Eemian agriculture?

Agriculture emerged in several different places around the world not too long after the current interglacial began. At least some of those starts were independent, not inspired from others: certain agriculture originated independently in the New World.

But in the last  interglacial, about 120,000 years ago, it apparently didn’t happen anywhere.  At least I know of no evidence for it.  And it’s surely true that there  no technological civilization arose back then, because we’d find various kinds of lasting trash.

So.. but could there have been a try or two that didn’t spread far, didn’t prosper?  False dawns?  Some kinds of agriculture, like root crops, don’t leave a huge signature.

There might be hints in the genome. Assuming  a decent human skeleton of the right vintage, we could look for signs of adaptation to agriculture.   We know something about the genes that change in domestication syndrome: maybe we could find hints that somebody tamed wolves back in the day.   One can even imagine an older kind of agriculture that was closer to instinctive: ants and termites farm without being very smart.




This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to Eemian agriculture?

  1. John says:

    Or much further back – e.g. in a dinosaur species?

  2. Zeinish says:

    More useful would be to look for remains of domesticated plants and animals, much bigger chance to find them than human skeletons.

  3. Fire has been in use since the Lower Paleo. Some use, such a slash-and-burn, could have been used for gathering. Hunting of a sort, too, come to think of it, driving or attracting animals. How easily would those show in the record?

  4. dearieme says:

    When did humans first successfully try fish farming?

    • Janet says:

      The first we know of is tilapia, being grown deliberately in the irrigation canals in Egypt. This was a triple benefit: the fish ate mosquito larvae (and algae), their waste became fertilizer in the irrigation water, and at the end of the growing season, they provided a nice source of protein to the farmers. We know this from tomb paintings– the aquaculture itself left no traces.

      The majority of marine production, even today, is either “ranching” (trapping wild-born animals into an area for fattening and harvesting, e.g. shrimp fry in pools) or humans discovering a range area for fish/shellfish and then fighting like hell to keep other humans away.

      By contrast, the majority of plant consumption was provided by agriculture probably 6,000 years ago, and the majority of land animal consumption was provided by agriculture probably 3,000 years ago. But as late as 1970, aquaculture was less than 10% of fish consumption. We humans didn’t “crack the code” on large-scale aquaculture until the 20th century, and even now, we’re only successfully doing so with maybe 5 types total (tilapia, salmon, catfish, carp, and shrimp). It’s just a lot harder to do than grow corn or herd cattle.

      • krakonos says:

        What do you mean by “large scale aquaculture” before 20th century? Would this be sufficient (sorry, I do not have time for translations)?:

        • Zeinish says:

          20th century aquaculture development was just getting back to the ancient Roman levels…

          The most striking evidence for the importance of seafood in Greco-Roman culture comes from the remarkable development of ancient fish farming. Extensively described in the ancient sources (Varro, Rust. 3.17. 2-3; 3.17. 6-7; Columella, Rust. 8.17.12-3; 15; Pliny, H.N. 37.2), fish farming reached a high stage of technical perfection, developing techniques for spawning and rapidly raising to maturity a wide range of maritime species

          The techniques described and physical infrastructure uncovered by archaeologists are consistent with a level of technical sophistication and potential production not seen in modern Europe until the mid-1980s, with the rise of large scale sea-cage aquaculture of the grey mullet, sea bass and gilthead seabream, three of the most important ancient (and modern) farmed fish breeds. One cannot help being impressed by the number and size of the many massive hydraulic concrete fish tanks excavated along the Tyrrhenian coast (Kron 2008a: Figure 8.4), from Faleria in the North to Briatico in the South, as well as other fish-farming facilities discovered along the Adriatic, in Croatia, the French Riviera, Greece, Spain, North Africa, Egypt, Israel, and as far North as France’s Atlantic coast, Germany, the Low Countries and England (Schmiedt 1972; Giacopini et al. 1994; Higginbotham 1997; Lafon 2001; Kron forthcoming). The fish tanks known to us along the Tyrrhenian coast alone represent a capacity for intensive fish farming production comparable to that of the Italian industry at the end of the 20th century.

    • Crew says:

      Probably after they developed their aquatic ass characteristics, if Alister Hardy is to be believed.

  5. biz says:

    In OTL didn’t people tame wolves before agriculture?

  6. ChrisA says:

    If the ancient agriculture were anything other than just minor stuff if would involve tools, like ploughs and spades and so on. Perhaps most of these would be wooden and not survive but some would be stone. We know of agricultural tool remains from recent history, are there any evidence of similar tools from 120,000 years ago?

    • TB says:

      Very little needed for simple burn and scatter seeds type agriculture. In the record we see grind-stones and sickles as some of the earliest tools that indicate ag, but even those can be from gathering. Other crops than grains wouldn’t need those.

      What I’d look for is containers. Silos, pots. Woven bags wouldn’t survive but we might get lucky and find a clutch of seeds. Stone field border walls might still show up. But those are not needed until after population spikes and property develops.

      The AM Indians in some areas managed forests, burning undergrowth, felling unwanted species and encouraging others. Possible to detect 100,000 years later? I doubt it. Too little fine knowledge of the local environment. Aus Abos did the same, and I have read that their advent is detectable by the burning. But 40-60,000 years is still a lot younger.

      But who will bother to look? So we find a silo, a stone wall and a few suspicious blades. Who is going to assume Eemian and bother to try dating them? Gobekli Tepe was ignored by generations of archaeologists who were surrounded by thousands of more rewarding-appearing sites to choose from.

  7. Zimriel says:

    I’d start with dogs, since they are the first to be domesticated by primitive man.
    By this theory the Denisovans of the Eemian got part of the way to taming wolves, but the wolves went feral again when the ice came back and everything went back to basics. Like dingoes in Australia.
    The new wolves of 13000 BC would have been more doglike than the wolves of 200000 BC, so inclined to return to domesticity when new humans got there.

  8. mtkennedy21 says:

    Maybe this thing is significant ?

    To be clear, the team has not found human bones at the site. But as Deméré and their colleagues tell it, their evidence—a mastodon skeleton, bone flakes, and several large stones—shows that the area was a “bone quarry,” where an unknown hominin allegedly smashed fresh mastodon bones with stone hammers, perhaps to extract marrow or to mine the skeleton for raw materials.

  9. engleberg says:

    If cotton spread to South America in the Eemian, that would be evidence of agriculture.

  10. TWS says:

    There were Vikings in north America less than 1000 years ago and we’ve found only one settlement. One silver penny and a copper bowl. A whole town was destroyed by the park service near my home and the only evidence people find is a large foundation becoming rubble fast. If the agriculture was in one of sunken area we’d never find it.

  11. Jacob says:

    In our genome, or in neoteny patterns seen in wolves… or in the genome of a tuber?

  12. dearieme says:

    Sometimes even the bleedin’ obvious gets overlooked.

  13. David Chamberlin says:

    I never bought that there wasn’t a lot of human management of crops before the actual agricultural revolution. Let’s look more closely at root crops, gourds, hazelnuts, and probably twenty more plants that would have been very beneficial to hunter gatherers. Who was the first group of hunter gatherers that left the smaller root crops to grow for another year. Many nutritious tuberous plants are super easy to break apart and plant individually. Who did that first? We don’t know but it was way before the formal start of the agricultural revolution.

    • dearieme says:

      When I was a lad we would often break a small branch off an elder bush – meaning a young tree – and stick it into the ground. A large proportion would flourish and yield another elder.

      Suppose some pre-agricultural tribe enjoyed elderflowers or elderberries. How might one detect such behaviour by them?

  14. epoch says:

    Gravettians in Italy appear to have made flower from the tubers of Typha latifolia.

  15. ChrisA says:

    This paper argues that the fluctuations in climate in the previous interglacial were much higher amplitude than the current, making agriculture impossible;

    Click to access AgOrigins_2_12_01.pdf

  16. David Chamberlin says:

    “The last interglacial happened about 120,000 years ago.”

    Hominids were really really thin on the ground. We know about that from DNA, ancient populations are very very bottlenecked from small Anatomically modern humans, Denisovans, and Neanderthals apparently had their own territories that they held on to because of evolutionary advantages they held over the other groups. We do not know jack shit about any of these groups because these folks had the temerity to leave virtually no traces of there passing. It’s a rare party when we find a fragment of a skull but mostly we are left with an occasional tooth. Well phooey, that sucks. These early humans weren’t very good hunters, when compared to let’s say wolves or mountain lions. They were ambush hunters, which when you think about it is a pretty crappy way to hunt meat. They couldn’t outrun the four legged meat lockers and they had a really hard time getting close enough to jab a spear into one of the kill spots. They probably followed around the top predators that were far more successful hunters than they were and got the left overs.

    Some places had the right environment to support huge herds of grazing animals like the African Savanna does today, These were the places that tiny populations of hominids found their niche. 120,000 thousand years ago is a key time period to center in on for a specific reason. It was the last time it was warmer than the present and if tiny fragments of bones were left in caves that were just a few degrees above freezing back than than they are waiting for science to rediscover them and to learn a great deal about the original animals from the wealth of data preserved DNA can yield.

    So where should we look? Cold caves up around Siberia/Beringia. Huge herds roamed the rich grasslands up there making it a likely spot for pre modern hominids to live.

    Haven’t we looked into these caves already? Nope. Nobody is methodically searching in the high rock shelters where eagles would carry back scraps to feed their young. The Denisovan cave has been one degree above freezing since the Neanderthals and Denisovans died there, consequently the tiny fragments of bone found there are treasure troves of information.

    There are a lot more.

    • David Chamberlin says:

      These could be any meat eating cliff nesting birds, hawks and buzzards could also bring back meat scraps that have bone in them to the nest. But frequently enough they would be very close to an opening that lead further into the ground where ideal freezing temperatures have been maintained for a very long time. Rodents would live here attracted by the warmth and the safety and they would carry back the cliff birds table scraps into ideal locations for preserving DNA, basically very ancient refrigerators.

  17. ThoseSicklesThough says:

    Would something like “three sisters”/companion planting be detectable after 100k+ years?
    Can you even definitely say, whether any given New World tribal community, that went extinct before people could talk to them, did or did not engage in the practice (and that would just be ~500 years).
    Three sisters is very productive and is referred to be done in gardens rather than fields. So I think, that means it doesn’t take much space, so less of a signature. Not sure if it or something akin to it would require much in the way of specialized tools either.

  18. James K says:

    The cause of the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum is not understood. Could it have been global warming from the industrial activity of an intelligent species that destroyed its own civilisation?

    Such industrial activity might have lasted less than a thousand years – the blink of a geological eye. What fossil artefacts would remain after 60 million years? Perhaps lumps of slag from iron smelting, fragments of concrete, shards of pottery or glass, or Palaeocene mine workings in older (e.g. Carboniferous) strata. Mostly these would be discarded by modern scientists as modern intrusions (OOPARTs).

  19. personalogic says:

    Given anatomically modern humans, with a 15,000 year window of temperatures only a few degrees more than now, some sort of substantial Eemian agricultural society seems plausible. But a lot of things would have to come together. A river valley with annual flooding to replenish the fields, animals (particularly draft animals) capable of being domesticated, diminishing wild animal resources justifying the extra work involved in agriculture, and probably others. 120,000 years is plenty of time to erase the evidence. I think that to find it you would have to figure out where the ideal conditions were present and do an intense investigation of that area (assuming it is still accessible).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s