Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Early use and spread of domesticated animals

It's a very slow news day today, so here are a couple of off-topic items to keep you going:

Just when
did the cows come home?

The Jerusalem Post

Until now, researchers thought that the processing, storage and use of domesticated cow, sheep and goats' milk in the Middle East and the Balkans began around 5,000 BCE. But now an international team of archeologists, including an Israeli from the Hebrew University, have concluded on the basis of milk residue in over 2,200 pottery vessels from the area that it goes back 2,000 more years.

Dr. Yossef Garfinkel of HU's archeology institute and colleagues in the UK, the US, the Netherlands, Greece, Turkey and Romania published their findings in a recent issue of Nature. The authors note that "the domestication of cattle, sheep and goats had already taken place in the Near East" by the eighth millennium BCE. "Although there would have been considerable economic and nutritional gains from using these animals for their milk and other products..., the first clear evidence for this appears much later, from the late fifth and fourth millennium. Hence, the timing and region in which milking was first practiced remain unknown."

But the scientists examined thousands of pottery vessels from the Middle East and southeastern Europe that were created seven to nine thousand years ago and found clear organic evidence that they contained milk lipids from domesticated animals.

The use of domesticated animals for milk, wool and pulling without killing them for meat "marks an important step in the history of domestication," they write. Some researchers have argued that as soon as animals are domesticated, the benefits of these products would have been exploited rapidly; others suggested that the lack of early evidence of arts, plows and milking scenes shows that domesticated animals were first exploited mostly for meat and hides.

Evidence of milk lipids on the pottery at Shikmim and Sha'ar Hagolan in Israel showed that dairy products were consumed here between the seventh and fourth millennia BCE, the article reported. The earliest use was in Turkey.

"Organic residues preserved in pottery not only extend the history, but show that milking was particularly important in areas more favorable to cattle, compared to other regions where sheep and goats were more common," they concluded.

How the first farmers colonized the Mediterranean

Visual Science

Many thanks to Jan Picton for sending this one to me. The article is accompanied by an excellent map.

The invention of agriculture was a pivotal event in human history, but archaeologists studying its origins may have made a simple error in dating the domestication of animals like sheep and goats. The signal of the process, they believed, was the first appearance in the archaeological record of smaller boned animals. But in fact this reflects just a switch to culling females, which are smaller than males, concludes Melinda Zeder, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution.

Using a different criterion, that of when herds first show signs of human management, Dr. Zeder finds that goats and sheep were first domesticated about 11,000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought, with pigs and cattle following shortly afterwards. The map, from her article in the August 11 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows the regions and dates where the four species were first domesticated. Other dates, color-coded as to species, show where domesticated animals first appear elsewhere in the Fertile Crescent.

The earlier dates mean that animals were domesticated at much the same time as crop plants, and bear on the issue of how this ensemble of new agricultural species – the farming package known as the Neolithic revolution – spread from the Near East to Europe.

Some experts say the technology spread by cultural diffusion, others that the first farmers themselves moved into Europe, bringing their new technology with them and displacing the resident hunter gatherers.

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