types. This is the DNA found in the cell’s “power houses”, and it is passed down from parent to offspring on the maternal side only.

On a family tree of mtDNA types in different members of the dog family, dingoes sit on a major branch alongside 70% of domestic dog sequences.

All the dingo mtDNA types either belonged to or showed great similarity to a single type called A29.

DNA links dingoes to an expansion out of southern China
Studies of dingo physiques suggest they are very similar to Indian pariah dogs and wolves. This has led some researchers to propose that seafaring peoples from India may have introduced them to Australia.

But among domestic dogs, A29 is found only in East Asia, suggesting the dogs’ origins lie here, rather than on the Indian subcontinent. The researchers analysed mtDNA sequences in 211 dingoes and compared them to a world-wide sample of 676 dogs.

When Europeans arrived in Australia, the dingo was widespread, living mostly as a wild animal. However, some Aboriginal groups kept them as pets or as hunting dogs.

And the DNA study for more detail

A detailed picture of the origin of the Australian dingo, obtained from the study of mitochondrial DNA
Peter Savolainen*,†, Thomas Leitner‡, Alan N. Wilton§, Elizabeth Matisoo-Smith¶, and Joakim Lundeberg*
+Author Affiliations 

To determine the origin and time of arrival to Australia of the dingo, 582 bp of the mtDNA control region were analyzed in 211 Australian dingoes sampled in all states of Australia, 676 dogs from all continents, and 38 Eurasian wolves, and 263 bp were analyzed in 19 pre-European archaeological dog samples from Polynesia. We found that all mtDNA sequences among dingoes were either identical to or differing by a single substitution from a single mtDNA type, A29. This mtDNA type, which was present in >50% of the dingoes, was found also among domestic dogs, but only in dogs from East Asia and Arctic America, whereas 18 of the 19 other types were unique to dingoes. The mean genetic distance to A29 among the dingo mtDNA sequences indicates an origin ≈5,000 years ago. From these results a detailed scenario of the origin and history of the dingo can be derived: dingoes have an origin from domesticated dogs coming from East Asia, possibly in connection with the Austronesian expansion into Island Southeast Asia. They were introduced from a small population of dogs, possibly at a single occasion, and have since lived isolated from other dog populations

Domestication of the horse dates back 5,600 years in Kazakhstan.


A wild Przewalski’s horse. Probably close to how ancient wild horses looked.

I was looking up this subject in relation to the wheel. I found this article:

Soil from a Copper Age site in northern Kazakhstan has yielded new evidence for domesticated horses up to 5,600 years ago. The discovery, consisting of phosphorus-enriched soils inside what appear to be the remains of horse corrals beside pit houses, matches what would be expected from Earth once enriched by horse manure. The Krasnyi Yar site was inhabited by people of the Botai culture of the Eurasian Steppe, who relied heavily on horses for food, tools, and transport.

“There’s very little direct evidence of horse domestication,” says Sandra Olsen, an archaeologist and horse domestication researcher at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, PA. That’s because 5,600 years ago there were no saddles or metal bits to leave behind. Equipment like bridles, leads, and hobbles would have been made from thongs of horse hide, and would have rotted away long ago. Likewise horses themselves have not changed much physically as a result of domestication, unlike dogs or cattle. So ancient horse bones don’t easily reveal the secrets of domestication.

With research funding from the National Science Foundation, Olsen’s team took a different tack. They looked for circumstantial evidence that people were keeping horses. One approach was to survey the Krasnyi Yar site with instruments to map out subtle electrical and magnetic irregularities in the soils. With this they were able to identify the locations of 54 pit houses and dozens of post moulds where vertical posts once stood. Some of the post moulds were arranged circularly, as would be most practical for a corral.

Next, geologist Michael Rosenmeier from the University of Pittsburgh collected soil samples from inside the fenced area and outside the settlement. The samples were analyzed for nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and sodium concentrations by Rosemary Capo, University of Pittsburgh geochemist, and her students. Modern horse manure is rich in phosphorous, potassium, and especially nitrogen, compared to undisturbed soils. But because nitrogen is mobile in soils, it can be lost to groundwater or transferred to the atmosphere by organic and inorganic processes. Phosphorus, on the other hand, can be locked into place by calcium and iron and is more likely to be preserved in the soils for millennia.

As it turned out, the soil from inside the alleged corral had up to ten times the phosphorus concentration as the soils from outside the settlement. Lots of phosphorus can also indicate a hearth, said Capo, but that phosphorus is usually accompanied by a lot of potassium, which is not the case in the corral at Krasnyi Yar.

The corral soils also had low nitrogen concentrations, says Capo, reducing the likelihood that the phosphorus came from more recent manure. “That’s good, actually,” she said of the recently completed nitrogen analyses. “It suggests we’ve got old stuff.”

I had a nose about on line, and the same team also want to analyse pottery for the remains of mares milk, which would confirm domestication.

While on this subject I found mt DNA study that suggests the horse was domesticated in multiple locations; Asia, Europe and Iberia/NW Africa.

Mitochondrial DNA and the origins of the domestic horse.

The place and date of the domestication of the horse has long been a matter for debate among archaeologists. To determine whether horses were domesticated from one or several ancestral horse populations, we sequenced the mitochondrial D-loop for 318 horses from 25 oriental and European breeds, including American mustangs. Adding these sequences to previously published data, the total comes to 652, the largest currently available database. From these sequences, a phylogenetic network was constructed that showed that most of the 93 different mitochondrial (mt)DNA types grouped into 17 distinct phylogenetic clusters. Several of the clusters correspond to breeds and/or geographic areas, notably cluster A2, which is specific to Przewalski’s horses, cluster C1, which is distinctive for northern European ponies, and cluster D1, which is well represented in Iberian and northwest African breeds. A consideration of the horse mtDNA mutation rate together with the archaeological time frame for domestication requires at least 77 successfully breeding mares recruited from the wild. The extensive genetic diversity of these 77 ancestral mares leads us to conclude that several distinct horse populations were involved in the domestication of the horse.

The Aurignacian domestication of the dog.

The Goyet dog.



A few months ago during my reading up on domesticates, I posted a piece on how the mt DNA of modern dogs was 15,000 years old and traced back to China. Well, it seem that this was premature, or at best only half the picture. A study of mulitple ancient canid remains concluded that one Belgian specimen from Goyet wasn’t a wolf, but was sufficiently different to be recognised as a dog. At a staggering 31,700 years old. The oldest domesticated animal known, as far as I know at least. Prior to this the oldest domesticate was also a dog, but Russian and 14,000 years old.


Skulls compared. A: Goyet dog, B: dog, C: wolf.

The Paleolithic dogs had wider and shorter snouts and relatively wider brain cases than fossil and recent wolves. They are described as-being Husky like, but the size of large shepherd dogs. A real mans dog. I’m guessing it’s main functions were hunting and guarding the home. 

From what I’ve read of the Belyaev foxes, it only takes 20 generations to fully domesticate (10 to usable levels) a wild animal.

The discrepancy between the mt DNA and the fossil evidence (don’t get me started) is explained by this publication; Ancient DNA supports lineage replacement in European dog gene pool: insight into Neolithic South-East France, which suggests that the older Mt DNA lineages have a very different frequency, and suggesting that some were lost altogether, saying that..

Altogether, these results support the proposition that palaeogenetic studies are essential for the reconstruction of the past demographic history and the domestication process of dogs.

Which would explain why their mt DNA seems to have ‘got lost’. Prior to this I put down claims of Aurignacian dogs as a bit far fetched, but it seems they may be true. One passage, that I’ve lifted straight from John Hawks, read..

Ancient, 26,000-year-old footprints made by a child and a dog at Chauvet Cave, France, support the pet notion. Torch wipes accompanying the prints indicate the child held a torch while navigating the dark corridors accompanied by a dog

Apparently he’d never heard of this either, which means the rest of us shouldn’t feel bad about not knowing it.