August 28, 2013

Central European farmers, but also Danish "hunter-gatherers" had domestic pigs

It's often difficult to discern in the archaeological record wild boar remains from those of domestic pigs. Luckily archaeogenetics can solve the problem, sometimes producing striking results.

Ben Krause-Kyora et al., Use of domesticated pigs by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers in northwestern Europe. Nature Communications 2013. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1038/ncomms3348]
Abstract

Mesolithic populations throughout Europe used diverse resource exploitation strategies that focused heavily on collecting and hunting wild prey. Between 5500 and 4200 cal BC, agriculturalists migrated into northwestern Europe bringing a suite of Neolithic technologies including domesticated animals. Here we investigate to what extent Mesolithic Ertebølle communities in northern Germany had access to domestic pigs, possibly through contact with neighbouring Neolithic agricultural groups. We employ a multidisciplinary approach, applying sequencing of ancient mitochondrial and nuclear DNA (coat colour-coding gene MC1R) as well as traditional and geometric morphometric (molar size and shape) analyses in Sus specimens from 17 Neolithic and Ertebølle sites. Our data from 63 ancient pig specimens show that Ertebølle hunter-gatherers acquired domestic pigs of varying size and coat colour that had both Near Eastern and European mitochondrial DNA ancestry. Our results also reveal that domestic pigs were present in the region ~500 years earlier than previously demonstrated.

The most striking result is surely not the demonstration of pigs being in Central Europe a few centuries than previously confirmed but that Ertebølle hunter-gatherers of Denmark had them as well, quite radically casting doubt on their status as hunter-gatherers and placing them fully in the Neolithic context, even still rather marginal and peripheral. 


Figure 1: Map depicting the location of the archaeological Sus samples from which mtDNA haplotypes were obtained.
Samples were recovered from Neolithic LBK, post-LBK and Mesolithic Ertebølle sites dated between 5500 and 4000 cal BC. Each symbol corresponds to a single sample (triangle, square and circle). Domestic (triangle) and wild (square) pigs discussed in the text are labelled; circles represent Sus specimens of unknown domestication status. The red colour indicates the European haplotypes C and A, and yellow the Near Eastern haplotypes Y1 and Y2.

4 comments:

  1. "The most striking result is surely not the demonstration of pigs being in Central Europe a few centuries than previously confirmed but that Ertebølle hunter-gatherers of Denmark had them as well, quite radically casting doubt on their status as hunter-gatherers and placing them fully in the Neolithic context, even still rather marginal and peripheral. "

    My view on that is that they were simply opportunistic. That is, they recognized that pig-raising was one of the easiest ways to make large gains from adapted neolithic practices - without giving up much of their own practices. Of course, there are analogies to NE European cultures, somewhat later.

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    1. "My view on that is that they were simply opportunistic".

      Maybe but it's in any case farming (or more exactly "herding"). Notice that small scale farming attached to a more "primitive" economy would not leave tracks easy to discern, and that's why it's often difficult to be sure of when exactly farming begins in areas that are not outright colonized with the full "Neolithic package". I think that the problem applies in general terms to all Atlantic Europe and other areas, where the Neolithic genesis is complex and sometimes quite subtle.

      "Of course, there are analogies to NE European cultures, somewhat later".

      I bet you're thinking of Pitted Ware. This would be a different case because they clearly derive from a well developed Neolithic culture (Dniepr-Don). Just that their northern offshoots were to a great extent returned to foraging because of their "frontier" conditions. Foraging with pottery and pigs at the very least, so they were also Neolithic.

      It's a bit like European fur trappers in the "Wild West": they were usually not farmers as such but their wider cultural context was without doubt.

      Whatever the case, I think that this really lean the scales in favor of considering Ertebølle a Neolithic culture, even if "transitional" or whatever.

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  2. I think this adds to the idea that jumping from hunter-gatherer to herder (or partial herder) is the easiest transition.

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    1. I would rather think that foragers (in the Danish case largely fishers) would initially adopt those Neolithic advances that they deem useful. That may well include some farming but not easily to the point of becoming the central pillar of the economy but rather "easy crops" that need limited care. Herding can also be quite "enslaving" and in this sense pigs offer the potential of leaving them semi-wild and later hunting them or, alternatively, using them in controlled manner to plough the fields. Goats are also quite versatile, while sheep and cows (and even horses) probably require more attention instead and are therefore less desirable.

      The practice of leaving goats and pigs in feral state was also used by European sailors in the Age of Discovery as a way to secure food when they returned to such islands. They did not use sheep nor cows, which may not have survived.

      Just my tentative opinion anyhow.

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