The aim of this article is two-fold; to help show the effects of an integrated multidisciplinary approach in studying and understanding the Mesolithic–Neolithic transition, and a discussion on the several issues that the transition had on selected archaeological sites and cultures. Thus the article will limit itself in scope, with discussion of two European cultures and a Japanese culture, which will help to highlight the different techniques and approaches used in understanding the nuances in the archaeological record.
Key Words: Mesolithic, Neolithic, Osteology, Palaeoenvironmental, Europe, Japan, Agriculture, Palaeopathology, Stable Isotopes, Ethnography.
The transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to farming, as means for a stable food return, varies enormously depending on which cultures are under discussion and investigation. Nor was this fundamental transitional period an immediate or permanent change in lifestyle; the boundaries between the Mesolithic and Neolithic are becoming ever more blurred as new evidence comes to light (Price 2000: 4). As Zvelebil (1986: 13) notes, ‘The adoption of farming must have had a number of causes which were variable from region to region and were contingent on the region environmental and socio-economic conditions’. This is manifest in the long duration of the ever changing archaeological record.
The LBK Across the Central European Plain
For our first culture under discussion we shall turn to the Linearbandkeramik culture (LBK) of the Central European Plain. The predominant impulse of the spread of the LBK has been pinpointed and dated from 5700 BC to 4500 BC, and has its origins ascertained to the Middle Danube, and tributaries in Hungary (Scarre 2005: 407). Throughout the LBK culture it has been noted that the sites are often found on fertile loess soils of the CEP as they provided the optimal growing conditions for agricultural use. This, Price notes, is in contrast to the ‘Mesolithic foragers (who) were (more) concentrated in marine, riverine and rich lacustrine environments’ and that ‘recent surveys in the interior European basins have failed to reveal substantial Mesolithic remains’ (Price 2000: 5). The numerous LBK settlements, often located in fertile forest clearings, are very similar in both structural and material remains which suggests a relatively strong cultural coherence which ‘colonised’ its way across central Europe(although this has recently been debated). There is also suggestion in the LBK of a movement from a communal to a later household level of organisation, as the long houses excavated are unique familiar units in the typical village layout (Keeley 1992: 86). It must be noted however there were regional differences in lithic, ceramic and dietary choices within the composition of the LBK culture.
There is also evidence of violence in neighbouring LBK groups from osteological analysis of human remains at the both Talheim site in Southern Germany, Herxheim in SE Germany and the LBK site of Schletz in Eastern Austria, suggesting cultural in-fighting. The evidence points towards LBK inflicted weaponry injury, and not between foraging or other farming groups, alongside selected targeting of the male population (Scarre 2005: 411). Violence, it seems, is endemic to human populations throughout the course of human history. The geographical predisposition for farming and intensive adaptation of fertile land for farming settlements themselves presents a key development in the nature of land use by human societies in the spread of European agriculture. Interestingly the spread laterally across the European central plain is in contrast to the later up take of agriculture around the eastern Baltic and western Russia in 3500 BC, where biologically wild resources were still heavily used up until the 3rd millennium BC (Price 2000: 16, Zvelebil & Lillie 2000).
The Jomon and Yayoi Cultures of Japan
Not all societies were exposed to agriculture so quickly, as is evident throughout the Jomon period in Japan. Lasting roughly from 14,000 BC to 300 BC, the Jomon culture has evidence for the earliest use of pottery in the world, and made extensive use of the large variety of environments in the Japanese archipelago (Akazawa 1986, Kaner & Ishikawa 2007, Mithen 2003). This culture has been classed as largely hunter-gather-forager in lifestyle, until roughly the Yayoi period around 300 BC, when the adoption to agriculture was fully implemented with intensive rice agriculture, weaving and the introduction of metallurgy (Mays 1998: 90). There has long been discussion as to whether the Yayoi culture were settlers from mainland Asia who explicitly brought agriculture to the Jomon of Japan, as an integration model, or if the Yayoi superseded the Jomon as propagators of agriculture (Akazawa 1986, Kaner & Ishikawa 2007, Mays 1998). Studies have been carried out on the measurements of skull morphology, in particular in the study of the modern-day aboriginal Ainu people located in Hokkaido, a large island north of mainland Japan, who maintain they are the Jomon’s descendents. Craniometric and multivariate analysis of human skeletal measurements have led to results that indicate that the Jomon are distinctive in head shape from the Yayoi, whilst they share distinct similarities with the modern-day Ainu population (Akazawa 1986: 151, Mays: 90). This has led to theories that population pressures have pushed the Jomon northwards up through Japan to the modern day island of Hokkaido, whilst the Yayoi immigration wave helped to spread agriculture across Japan.
The importance of this work highlights the movement of the adaptation of agriculture in a relatively late time frame, in comparison to mainland Asia and Europe. Palaeoenvironmental evidence suggests the richness and diversity of the Japanese archipelago, with heavy densities of the Jomon population in 3500 BC located in central and eastern Japan (Kaner & Ishikawa 2007: 2). Stable village sites with pits dwellings, storage areas and burial facilities have been excavated and studied, yet there is only a hint of cultivating nuts and plants. Yet it also has to be noted that Akazawa (1986: 163) points out that
‘rice cultivation would seem redundant to those Jomon societies whose procurement was regulated by year round demands of different major food gathering activities whereas it would seem attractive to those Jomon societies characterised by a simple food procurement system, supported by a single major food gathering activity’.
Ongoing date conflicts with the Accelerated Mass Spectrometry results from human and animal bone have resulted in suggestions for the impact of the Yayoi culture to be pushed back to 1000 BC or 900 BC. However, the results from sites located on coastal areas could be contaminated with the ‘marine radiocarbon reservoir effect’, a natural distortion of radiocarbon dates by the dissolving of calcium carbonate, which could thus require a possible need to recalibrate existing dates (Kaner & Ishikawa 2007: 4). The outcome of the timing of adoption of agriculture in the Late Jomon/Yayoi period is still hotly debated, as outlined by a few issues discussed above. Yet the archaeological evidence presents a hunter gather society managing to thrive without agriculture in a range of diverse environments, until later cultural re-adjustment and migrations of people came into contact with the existing Jomon culture, and fostered a change towards widespread rice agriculture (Akazawa 1986, Mays 1998).
Portuguese Mesolithic to Neolithic Changes on the Atlantic Coast
Moving on to the Portuguese Atlantic coast, the evidence points to a different motivation in the timing for the implementation of agriculture. Stable isotopic analysis and the dental attrition rate of a number of skeletons have revealed a great variety of information regarding the diet, and changes during the Mesolithic to Neolithic transition. Work carried out by Lubell et al (at the Moita do Sebastiao, Melides and Fontainhas Roche Forte II sites in SE Portugal) demonstrate a gradual dietary change; from a mixture of terrestrial and marine resources in the Mesolithic to a diet more dependent on terrestrial food in the Neolithic (Lubell et al 1994). The date for this transition has been dated to around 5000 BC in central Portugal, with initiation of change beginning around 6000 BC, possibly even 7000 BC (Lubell et al 1994: 201). This indication of change in food origin is a feature of the ‘Neolithic package’; but as we have seen with the Jomon culture, key indicators of the Neolithic (such as pottery and long-term village sites) do not always show a movement or adoption towards full-blown agriculture. This key concept, of the ‘Neolithic’ package, is being reassessed as new evidence blurs this important transitional period in the development of humanity (Zvelebil 1986).
So what other evidence is present in Portugal? Zvelebil and Rowley-Conwy (1986: 68) note the continuing Mesolithic economy, with large shell middens present on the River Muge located at Cabeco da Amoreira and Cabeco da Arruda. Palaeoenvironmental evidence indicates that they were located near shallow lagoon and estuary type environments, with the shell middens themselves dating back to mid 4000 BC with long periods of use. Evidence has also been recorded of middens of fauna present with remains of auroch, roe deer,red deer, badger and lynx found, suggesting a rich environment of availability. Evidence of cemeteries include those found at the above sites alongside Moita do Sebastiao, with evidence pointing towards a ‘probable increased group size and (increase in) social complexity’ (Zvelebil & Rowley-Conwy 1986: 68). This suggests socially and economically complex hunter gatherer communities near the Atlantic coast, with a dependence on seasonal marine resources. The use of cemeteries and long-lived sites suggests greater sedentism which could have opened the hunter gatherers up to pre-adaption of agriculture.
The early conservatism of the Mesolithic population is noted by the choices of marine and some terrestrial food illustrated by the narrow nitrogen isotopic range from stable light isotope studies carried out, along with a homogenous diet recorded in the earlier middens. This is in later contrast to the wider range of carbon and nitrogen isotope averages, and the broader range of molar attrition recorded in the Neolithic skeletons, which suggests greater inclusion of terrestrial foodstuffs into the diet (Lubell et al 1994: 213). The timing of the adoption to agriculture was culturally defined in this locality, and Lubell et al concludes that the Neolithic was ‘an intensification of a trend which started as an adjustment of food supply during an earlier period of sea level, climatic and vegetation change’ (Lubell et al 1994: 214). This, with the above evidence cited drove the long-term changes and adoption to farming, as it was culturally embraced, implemented and practised as the trend continued.
Throughout this discussion it has become clear that the mechanics of the transitional period are various, and too diverse to fully discuss here. Inevitably different timings of the adoption occur throughout the world; not one single cause can be suggested for the emergence of agriculture (Lubell et al 1994, Price 2000, Scarre 2005, Zvelebil & Lillie 2000). It is the amalgamation of a multidisciplinary investigation that helps to clearly define and produce a record of this key prehistoric period and its outcomes for the human population, and it is hoped that this article shows but a small part of that effort.
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