Thursday 21 February 2013

Earlier sorghum in Sudan

I have recently been made aware of a small report in Nyame Akuma on Kasala (northeast Sudan), where Italian researchers have restarted research which can be regarded as following on from the 1980s survey headed by R. Fattovich. The new work has included the study of some plant impressions in ceramics published as "Sorghum exploitation at Kasala and its environs, North Eastern Sudan in the Second and First Millennium BC" by Alemseged Beldados and Lorenzo Constantini in Nyame Akuma vol. 75. As its title indicates this study does confirm the present of Sorghum bicolor, plausibly (but not definitively) domesticated, in ceramics from the site of Mahal Teglinos and some from near by survey collections. It reports examination of 25 sherds of which 11 from Teglinos and 11 from survey have sorghum.

As many will know I have been critical of some previous sorghum identification from impressions, in particular coming out the lab in Rome (most infamously those from Oman and Yemen). As a result, in various tallies of early sorghum I have always regarded the 1980s report of Sorghum of the Kasala region survey as requiring a big question mark next to it (e.g. "The economic basis of the Qustul splinter state"). The sorghum here, at least in fig 4, looks legitimate. The suggestion that grains shape (narrow versus wide) can be used to identify both wild and domesticated sorghum is more problematic. Meroitic Umm Nuri produced very very thin but apparently domesticated sorghum (published by me in Sudan and Nubia 2004).What is really needed is clean views of spikelet bases (for wild versus domesticated hulled forms) or evidence for still attached rachillae (especially in free-threshing forms).

I now believe that sorghum is there in Kasala, dated by ceramics (Mokram group) and association to 1500-500 BC. This is important news, as it takes sorghum earlier probably than any of the find in the Nile Valley, which are mainly Meroitic, and with possibly earlier Napatan sorghum at Kawa (in Sudan and Nubian 2004). This is a relief given that it is India before this time by at least a couple of centuries, and maybe more (for an updated review of early African crops in South Asia see by papers in Nicole Boivin, either that in J. World Prehistory on Arabia, or the Etudes Ocean Indien paper [in English]).

Some of the other identifications, notably cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) reported from one impression remain unconvincing, at least as photographed, and I really cannot except them on this sort of evidence. I would also expect pulse seeds to make poor temper for pottery. While we might expect this species in this region and period, as it was in cultivation prior to 1500 BC in West Africa and had arrived in India too by this time, I'll await more convincing evidence.

It is a pity high quality imaging, especially SEMs, were not made of the casts as, then one could see finer details of morphology like characteristic hairs, etc., that really clinch an ID. (See, for example the unicellular  e.g. w&v in the images from the Essouk archaeobotanical report, also a rachis stalk which suggests it is domesticated).

Also tantalizing is the evidence for millet, Setaria, impressions in 3 sherds. As illustrated, one could also propose a Bracharia and we really need better resolution SEMs and husk comparisons to get this to species level. Nevertheless it is plausibly a fit for S. sphaceleata, which is of particular interest as the  "lost" millet of Nubia,which we have evidence for cultivation of from Napatan to Medieval times (Kawa, Qasr Ibrim, Nauri). The origins and history of this lost millet of Nubia really needs to be chased down. It has gone extinct from Nubia in the past millennium, replaced by Setaria italica.

(Thanks to Mike Brass for bringing this paper to my attention)

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Unravelling agricultural packages

Two recent studies, one for the west and and one for the east, illustrate how crop packages unravel and become less diverse as they spread. The spread of agriculture is so often presented as a processing of unfolding, like a blanket being stretched from the point of origin outwards. This is especially true of the spread of Near Eastern agriculture, a truly diversified crop package of cereals (multiple kinds of wheat and barley, pulses, flax, plus livestock). But when the spread of agriculture is examined in detail, it is clear that crop species and varieties drop out along the way, and those which do make it probably become less genetically diverse. A recent database analysis of Neolithic Ireland illustrates the extreme western edge of Neolithic dispersal from western Asia. Published by Meriel McClatchie (whose PhD hails from here at UCL) and various collaborators (including UCL colleague, Sue Colledge), has been published in Journal of Archaeological Science, "Neolithic farming in north-western Europe: archaeobotanical evidence from Ireland" . This study demonstrates the clear pattern of quantitative reduction in most crops in Neolithic Ireland compared with elsewhere in Europe. Emmer wheat, virtually no einkorn (and one has to ask how securely identified any einkorn was), naked barley and a bit of flax-- that pretty much sums up Neolithic Ireland, in contrast to the 8 "founder crops" that are meant to characterize the start of agricultural dispersal from the Near East. 

A similar barley and wheat (with a dash of flax) characterizes the UK early Neolithic, which like Ireland see the dramatic introduction of cereal farming shortly after 4000 BC. As recently suggested in the study of radiocarbon dates from the UK (Stevens and Fuller in Antiquity, Sept 2012). One looks forward to further Irish Analyses to see whether the collapse of Neolithic cereal farming that Chris Stevens and I see in the England and Scotland cereal data also held true in Ireland.

This parallels what we see in the East, in India for example, which has recently been mapped in the paper I co-wrote with Nicole Boivin and Alison Crowther, "Old World Globalization and the Colombian Exchange: comparions and contrast." In South Asia wheats (including glume and free-threshing), barley, several pulses and flax, all seem to be important on the Indus Valley, but this package becomes less frequent and less stable as one moves into "inner" India. Sure enough wheat and barley make it both eastwards to Bihar and south to Karnataka, but generally with a strong preference for barley few or no pulses. In China only select wheat, and rarely barley, makes any showing at all, and there wheat is quantitatively negligible. This highlights that in some cases the caloric and subsistence needs are not likely to be served by the introduced cereals from the Near East. Some years ago I made the case (Antiquity 2005) that wheat and barley in Southern India might also have been status crops, used perhaps for beer, rather than as staples. One can ask the question as to what extent some the westernmost spread of cereals in Europe was as much about preferred foodstuffs rather than subsistence necessity when wild sources like hazelnuts were still so readily used and available?

There are broad similarities but also differences in the outward spread of crops from the Fertile Crescent. While in India and China this spread is seen largely in terms of the adoption of crops by local populations, in western Europe there is evidence for a greater role of migration. While in India we tend to attribute this to the local importance of other crops, Brachiaria ramosa and mungbean in the south or rice in the Ganges, that was clearly not the case in Ireland. So I wonder if we are seeing both the effects of crossing ecological frontiers, perhaps quicker than some crops can adapt, or beyond which some crops just can not adapt. Northern Europe certainly presented great challenges to agriculture, highlighted in its extreme margins such as Norway, but also in Britain by the apparent abandonment of cereals in the later Neolithic, perhaps as temperature retreated somewhat (Stevens and Fuller 2012). Monsoon Asia was not the most suited to the Near Eastern crops either, which also points towards social rather than caloric drivers in crop spread. In another parallel with distant Britain the agriculture and sedentism in parts of the Deccan, most clearly in western Maharashtra, where wheat and barley were quite prominent, appear to have collapsed and possible were abandoned over a wide area (in this case around 1200-1000 BC at the end of the Jorwe period).

Both of these studies show the importance of larger regional datasets, in which broad patterns are often visible even with simple quantification. This broad patterns raise questions that in turn call for more intensive sampling and local studies to work out wheat is actually happening at the periods of intial adoption or abandonment. What is missing currently is more usable data from the middle, Central Asia, the Iranian plateau, etc., so that archaeobotanical databases can become truly continental across all of Eurasia.