North African Neolithic Hunter-Gatherers Eschewed Domestic Grains for Wild Plants
A community of cave dwellers in North Africa apparently resisted switching over to pure agriculture and instead continued gathering highly nutritional wild grass seeds and other wild plants for many years after the beginning of the agricultural revolution. New research says that though they had domesticated sheep and goats, they may have resisted planting crops to avoid reliance on limited food sources such as crops, which could be prone to failure.
The people who lived in a huge cave in an area of western Egypt and northern Libya 8,800 to 5,000 years ago probably had access to domesticated grain. But a research team analyzed stone grinding tools from the Haua Fteah cave in Libya and found residue of wild plants on them. Another researcher working in the cave, which was inhabited for about 80,000 years, also found evidence the people there ate wild plants.
Conversely, around 11,000 years ago nomads in the Near East started settling down and leaving behind their existence as hunter-gatherers to become farmers and exploit domesticated animals and crops.
“The research [Giulio] Lucarini is carrying out in Northern Libya and Western Egypt is increasingly revealing a contrasting scenario for the North African regions,” says a press release from Dr. Lucarini’s institution, Cambridge University. Dr. Lucarini and his colleagues used high-powered microscopes to analyze the stone grinding tools.
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Dr. Lucarini is with Cambridge’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. He and a couple of other researchers published a new paper this week in the journal Quaternary International that says the wild-plant residues date to a time when people of the region probably would have had contact with farmers and could have borrowed agricultural ideas from them. Further, analysis of plant remains done by another researcher whom they cite, showed that only wild plants were in use at Haua Fteah cave during the Neolithic period.
“Together, this evidence suggests that domesticated varieties of grain were adopted late, spasmodically, and not before classical times, by people who lived in tune with their surroundings as they moved seasonally between naturally available resources,” the press release states.
The entrance to Haua Fteah cave in Libya. (Giulio Lucarini)
Dr. Lucarini and colleagues examined the shape and size of the starch found in the grinders’ crevices and compared them to wild and domestic plant varieties from North Africa and Southern Europe. They concluded the residues were probably from a Cenchrinae grass. Cenchrus grasses are still gathered by several African groups if they have no other food sources. Cenchrus grass is difficult to work with because it is prickly and hard to extract seeds, but it is nutritious, the press release says.
“Haua Fteah is only a kilometer [0.62 miles] from the Mediterranean and close to well-established coastal routes, giving communities there access to commodities such as domesticated grain, or at least the possibility to cultivate them. Yet it seems that people living in the Jebel Akhdar region may well have made a strategic and deliberate choice not to adopt the new farming practices available to them, despite the promise of higher yields but, instead, to integrate them into their existing practices,” Lucarini said.
Cenchrus grass (Plantillustrations.org)
Dr. Lucarina assets that his research of the grinders from Haua Fteah confirms recent theories that adoption of domesticated species in North Africa was not to replace exploitation of wild resources but rather to supplement them. He believes that North African communities may have delayed a move to domestic grains because they had a highly mobile lifestyle. Plus by continuing to exploit wild crops, they were not relying on a single resource that could be prone to failure. As he explained:
“It's an example of the English idiom of not putting all your eggs in one basket. Rather than being ‘backward’ in their thinking, these nomadic people were highly sophisticated in their pragmatism and deep understanding of plants, animals and climatic conditions.”
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“Archaeologists talk about a 'Neolithic package'—made up of domestic plants and animals, tools and techniques—that transformed lifestyles. Our research suggests that what happened at Haua Fteah was that people opted for a mixed bag of old and new. The gathering of wild plants as well as the keeping of domestic sheep and goats chime with continued exploitation of other wild resources—such as land and sea snails—which were available on a seasonal basis with levels depending on shifts in climatic conditions,” Lucarina concluded.
The political situation in Libya is such that the researchers have had to suspend excavations at the Haua Fteah cave for now, even though only a fraction of it has been examined. For example, they haven’t yet found the surfaces upon which the people used the grinders to prepare the food. The recent research has been done in laboratories with high-powered microscopes.
Dr. Giulio Lucarini analyzing the artifacts at the microscope. (Aude Gräzer Ohara)
Featured image: Cenchrinae starch granules from the Haua Fteah cave and from a modern variety; Cenchrinae is a type of grass used as food in Africa. (Anita Radini) and an upper grinder found in the Haua Fteah cave, Libya (Giulio Lucarini)
By: Mark Miller