Tag Archives: Origin of Agriculture

Future Farms Will Be Run By Robots

I have a love-hate relationship with farmers. I have a great deal of respect for the enterprise and for those who dedicate their lives to it. But, I also become annoyed at the culture in which modern American farming embeds itself. And, I don’t feel a lot of reticence talking openly about that.

Having done plenty of farming myself, I don’t feel the need that so many others do to be extra nice to farmers out of lack of understanding. I know when the farmers complain about too little or too much rain, they are studiously ignoring the fact that if it is harder to plant or harvest, they make out like bandits with the price of their product. Farmers talk about how hard that life is, and yes, it is indeed very hard, but they seem to not mention that a typical large scale farm these days (as most farms are) is a multi tens of millions of dollars business sitting on enormously valuable land. Whenever things go really wrong with farms in the US, they get help. As it is now, we have some of the most bone-headed agricultural policies ever invented mainly to keep farmers happy, because so many US Congressional districts span vast farmland and little else.

And what does America get back for giving farmers so much help in producing a product that we have no choice but to buy? We get a lot of crap. Red counties are farm counties. Red districts give us a Republican House. Farmers mainly backed trump, even though Trump policies are almost all bad for almost all farmers.

As a brief aside, and to illustrate the disconnect between farmer culture and actual farmer self interest, I can give you this example.

Have you ever heard of Mexican cheese? Or, more to the point, have you ever been to Mexico, and then, while there, had some cheese? That cheese might have been made in Mexico, but they don’t really make cheese in Mexico. Most of the cheese eaten there is imported. From where? From Wisconsin. Nowhere else. Why? Because of Clinton’s trade policies. Clinton made a bunch of sweet deals for American farmers and that was one of them. Rural farmers in Wisconsin voted for Trump, and Trump was the guy who was going to end NAFTA (and still might, who knows?). NAFTA keeps Wisconsin dairy and cheese in business. Get rid of NAFTA, Wisconsin becomes the West Virginia of cheese. Why? Because Mexico would rather buy its cheese from South America because it is cheaper, and the moment the Wisconsin dairy industry is not propped up by NAFTA, the free market takes over and California ends Wisconsin agriculture.

Look around the world. Farmers are taking it in the neck in many other countries, often because of the very climate change so many farmers pretend to believe is a hoax. But not in countries that take care of their farmers. America takes care of its farmers. And at every opportunity, the farmers screw over America.

Therefore, perhaps it will be with great pleasure that Modern Civilization advances to the next level. Robot farmers.

Hands Free Hectare is a project run by Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions Inc. The idea is to develop robots that will plant, tend, and harvest crops.

Now, of course, there will still be farmers, but fewer. So few, perhaps, that most people who are all “oh, I’m a poor farmer, living out in the farmlands, help me help me,” can stop whinging and move to the city. A small number of technologists, mostly the children of former Mexican migrant workers because immigrants or the children of recent immigrants or migrants are the only people in America who still have ambition, will learn the technology and run the farms and, we hope, keep the robots happy and busy.

Anyway, HFHa, as it calls itself, has been at this a while, and the latest iteration involved a major harvest of barley without humans touching anything but buttons and software. HFHa robot expert Martin Abell working for Precision Decisions, noted “This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now and we’ve done that. We achieved this on an impressively low budget [and] we used machinery that was readily available for farmers to buy; open source technology; and an autopilot from a drone for the navigation system.”

Notably, much of the large equipment used was decades old, with the new technology added to it.

Here is the site for Hands Free Hectare, which is a British enterprise.

I for one welcome our new farmer-robot overlords.

The Hydraulic Hypothesis and the End of Civilization

OK, I admit the title of this post is possibly a bit extreme but I could not resist the symmetry. Here, I refer to both ends of civilization, the start and the finish.

I’d like to talk about a recent review published in Science, titled “Systems integration for global sustainability” written by my colleague Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute together with Jiangou Liu, Harold Mooney, Vanessa Hull, Steven Davis, Joane Gaskell, Thomas Hertel, Jane Lubchenco, Karent Seto, Claire Kremen and Shuxin Li. But I want to put this paper in a broader perspective, dipping into my training as an archaeologist. But first a relevant digression.

The so called “Hydraulic Hypothesis” is an idea first fully characterized by the historian Karl Wittfogel. His original idea was part of a larger model for the origin of civilization that we see today as having several problematic aspects, but the key idea is still valid. If agriculture is the basis for a society, and it is carried out in a semi-arid region, then the management of water through various forms of irrigation and the centralized control of the agricultural cycle lends itself to centralized despotic leadership. or at least, some kid of cultural and social change allowing for organized effort to predominate over individual self interest. (In fact irrigation based systems have emerged without despotic leadership, and complex society has emerged absent a hydraulic beginning, so this is an oversimplification, just so you know.) But in its simplest form we can correctly say that the emergence of stratified, hierarchic, complexly organized societies was often linked in no small part to the emergence of organizational (and technological) solutions to growing food where there is not enough rain at the right time of year. There is a great advantage to growing food in this manner. The crops become, in essence, invasive species, because human activity provides the crops with a leg up on all the other plants in the region. A plant that in wild form is found primarily in limited microhabitats, out competed everywhere else by more arid-adapted plants, suddenly has a free ride across a vast landscape. Despite the fact that the Hydraulic Hypothesis is an oversimplification, we can appreciate the fact that the beginnings of human “civilization” (as a social and economic system, which we retain today by and large) is linked partially but importantly to managing water to grow food.

At present the news story that never fails to occupy the front page is ISIS, the Islamic State, making a nuisance of itself in Syria and Iraq. It is generally thought that ISIS emerged in large part because of the quasi-failure of Syria. Syria transited from being a run of the mill Middle Eastern Kingdom with some powerful connections to a quasi-failed state for a number of reasons, but one of the big factors turns out to be water. Or, really, lack thereof. In a recently published paper (not the one in Science mentioned above), Peter Gleick made this point:

The Syrian conflict that began in 2012 has many roots, including long-standing political, religious, and social ideological disputes; economic dislocations from both global and regional factors; and worsening environmental conditions. … key environmental factors include both direct and indirect consequences of water shortages, ineffective watershed management, and the impacts of climate variability and change on regional hydrology. Severe multiyear drought beginning in the mid-2000s, combined with inefficient and often unmodernized irrigation systems and water abstractions by other parties in the eastern Mediterranean, including especially Syria, contributed to the displacement of large populations from rural to urban centers, food insecurity for more than a million people, and increased unemployment—with subsequent effects on political stability. There is some evidence that the recent drought is an early indicator of the climatic changes that are expected for the region, including higher temperature, decreased basin rainfall and runoff, and increased water scarcity. Absent any efforts to address population growth rates, these water-related factors are likely to produce even greater risks of local and regional political instability, unless other mechanisms for reducing water insecurity can be identified and implemented.

Two key graphics from Gleick’s paper demonstrate the role of climate change. First, the drop in available water due to decreased rainfall and, probably, increased evaporation:

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 8.22.09 AM

Second, the decrease in annual average discharge of a key river in the region:

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 8.23.28 AM

Adaptation to an arid environment allowed the development of agriculture, and required the development of complex states, thousands of years ago, in this region. Subsequent increases and decreases in aridity and other natural climate factors have been recognized as creating local collapses around the Mediterranean during subsequent millennia. But now, climate change (together with the other factors Gleick mentions) has pushed the system over the edge. Thousands of years of technological adaptation and cultural evolution to address the problem of growing grains and orchards in dry country together with modern technology to the extent it has been applied have been insufficient to allow the system to continue in some localities, and everything we know about climate change strongly suggests that this is going to get worse, eventually encompassing the entire region. Expect most of the Middle East to become a client region for global agricultural production over the next decade or two. The term Arab Spring is deeply ironic; the spring is running dry.

So this is how the Hydraulic Hypothesis bookends civilization. Cultural technological management of limited or badly timed natural water were adaptations to semi-arid climate conditions and contributed to the development of what we call civilization. As climate conditions shift to the point where these adaptations become unreliable, the system fails. And, the failure is in part because of prior success. As a highly integrated but organic system it is unable to manage deep and causative change. If Vulcans ran the Earth, the Syrian farmers would have been, logically, put on some sort of dole and eventually retasked, and there would not have been a civil war. But since we rely so much on organic system evolution (which includes in part the much vaunted “free market”) that is not what happened.

The review in Science addresses the large scale system dynamics. From the paper:

Global sustainability challenges, from maintaining biodiversity to providing clean air and water, are closely interconnected yet often separately studied and managed. Systems integration—holistic approaches to integrating various components of coupled human and natural systems—is critical to understand socioeconomic and environmental interconnections and to create sustainability solutions. Recent advances include the development and quantification of integrated frameworks that incorporate ecosystem services, environmental footprints, planetary boundaries, human-nature nexuses, and telecoupling. Although systems integration has led to fundamental discoveries and practical applications, further efforts are needed to incorporate more human and natural components simultaneously, quantify spillover systems and feedbacks, integrate multiple spatial and temporal scales, develop new tools, and translate findings into policy and practice. Such efforts can help address important knowledge gaps, link seemingly unconnected challenges, and inform policy and management decisions.

The study focuses on biofuels and “virtual water” to illustrate the broader concepts. Since we’re talking about Hydraulic adaptation at the beginning and end (maybe) of human civilization, let’s look more closely at the virtual water.

What is virtual water, you ask? Let’s say you and I are the farmers (there are no other farmers) and together we produce all of the food. We live in different places and the food gets traded back and forth. You may be surprised to hear that for every liter of water the people who live in our hypothetical two-farm world drink as refreshment, we farmers require something like 100 liters of water to match that in food (that is a very rough estimate). But the water requirement varies tremendously by the kind of food. Let’s say I grow wheat and you grow eggs. That means that every person-year of food (in terms of calories) that I grow requires a very small fraction of the water that you need to grow one person-year of calories. Plants generally require a fraction of the water that animal products require. Even among plants the differences are rather large.

So, if we trade wheat and eggs (I give you wheat and you give me eggs) evenly by calorie, than we are simultaneously trading water, but very unevenly. When I give you 1000 calories of wheat, I’m giving you something like 1000 liters of water, virtually. When you give me 1000 calories of eggs, you are giving me perhaps a million liters of water, virtually. If you are farming in a water rich region and I’m farming in a water poor region, that makes sense and it may even be the reason I grow wheat and you grow egg chickens. Or, if we started out with plentiful water relative to production in both regions, but your farms experience increasing aridity, there is now a pressure for us to change our virtual water trading practices. You should be growing some wheat and I should be growing some chickens.

Alternatively we could eat less animal product. Or, if you like you can experience a regional civil war in your part of the world and create a religious state that everybody hates. Whatever.

In real life, virtual water is quite complex. From the review:

The main virtual water exporters (sending systems) are water-rich regions in North and South America and Australia, whereas Mexico, Japan, China, and water-poor regions in Europe are the main importers (receiving systems)… Asia recently switched its virtual water imports from North America to South America. On the other hand, North America has engaged in an increased diversification of intraregional water trade while trading with distant countries in Asia. China has undergone a dramatic increase in virtual water imports since 2000, via products such as soybeans from Brazil (nearly doubling from 2001 to 2007 and amounting to 13% of the total global world water trade). The spatial shift in the use of soybean products in Brazil from domestic to international has led to water savings in other countries, but at the cost of deforestation in Brazilian Amazon. Within-country virtual water transfer is also common. For example, virtual water flow through grain trade from North China to South China goes in the opposite direction of real water transfer through large projects, such as the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, that aim to alleviate water shortages in North China.

Or, in the form of a picture, from the review:

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 8.51.07 AM

To me one of the key issues raised when taking a system level look, and this refers back directly to the Hydraulic Hypothesis, is the role of regulatory process and government. After all, we created these governments (as part of civilization) for the exact reason of managing the emerging complex system of agriculture (oversimplified again … and there were other reasons of course). So I asked Peter Gleick what he thought about the relationship between free market economics, regulation, and government (or higher level) involvement. He told me, “Free markets are both a solution and a problem. There is growing evidence that for a number of critical global challenges, government oversight and regulatory institutions are critically important to correct the failure of free markets. We encourage trade in goods and services worldwide, which has led to a remarkable trade in “virtual water” — the water required to make those goods and services. This is a good thing, in my opinion, because it permits countries that could never possibly be self sufficient in food because of insufficient water (most of the Middle East and North Africa) to use their limited water for higher valued economic activities and then buy food on the market. But the market failure here is that natural ecosystems do not compete or play a role in such “markets” — permitting the complete extinction of endemic fish from the Aral Sea to grow cotton in the Central Asian republics for export. I could give other examples of gross free market failures with global consequences (ozone hole, climate change). So, yes, balance markets with strong government regulatory oversight to protect public goods.”

This makes sense because of one of the things people almost always forget when it comes to market forces. The free market model assumes that the system is made up of “ideal free actors.” Ideal free does not mean free of ideals! (Maybe there should be a comma there.) The actors in the market are “ideal” in that they are identical in their access to information and ability to act on it, and they are free in the sense that there are no external constraints on those actions. So, ideal actors regulated (not free) do not make up a free market (that is the point usually made by Libertarians) but more often than not, the actors are not “ideal.” It is a major failure of integration of economics theory and social theory to place the non-ideal parts in the category of “external costs” and ignore them. One actor’s external costs is another actor’s non-idealness.

I also asked Gleick to elaborate on the relationship between regional collapse and the global system, as a means of integrating the two studies I cover above. He responded, “… can regional collapses influence or perturb global systems, rather than the other way around? I would argue for example that perturbed global systems are influencing regional collapses (for example, climate, drought, and Syria). A functioning global systems approach would have to be able to handle regional perturbations. Could you argue that the political collapse in the US Congress is a major barrier to a global systems approach to cut greenhouse gas emissions? Yes. But that US government failure can be bypassed by other mechanisms, as we’re seeing now with California’s cap/trade system; collaborative state efforts; federal efforts that bypass congressional constraints using other mechanisms.”

Peter Gleick has written up his own comments on the Science review, on his blog, here.

Citation: Liu, J. H. Mooney, V. Hull, S.J. Davis, J. Gaskell, T.Hertel, J. Lubchenco, K.C. Seto, P.H. Gleick, C. Kremen, S. Li. 2015. Systems Integration for Global Sustainability. Science, Vol. 347, No. 6225. 27 February 2015. DOI: 10.1126/science.1258832

Other posts of interest:

Also of interest: In Search of Sungudogo: A novel of adventure and mystery, set in the Congo.

Did you ever wonder how you are going to die?

I’m thinking it will be the food you eat that gets you. Here’s why.

Humans eat a wide variety of foods; as a species, the diversity of species we eat is greater than any other animal by a very large margin, with the only quirky exception being the animals that we take along with us, the commensals such as rats and cockroaches. Most primates eat a high diversity of foods, but about two million years ago or a bit less, according to the “Cooking Hypothesis” (which a lot of people think is correct) we took an already diverse primate diet and added to it anything we might encounter in the environment that could be made edible with heat and added that to our diet. More recently, beginning about 10,000 years ago, we applied additional technology and the new practice of plant husbandry to convert other foods, some edible some not, into more useful items for our diet. Humans around the world did this independently over several thousand years, in parallel.

Then we got boats that were capable of doing magical things like sailing up wind, and navigation technologies that allowed humans to be less lost when doing so over great distances. Some humans had done this much earlier at a smaller scale, but by the 15th century there were big wooden boats criss crossing the seas, bringing people to places they had never been before, and along with them the foods people ate all over the world.

Have you looked at photographs of traditional people living in traditional, seemingly timeless, ways in places like Africa, the Amazon, or New Guinea? Look again, and focus on the things that form the backdrop for the scenes shown in those photographs. One of the things you’ll see in many pictures is the plantain, or the banana. You might notice the huge elephant ear leaves of taro plants. If you look closely you might notice cassava growing in the fields, or maize.

Maize was domesticated in Mexico, taro, plantains, and bananas in various different locations across south and southeast Asia. Cassava comes from the lowlands of South America, and potatoes come from the Andes. Some Yams come from Africa, some from South America (I oversimplify a bit). You can’t find a modern traditional diet, as it were, that does not include ingredients from continents other than where the traditional diet lives today, except perhaps in Ethiopia. Everybody eats everybody else’s food all the time. The main determinant of where food is grown is not where it was first domesticated, but rather, the limitations of seasons, rainfall, heat and cold. And even there, the limitations are relaxed. Maize only grows in the colder regions because varieties have been developed to do so, and many plants are grown in regions normally too arid for them, by virtue of irrigation.

Adding all this up – the diverse primate diet, the addition of cooked foods otherwise not edible, the artificially selected crops, and the global exchange of horticultural goods and practices – and you get a huge variety of food, the largest variety of food any species has ever managed to include in its diet. (Other than the rats and cockroaches, of course.)

Despite all this diversity, something has remained more or less the same all along. The “traditional” diet for humans, though much altered with cooking, is relatively low quality. I use the term “low quality” in the way an ecologist uses it. How many usable calories do you get out of a kilo of the food item under consideration? Or, related, how much work do you, using food preparation, chewing, and digestion (including the work done by the friendly microbes living in your gut) to convert that kilo of food into energy?

It is easy to see how our traditional diets are low quality by comparing them to the diets of a handful of primates that live almost entirely off of insects, or tree sap, or nectar. If we look at birds, we see the same thing; many species of birds eat pure sugar of one form or another. A few other animals have very high quality diets. Generally, carnivores have higher quality diets than herbivores. There are no carnivores that use multiple stomachs or habitually regurgitates and re-consume their animal prey in order to digest it. Herbivores that eat grass or leaves spend a lot of time feeding, have massive digestive systems designed by natural selection to digest the hell out of the food, and sometimes they have to “eat” the same food multiple times to get enough energy out of it to survive. Humans are somewhere in between. Some of our digestion is done pre-consumption by cooking and processing, but for the most part our natural, traditional diet takes a fair amount of work to process. We don’t live off of sugar water like hummingbirds and many insects do.

And this is why the leading cause of death in the United States and some other countries has shifted from the usual panoply of causes – infectious disease, accident, homicide, etc. – to our diets. Our diet is the most likely thing to kill us, and lately, the primary mediating factor in this particular cause of death is obesity and/or diabetes.

The “traditional” diet of any group of people, as I’ve already outlined, is relatively recent historically, being the result of 10,000 years of developing plants and a few hundred years of transferring crops and growing methods across the world. That traditional diet was prominent globally through the 19th century and well into the 20th century. The food came from farms, and although many amazing novel technologies were being applied on those farms, such as better plows and various other things that could be drawn behind oxen, a team of ponies or horses, or a small tractor, those technologies did not change the diets too much.

But as technologies developed, farms began to scale up. This is the reason that the New England countryside is graced with young forests criss-crossed with quaint stone walls. Those stone walls were field boundaries in the old days. But as farming scaled up, it became economically inviable to have small fields on small farms. A few other things went wrong on some of these New England farms as well, including some climate glitches and some other economic effects that drove farmers off the land and in some cases into cities where there were jobs working in mills. But some of those farmers took part in the great Westward Migrations, as the country grew, and established a new kind of agriculture in the vast regions of the midwest and plaines.

Add a growing urban market for foods, government help in the form of extension and agricultural colleges, more technology such as combines, railroads to move produce to market, mills to process the produce, add some water (irrigation) as needed and salt to taste. It took decades, but we went from an agrarian economy where the same traditional diet we had been eating was produced on a somewhat larger scale, to an agricultural economy that produces mostly one single thing. This product:
Fresh Cold Cola with ice

OK, I’m exaggerating there. It isn’t really true that the entire US agricultural system has been converted over to the production of sugary drinks. But sometimes it seems that way. Vast expanses of corn are grown in the midwest and plains, and that corn is used to produce vast amounts of ethanol (as fuel), alcoholic beverages, sugary substances including cola, feed for animals, and some of it even makes it to the table as … well, corn. But lets step back to the original comparison of “traditional diet” and the diet many Americans eat today.

When you eat a traditional meal, a good amount of that food is low quality, relatively hard to digest, carbohydrates with a mix of proteins. There will be a little simple sugar here and there and a bit of fat here and there.

The simple sugars go right away to the liver, where they supplement the body’s immediate energy stores. The complex sugars, the carbohydrates that consist of much larger and more involved molecules, take time to digest and break down to eventually use as fuel. So the sugar gives you a small amount of immediate energy and the complex carbohydrates give you energy over the coming hours.

The fats are simply stored up. If you eat fat, the fat molecules are minimally processed, moved to your hips or wherever, and are pasted there for later use. Or, forever, depending.

When you eat a modern diet, it will have two major difference from the traditional diet. The foods at the two ends of that spectrum of availability will be in greater proportion. Instead of having a bunch of low quality food in the middle, with a little fat (for later) on one end of the spectrum, and a little simple sugar (for immediate use) on the other end of the spectrum, the modern diet will have piles of fat and piles of simple sugar and not much in between.

So, what happens? The fat goes where fat goes, as stated already, but there is more of it. The sugar overloads the liver, which detecting an overabundance of energy, converts the sugar to some form of storage, and some of that is fat that joins up with the other fat. There is also a kind of molecule the liver converts some of that sugar into, stored in your liver, for in case you get hungry between meals. That molecule reduces the chance your body will use any of that stored up fat as energy.

Two thousand traditional calories provides you with energy for now, energy for the next several hours, and a bit of energy for much later. Two thousand modern calories provides you with way more energy than you need for now, and a huge amount of fat that you’ll never use because you are never going to let much time go between meals. Because there is a fast food joint just down the street. And your refrigerator and cabinets are full of junk food.

And that’s not all. Our system of agriculture has all sorts of other negatives as well. The following is from the Food and Agriculture page of the Union of Concerned Scientists:

Food and Agriculture: Toward Healthy Food and Farms
Our agricultural system has lost its way.

Millions of acres of corn, soybeans, and other commodity crops, grown with the help of heavy government subsidies, dominate our rural landscapes.

To grow these crops, industrial farms use massive amounts of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, which deplete our soil and pollute our air and water.

Much of this harvest will end up as biofuels and other industrial products—and most of the rest will be used in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) or in heavily processed junk foods, which seem cheap only because their hidden costs don’t show up at the cash register.

Industrial agriculture is unhealthy — for our environment, our climate, our bodies, and our rural economies.

A Better Way: Sustainable Agriculture

There’s a better way to grow our food. Working with nature instead of against it, sustainable agriculture uses 21st-century techniques and technologies to implement time-tested ideas such as crop rotation, integrated plant/animal systems, and organic soil amendments.

Sustainable agriculture is less damaging to the environment than industrial agriculture, and produces a richer, more diverse mix of foods. It’s productive enough to feed the world, and efficient enough to succeed in the marketplace—but current U.S. agricultural policy stacks the deck in favor of industrial food production.

… and there is much much more than that, visit the page.

Yesterday, I went to a symposium hosted at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota and organized by the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. A description of the symposium is here and the entire thing was “taped” and will be available. I’m not going to tell you anything major about the symposium now; I’ll wait until the video is available, then I’ll provide you with my thoughts on it. For now I’ll just say it was quite good, eye-opening, and that you’ll definitely want to watch it. In fact, you should feel a little bad that you weren’t there.

Stay Tuned.

Seven Thousand Year Old African Dairy


Pastoralism is the practice of keeping and herding animals such as cattle, goats and sheep, and using the products they produce, including meat, hide, bone, horn and of course, dairy. In the old days, armchair archaeologists thought that pastoralism would have been a phase of cultural adaptation following hunting and gathering and preceding horticulture (the growing of plant crops). Why did they think that? No really good reason, just a guess. However, over time evidence came along and ideas where altered and minds were changed and now it is generally thought that in Europe and West Asia horticulture cam along about 12,000 years ago and less (depending on where you are) and much later than that, pastoralism started to be practiced.

However, in Africa, things were different in two major ways. First, more so than Europe (though it happened there as well) we find mixed strategies going on side by side in Africa. This is true even today. Not only might we find foragers living near pastoral people living near tourist hotels, but people may move between these culturally and economically distinct lifestyles. N!xau, the actor who played the lead in “The Gods Must Be Crazy” was at the time the first movie was filmed living a forager living among one of the groups studied by anthropologists in the 1960s. I’ve heard that his father worked for pastoral farmers and a hotel, and the actor himself became a farmer after Gods II.

Historically we now think that pastoralism arose in many areas of Africa before horticulture. It is probably more complicated than that. The total number of relevant archaeological sties excavated in the entire region of the Sahara and Sub Saharan Africa (so, let’s not count the upper Nile and the Mediterranean coast because of the intensity of European based work there) is probably far less than the number of sites excavated in Israel, Lebanon Syria, the Sinai, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, yet these countries combined represent a tiny fraction of the land area of Africa. So, don’t be surprised if an agricultural hearth or two turn up in Africa predating the earliest pastoral manifestations. But at the moment, pastoralism is early in Africa and predated Horticulture.

But what about dairy specifically? There is a new study that shows that the use of milk in the Sahara emerges as early as 5,200 BC, which is quite early.

This work uses the occurrence of organic material found in pottery that can be extracted and characterized using gas chromatography-mass spectrommetry (C-MS) and chromotography-combustion-isotope ratio mass spec (CG-C-IRMS). Lipids, which are preserved for very long periods of time, can be characterized using these methods in ways that allow inference about their origins and the way they are processed.

Bottom line: Lipids are found in many pottery sample (a larger proportion than one usually finds) excavated from the Takarkori rock shelter located in the southwest Fezzan, Libyan Sahara. Early pottery has a range of lipids including non-domestic animals. However, lipids indicating the production of dairy products from cattle show up in the samples dated to the “Middle Pastoral” (5200-3800 bc).

From the paper:

Of the 29 animal fat residues selected for GC–C–IRMS analyses, 22 originate from Middle Pastoral levels, 3 from the Late Acacus, 2 from the Early Pastoral and the remaining 2 from the Late Pastoral period … The comparison of the ?13C values of the modern reference animal fats with those of the archaeological pottery residues from the Middle Pastoral period (approximately 5200–3800 BC) show that 50% of these plot within, or on the edge of, the isotopic ranges for dairy fats, with a further 33% falling within the range for ruminant adipose fats and the remainder corresponding to non-ruminant carcass fats … Notably, the residues originating from earlier periods do not contain dairy fats, and plot in the non-ruminant fat range, probably deriving from wild fauna found locally. The unambiguous conclusion is that the appearance of dairy fats in pottery correlates with the more abundant presence of cattle bones in the cave deposits, suggesting a full pastoral economy as the cattle were intensively exploited for their secondary products.

Our findings provide unequivocal evidence for extensive processing of dairy products in pottery vessels in the Libyan Sahara during the Middle Pastoral period (approximately 5200–3800 BC), confirming that milk played an important part in the diet of these prehistoric pastoral people.

Dunne, Julie, Evershed, Richard, Salque, Melanie, Cramp, Lucy, Bruni, Silvia, Ryan, Kathleen, Biagettti, Stefano, & di Lernia, Savino (2012). First dairying in green Saharan Africa in the fifth millennium bc Nature, 486, 390-394

Photo of cattle by angies

A word or two about tobacco, and some neat and new research

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgOver the last few weeks I’ve run into a few misconceptions about tobacco, as well as some interesting news, so I thought I’d share. If you already know some of this, forgive me, not everyone else does.

First, tobacco, Nicotiana tabacum, is a member of the Solanaceae family of plants, which from a human perspective has got to be one of the most interesting plant families out there. It includes Belladonna, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes. So, from this one family of plants, you can kill your neighbor, have a nice meal, and a smoke a cigar afterward.
Continue reading A word or two about tobacco, and some neat and new research

The Origin of Wine

ResearchBlogging.orgWith Julia spending the summer and most of the fall in The Republic of Georgia, I’ve been thinking about various political and historical aspects of that country, and one of the things that is claimed to be true is that wine was first invented there.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgRecently, someone asked me (always ask the archaeologist esoteric stuff like this) where wine was first invented. And, recently, we scored some Concord Grapes, which are native to North America (presumably thanks to some bird a long time ago) as opposed to most grapes, and which provide the roots for most (nearly all?) wine grape stock. And, a paper on the genetics of wine came out recently and has been staring at me for a few weeks now. All these things together made me want to update my current knowledge of the origin of wine.
Continue reading The Origin of Wine

Why do women shop and men hunt?

Or, when the hunting season is closed, watch teh game (the guys), or when there are no sales, admire each other’s shoes (the gals)?

This is, of course, a parody of the sociobiological, or in modern parlance, the “evolutionary psychology” argument linking behaviors that evolved in our species during the long slog known as The Pleistocene with today’s behavior in the modern predator-free food-rich world. And, it is a very sound argument. If, by “sound” you mean “sounds good unless you listen really hard.”

I list this argument among the falsehoods, but really, this is a category of argument with numerous little sub-arguments, and one about which I could write as many blog posts as I have fingers and toes, which means, at least twenty. (Apparently there was some pentaldactylsim in my ancestry, and I must admit that I’ll never really know what they cut off when I was born, if anything.)

Before going into this discussion I think it is wise, if against my nature, to tell you what the outcome will be: There is not a good argument to be found in the realm of behavioral biology for why American Women shop while their husbands sit on the bench in the mall outside the women’s fashion store fantasizing about a larger TV on which to watch the game. At the same time, there is a good argument to be made that men and women should have different hard wired behavioral proclivities, if there are any hard wired behavioral proclivities in our species. And, I’m afraid, the validity from an individual’s perspective of the various arguments that men and women are genetically programmed to be different (in ways that make biological sense) is normally determined by the background and politics of the observer and not the science. I am trained in behavioral biology, I was taught by the leading sociobiologists, I’ve carried out research in this area, and I was even present, somewhat admiringly, at the very birth of Evolutionary Psychology, in Room 14A in the Peabody Museum at Harvard, in the 1980s. So, if anyone is going to be a supporter of evolutionary psychology, it’s me.

But I’m not. Let me ‘splain….
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Explaining the Spread of Agriculture into Europe

The practice of growing food and keeping livestock was invented numerous times throughout the world. One ‘center’ of agriculture is said to be the Middle East. Despite the fact that calling the Middle East a “center” in this context is a gross oversimplification, it is true that agriculture was practiced in Anatolia and the Levant for quite some time before it was practiced in Europe, and it seems that the practice more or less spread from the middle east across Europe over a fairly long period of time.

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Reading Human Nature

“Human nature” is an interesting topic. People will argue over the definition of human nature, but regardless of what people think or say, it is reasonable to assume that all humans share a psychological and developmental framework to the extent that any two people raised in the same background will ‘turn out’ similar with respect to several behavioral traits or tendencies. Also, a pair of twins separated at birth and raised up in very different cultures are likely to exhibit more differences than similarities owing to the different cultures but perhaps some set of seemingly uncanny similarities owing to their parentage.
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The Fantastic Mystery of the Younger Dryas

One of the most interesting and exciting stories in science is that of the Younger Dryas. The Younger Dryas was a climate event that had important effects on human history, and that has been reasonably linked to some of our most important cultural changes, and ultimately some evolutionary changes as well. That is one reason why it is interesting. In addition, the Younger Dryas was a pretty big deal … a climate change or something like a climate change that caused massive changes all around the earth, and fairly recently. But the cause of the Younger Dryas is at present unknown, although a series of explanations have been advanced, each as convincing as the next depending on one’s point of view. The Younger Dryas itself is interesting, and the story of how scientists have studied it and the changing explanations emerging from that research is just as interesting.

The latest science is beginning to suggest that it is all even more interesting and exciting (and scary) than previously thought.

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Berry Go Round #3

Welcome to Berry Go Round #3, the blog carnival deicated to all things botanical.The previous installment, Berry Go Round #2, is located here, at Further Thoughts. If you would like to submit an item to the next Berry Go Round, you may use this handy submission form. The Berry Go Round Home Page is here. Continue reading Berry Go Round #3

Why the Hobbits of Flores Were Probably Not Broken People

There is a new paper out suggesting that the Flores hominids, known as Hobbits, were “human endemic cretins.”From the abstract of this paper:

… We hypothesize that these individuals are myxoedematous endemic (ME) cretins, part of an inland population of (mostly unaffected) Homo sapiens. ME cretins are born without a functioning thyroid; their congenital hypothyroidism leads to severe dwarfism and reduced brain size, but less severe mental retardation and motor disability than neurological endemic cretins. We show that the fossils display many signs of congenital hypothyroidism, including enlarged pituitary fossa, and that distinctive primitive features of LB1 such as the double rooted lower premolar and the primitive wrist morphology are consistent with the hypothesis. We find that the null hypothesis (that LB1 is not a cretin) is rejected by the pituitary fossa size of LB1, and by multivariate analyses of cranial measures. We show that critical environmental factors were potentially present on Flores, how remains of cretins but not of unaffected individuals could be preserved in caves, and that extant oral traditions may provide a record of cretinism.

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