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Article

The domestication of livestock animals has long been recognized as one of the most important and influential events in human prehistory and has been the subject of scholarly inquiry for centuries. Modern understandings of this important transition place it within the context of the origins of food production in the so-called Neolithic Revolution, where it is particularly well documented in southwest Asia. Here, a combination of archaeofaunal, isotopic, and DNA evidence suggests that sheep, goat, cattle, and pigs were first domesticated over a period of several millennia within sedentary communities practicing intensive cultivation beginning at the Pleistocene–Holocene transition. Resulting from more than a century of data collection, our understanding of the chronological and geographic features of the transition from hunting to herding indicate that the 9th millennium bce and the region of the northern Levant played crucial roles in livestock domestication. However, many questions remain concerning the nature of the earliest predomestic animal management strategies, the role of multiple regional traditions of animal management in the emergence of livestock, and the motivations behind the slow spread of integrated livestock husbandry systems, including all four domestic livestock species that become widespread throughout southwest Asia only at the end of the Neolithic period.

Article

The inception of agriculture in eastern Africa is a major topic of discussion among Africanist archaeologists, although very sparse evidence exists. Questions range from whether domestication was a local invention or whether it was introduced from the Near East, Asia, or elsewhere outside of Africa. These questions have remained unanswered because wild progenitors and models of the spread of African domesticates are yet to be established using undisputable data. The paucity of direct data has therefore necessitated the use of objects of material culture such as pottery, beads, burial cairns, architectural structures, and so on as indicators of pastoralism and cereal farming. In addition to the origins of African domesticates, research in eastern Africa has concerned itself with questions of farming technologies from later archaeological and historical times to the present. The remains of elaborate farming systems with extensive irrigation networks have drawn considerable attention. Though not unchanged, some of these farming systems remain in contemporary use in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.

Article

Charlene Murphy and Dorian Q. Fuller

South Asia possesses a unique Neolithic transition to agricultural domestication. India has received far less attention in the quest for evidence of early agriculture than other regions of the world traditionally recognized as “centers of domestication” such as southwest Asia, western Asia, China, Mesoamerica, South America, New Guinea, and Africa. Hunter-gatherers with agricultural production appeared around the middle of the Holocene, 4000 to 1500 bce, with the cultivation of domesticates and a correspondingly more sedentary lifestyle emerging at this time. Two thousand years ago South Asia was inhabited by farmers, with densely populated river valleys, coastal plains, urban populations, states, and even empires. While some of the crops that supported these civilizations had been introduced from other regions of the world, a large proportion of these crops had local origins from wild plants native to the subcontinent. As a case study for the origins of agriculture, South Asia has much to offer archaeologists and environmental scientists alike for understanding domestication processes and local transitions from foraging to farming as well as the ways in which early farmers adapted to and transformed the environment and regional vegetation. Information exchange from distant farmers from other agricultural centers into the subcontinent cannot be ruled out. However, it is clear that local agricultural origins occurred via a series of processes, including the dispersal of pastoral and agro-pastoral peoples across regions, the local domestication of animals and plants and the adoption by indigenous hunter-gatherers of food production techniques from neighboring cultures. Indeed, it is posited that local domestication events in India were occurring alongside agricultural dispersals from other parts of the world in an interconnected mosaic of cultivation, pastoralism, and sedentism. As humans in South Asia increasingly relied on a more restricted range of plant species, they became entangled in an increasingly fixed trajectory that allowed greater food production levels to sustain larger populations and support their developing social, cultural and food traditions.

Article

Despite millennia of success as hunters and gatherers, some human groups made a monumental transition to agricultural economies and more sedentary lifeways, broadly referred to as the “Neolithic.” This major tipping point in human history first occurred around 12,000 years ago in Southwest Asia and the eastern Mediterranean, where it is also the best documented. Much research has focused on the origins of agriculture, asking questions about why this event occurred after so much success at hunting and gathering. While early investigations concentrated on the economic significance of the Neolithic, studies in the late 20th century and continuing into the early 21st century also address what are perhaps more significant issues related to social, ritual, political, and ecological aspects of the Neolithic. Equally important is a focus on not only why the Neolithic first occurred, but also its consequences. These often are addressed in relation to the subsequent development of so-called civilizations and the environmental and social impacts that these had, but increasingly there are investigations of the consequences of the Neolithic within itself. These consequences refer to Neolithic societies on both the Near Eastern mainlands and adjacent Mediterranean islands. These include not only economic consequences but also ones related to social organization and complexity, trade, and health and disease. What is apparent is that consequential events during the Neolithic were not linear, following a predictable path. For example, there is strong evidence for substantial environmental deterioration during the Neolithic at sites such as ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan, where adaptive responses may have included divisions of domestic animal and plant resources. However, in Cyprus, where the Neolithic is now known to be as early as it was on the mainlands, evidence is limited for severe ecological degradation throughout the period. Thus, Neolithic consequences must be examined from a broad perspective, considering both successes and failures.

Article

Along with ceramics production, sedentism, and herding, agriculture is a major component of the Neolithic as it is defined in Europe. Therefore, the agricultural system of the first Neolithic societies and the dispersal of exogenous cultivated plants to Europe are the subject of many scientific studies. To work on these issues, archaeobotanists rely on residual plant remains—crop seeds, weeds, and wild plants—from archaeological structures like detritic pits, and, less often, storage contexts. To date, no plant with an economic value has been identified as domesticated in Western Europe except possibly opium poppy. The earliest seeds identified at archaeological sites dated to about 5500–5200 bc in the Mediterranean and Temperate Europe. The cultivated plants identified were cereals (wheat and barley), oleaginous plant (flax), and pulses (peas, lentils, and chickpeas). This crop package originated in the Fertile Crescent, where it was clearly established around 7500 bc (final Pre-Pottery Neolithic B), after a long, polycentric domestication process. From the middle of the 7th millennium bc, via the Balkan Peninsula, the pioneer Neolithic populations, with their specific economies, rapidly dispersed from east to west, following two main pathways. One was the maritime route over the northwestern basin of the Mediterranean (6200–5300 bc), and the other was the terrestrial and fluvial route in central and northwestern continental Europe (5500–4900 bc). On their trajectory, the agropastoral societies adapted the Neolithic founder crops from the Middle East to new environmental conditions encountered in Western Europe. The Neolithic pioneers settled in an area that had experienced a long tradition of hunting and gathering. The Neolithization of Europe followed a colonization model. The Mesolithic groups, although exploiting plant resources such as hazelnut more or less intensively, did not significantly change the landscape. The impact of their settlements and their activities are hardly noticeable through palynology, for example. The control of the mode of reproduction of plants has certainly increased the prevalence of Homo sapiens, involving, among others, a demographic increase and the ability to settle down in areas that were not well adapted to year-round occupation up to that point. The characterization of past agricultural systems, such as crop plants, technical processes, and the impact of anthropogenic activities on the landscape, is essential for understanding the interrelation of human societies and the plant environment. This interrelation has undoubtedly changed deeply with the Neolithic Revolution.

Article

The South Asian subcontinent contains a vast mosaic of environments and lifeways. Agriculture and pastoralism are important food producing systems within this mosaic but coexist alongside hunter-gatherer-fisher-forager groups, shifting cultivators, and nomadic pastoralists that are often marginalized. This interplay between different lifeways has deep roots in South Asian history and prehistory. Despite this, discussions of early South Asian agriculture and pastoralism often depict a limited and narrow dataset, confined to a few sites. As a result it has been argued that the origins of agriculture and pastoralism in South Asia are hard to pinpoint. However, archaeobotanical, zooarchaeological, and genetic data, alongside the growing archaeological record, are showing that the South Asian subcontinent is a rich ground for exploring the complexity and nuance of changing lifeways during the transition to agro-pastoralism. People in South Asia incorporated both nonnative crops and animals from southwest Asia, Africa, and China into existing systems, domesticated local taxa in multiple regions, and continued to exploit wild resources throughout periods of established agro-pastoral systems. A diversity of Neolithics are therefore demonstrated within the subcontinent, and the mixing of traditions is a hallmark of South Asia and is critical for discussions about what early agriculture and pastoralism looked like and what the impacts of changing lifeways and economies were over time.

Article

The discoveries at Ounjougou (Mali), an open-air site in the Dogon Country, shed new light on the “early Neolithic” in Africa. The stratigraphic sequence and a cluster of absolute dates established a terminus ante quem of 9400 cal bc for ceramic sherds associated with a small bifacial lithic industry. The emergence of this typo-technical complex corresponds to one of the wet phases of the Pleistocene–Holocene transition in West Africa, most probably that of the climatic upturn at the beginning of the Holocene, between 10,200 and 9,400 cal bc. Paleoenvironmental results, particularly archaeobotanical ones, indicate that the landscape was in a state of change and that, for several millennia, the surfaces covered by desert overlapped an open steppe with grasses, some of which were edible. This environmental situation allowed the dispersion of prehistoric groups over the continent and probably encouraged a new behavior: the practice of intensive selective gathering (i.e., the targeted and rational harvesting of wild grasses for their seeds). However, not only must seeds be kept dry and protected from rodents, they must also be processed through cooking or fermentation. This process helps the human body to assimilate the starch, as the digestive enzymes necessary for its digestion are not naturally present. Ceramics would have been particularly useful in this process. Ceramics emerged in sub-Saharan Africa and seem to have spread toward the central Sahara during the early Holocene at the end of the 10th and the beginning of the 9th millennium cal bc, while the desert zone became increasingly greener. It has yet to be understood whether the Nile Valley was an important corridor for the diffusion of this technology or if ceramics appeared as the result of a second independent process of innovation.

Article

In West Africa, macrolithic sites are chronologically situated between the Middle and Late Neolithic periods, inclusive (4000 years bp–2000 years bp). In Senegambia, they are principally found in the volcanic region of the Senegalo-Mauritanian sedimentary basin, which forms an important stock of raw materials. However, macrolithism uses a variety of rocks, which attests to the diversity of raw material supply sources and bears witness to the mobility of Neolithic communities and their complex relationship with the natural environment. Out of this diversity of sources and mobility of populations arose the commercial network that procured “ad hoc materials.” Thus, understanding lithic tools requires researching the rocks most appropriate for tool making. Because of this, macrolithism can be understood as an identity and economic marker at the interface between Neolithic human groups and their environment.

Article

Tiatoshi Jamir

The northeast region of India encompasses the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim to the north; Manipur, Mizoram, and Tripura to the south; Nagaland to the east; and Assam and Meghalaya to the west. The region is unique not only geopolitically but also in terms of its ecological diversity, culture, and history, with the states of Mizoram and Tripura falling well within the 23° N tropical zone. Northeast India is characterized by uplands and high-altitude mountains in the north, northeast, east, and southeast, while the southwest and western regions comprise tablelands and low-lying floodplains. Early archaeological initiatives began with the colonial administration of the region, but such early reports were confined to surface sites. The first excavations in the region began in the post-Independence period and delved into some of the archaeological problems relevant to the area. Some of these problems concern identifying possible hominin dispersal routes; the scenario of Paleolithic research and what the associated archaeological and geological data yields; the importance of the region as a potential area for early plant domestication; and the archaeological evidence for early agriculture, particularly rice, millet, and tuber crops. Despite immense potential for historical archaeology, empirical research toward an understanding of the rise of early urban centers and early state formations, the emergence of village settlements marked by ancestral sites, and the later historical periods has only been marginal in nature.

Article

The West African savannas are a major area of independent plant domestication, with pearl millet, African rice, fonio, several legumes, and vegetable crops originating there. For understanding the origins of West African plant-food-producing traditions, it is useful to have a look at their precursors in the Sahara during the “African humid period” between 10,500 and 4,500 years ago. The Early and Middle Holocene Saharan foragers and pastoralists intensively used wild grasses for food but did not intentionally cultivate. Due to increasing aridity in the late 3rd millennium bce, the pastoralists migrated southward into the savanna zone. In this context pearl millet was domesticated and spread rapidly in West Africa during the 2nd millennium bce. It was first cultivated by agro-pastoral communities, predominantly on a small scale. The 1st millennium bce was a transitional phase: most of the early agricultural societies disappeared, but it was also a time of numerous economic and social innovations. Due to increasing aridity, the floodplains around Lake Chad and the valleys of the rivers Senegal and Niger became accessible to farming populations after 1000 bce. In the 1st millennium ce, agriculture intensified, with mixed cultivation of cereals and legumes and the integration of new African domesticates, such as sorghum, fonio, roselle, and okra. Pearl millet remained the major crop in most areas, while sorghum dominated in northern Cameroon. Imported wheat, date palm, and cotton appeared in the first half of the 2nd millennium ce. The combined exploitation of cultivated cereals, legumes, and wild fruit trees (e.g., shea butter tree) in agroforesty systems eventually resulted in a cultural landscape as it is still visible in West Africa today.

Article

Oskar Kaelin

The ancient Egyptians were surrounded by various manifestations of their many gods. Though their gods usually lived in heaven or in the netherworlds, they were permanently represented on earth by monuments, statues, symbols, animals, and plants, as well as by social concepts. The Egyptians described their gods by various names and images, always aware that in the end their true personalities and characters remained elusive. The ancient Egyptian universe comprised heaven, earth, and netherworld, all part of creation and surrounded by eternal darkness. Though separate areas, they were permeable for the gods and the dead. The universe ran smoothly as long as there was respect and cooperation between them and the living. This formed an ideological, social, and economic cohesion. The gods were powerful but benevolent, and approachable in many ways. The divine king was the hub between the world of the gods and the human sphere. He was the main entity responsible for organizing the supply and welfare of the humans, and for keeping order. During official festivals, the living, the gods, and the dead celebrated together, but there were also a number of more personal ways to approach deities. The various sites of interaction between gods and men formed a vast network connecting all the players: the gods were responsible for creation and abundance, the kings and elites were primarily responsible for ensuring that the system ran according to Maat (“Order”), and the people were responsible for living and working throughout the country. The system of ancient Egyptian gods structured Egyptian ideas, policies, and everyday life from the end of the 4th millennium bce to the rise of Christianity and beyond. The ancient Egyptians’ beliefs were polytheistic, acknowledging the existence of thousands of gods and endless deceased humans. At times, the ancient Egyptians appeared to be henotheistic and would exalt a deity in his or her uniqueness. Moreover, with Akhenaten, they were the first to experiment with monotheism, though that did not last much longer than a decade. The ideas and images created for the Egyptian gods and religion had an impact on many contemporaneous cultures, as well as on later religions.

Article

The first East African pastoralists arrived at the shores of Lake Turkana soon after the end of the African Humid Period, about 5,000 years ago. In the preceding millennia of the Holocene, fishing economies characterized East Africa. The domestic animals of the early pastoralists were not indigenous to East Africa, nor did they spread through the region simultaneously. Early pastoralist archaeological sites around Lake Turkana comprise settlements and remarkable monumental cemeteries. The expansion of pastoralists further south through East Africa was a two-stage process, probably because of the challenges posed by the presence of diseases fatal to livestock. First, caprines spread south and appear to have been integrated into existing forager subsistence systems. Then, starting toward the end of the 2nd millennium bce, specialized pastoralism began to be established across central and southern Kenya and into northern Tanzania. While analysis of lipid residues on potsherds has demonstrated that these Pastoral Neolithic (PN) peoples milked their animals, the question of whether agriculture was also practiced remains unresolved. Analyses of ancient DNA have shown there were at least two episodes of demic diffusion associated with the spread and establishment of the PN in East Africa. Considerable diversity is present in the PN, with three distinct cultures generally recognized across East Africa south of Lake Turkana. Moreover, there is even greater diversity observed in the decoration and shapes of ceramics. However, this cultural diversity is not matched by human genetic diversity, at least among the analyzed skeletons from two of the three cultures—the Elmenteitan and the Savanna Pastoral Neolithic.

Article

Luca Maria Olivieri

The cultural context in which the term “Gandhāra” is used initially refers to Vedic geography and then to the administrative limits of the homonymous Achaemenid satrapy. The most reliable information referring to the Middle Holocene period, in which the Gandhāran region must have met a climatically optimal phase during which domesticated rice was introduced to Kashmir and Swat through the trans-Himalayan corridors (early 2nd millennium bce or earlier). Toward the end of the 2nd millennium, northern Gandhāra features a rather coherent settlement phenomenon marked by large graveyards, mainly with inhumations, which were labeled by previous scholarship as the “Gandhāra Grave Culture” (1200–900 bce). In this phase among the major cultural markers, the introduction of iron technology is noteworthy. The historic phases in Gandhāra are marked by an initial urban phase in Gandhāra (500–150 bce), sometimes referred to as a “second urbanization,” on the evidence mainly from Peshawar, Charsadda I, Barikot, and Bhir Mound (Taxila I). Mature urban phases (150 bce–350 ce) are defined based on the restructuring of old cities, and new urban foundations during the phases of contact historically defined by the Indo-Greek and Śaka dynasties, followed by the Kushans (Peshawar, Charsadda II, Barikot, Sirkap, or Taxila III). The artistic phenomenon known as the Buddhist “art of Gandhāra” started toward the end of the 1st century bce and lasted until the 4th century ce. The beginning of this art is best attested in that period in Swat, where schist of exceptional quality is largely available. At the beginning of the 1st century ce, the iconic and figurative symbols of Indian Buddhism acquire a narrative form, which is the major feature of the Buddhist art of Gandhāra. The subsequent art and architecture of Buddhist Gandhāra feature large sanctuaries richly decorated, and monasteries, documented in several “provinces” of Gandhāra throughout the Kushan period, from the late 1st century ce to mid/end-3rd century ce. In this period Buddhist sanctuaries and urban centers developed together, as proved both in Peshawar valley, in Swat, and at Taxila. After the urban crisis (post-300 ce)—which went hand in hand with the crisis of the centralized Kushan rule—stratigraphic excavations have so far registered a significant thinning of the archaeological deposits, with a few exceptions. Besides coins deposited in coeval phases of Buddhist sanctuaries and literary and epigraphic sources, archaeological evidence for the so-called Hunnic or “Huna” phases (c. 5th–7th century ce) are very scarce. Around the mid-6th century, Buddhist monasteries entered a period of crisis, the effects of which were dramatically visible in the first half of the 7th century, especially in the northern regions of Gandhāra. It is after this phase (early 7th century) that literary sources and archaeology report the existence of several Brahmanical temples in and around Gandhāra. These temples were first supported by the Turki-Śāhi (whose capital was in Kabulistan; end-7th/early 8th century) and then by the Hindu-Śāhi (9th–10th century).

Article

Kendra A. Sirak, Elizabeth A. Sawchuk, and Mary E. Prendergast

Ancient DNA has emerged as a powerful tool for investigating the human past and reconstructing the movements, mixtures, and adaptations that have structured genetic variation throughout human history. While the study of genome-wide ancient human DNA was initially restricted to regions with temperate climates, methodological breakthroughs have now extended the reach of ancient DNA analysis to parts of the world with hot and humid climates that are less conducive to biomolecular preservation. This includes Africa, where people harbor more genetic diversity than can be found anywhere else on the planet, reflecting deep and complex population histories. Since the first ancient African genome was published in 2015, the number of individuals with genome-wide data has increased to nearly 200, with greater coverage of diverse geographical, temporal, and cultural contexts. Ancient DNA sequences have revealed genetic variation in ancient African foragers that no longer exists in unadmixed form; illuminated how local-, regional-, and continental-scale demographic processes associated with the spread of food production and new technologies changed genetic landscapes; and discerned notable variation in interactions among people with distinct genetic ancestries, cultural practices, and, likely, languages. Despite an increasing number of studies focused on African ancient DNA, multiple regions and time periods have yet to be explored. Research to date has primarily focused on the past several thousand years in eastern and southern Africa, setting up northern, western, and central Africa, as well as deeper time periods, as key areas for future investigation. As ancient DNA research becomes increasingly integrated with anthropology and archaeology, it is advantageous to understand the basic methodological and analytical techniques, the types of questions that can be investigated, and the ways in which the discipline may continue to grow and evolve. Critically, the growth and evolution of ancient DNA research must include attention to the ethics of this work, both in African contexts and globally. In particular, it is essential that research is conducted in a way that minimizes the potential of harm to both the living and the dead. Scientists conducting ancient DNA research in Africa especially must also contend with structural challenges, including a lack of ancient DNA facilities on the continent, the extensive fragmentation of African heritage (including ancient human remains) among curating institutions worldwide, and the complexities of identifying descendant groups and other stakeholders in the wake of colonial and postcolonial disruptions and displacements. Ancient DNA research projects should be designed in a way that contributes to capacity building and the reduction of inequities between the Global North and South to ensure that the research benefits the people and communities with connections to the ancient individuals studied. While ensuring that future studies are rooted in ethical and equitable practices will require considerable collective action, ancient DNA research has already become an integral part of our understanding of African population history and will continue to shape our understanding of the African past.

Article

The histories of humanity and nature are deeply entangled across Inner Eurasia. Great expanses of steppe and mountain connected peoples at the far ends of the landmass and sustained unique civilizational zones of nomadic and settled societies. These are regions profoundly shaped by some of the most complex climatic regimes and by one of the most devastating disease vectors in the world. Viewed in the longue durée of the Holocene, the premodern prehistory and history of Inner Eurasia takes on new dimensions when reviewed in the context of the latest work being done in environmental, climate, and genetic science.