Origins 5 – Domesticated Bliss

Happy February, readers! I hope you’re not too wet.

Now, I was lucky enough to receive as a Christmas present this excellent volume:

Cunliffe, B. (2012). Britain Begins (Oxford University Press; Oxford).

The prolific and erudite knight Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe probably needs no introduction for the readership of this blog but, for the curious, here’s a link to his departmental page, and to his rather more up-to-date Wikipedia entry.

So, this is a great book, as well-written and scholarly as you’d expect, with splendid production values (lots of maps and photographs, full colour throughout). It tells the story of Britain and Ireland between 10,000 BC and AD 1100. The book sets itself up as the successor to the ages-long tradition of ‘origins myths’ – the latest answer to the general question, Where do we come from?

“Like the myth-makers of the distant past, we are creating stories about our origins and ancestors conditioned by the world in which we live.” (p.vii)

With this in mind, there’s some fascinating introductory, historiographical matter about the stories that have been told about British origins throughout history, from ancient Greek allusions, all the way through to cutting-edge DNA research.

So, from a Farming Unearthed point-of-view, what’s inspired me to blog about this book?

Well, oddly enough, it ain’t agriculture. At least, not as we know it. I’m only up to the Mesolithic so far, in Chapter 4. The Neolithic, with all its new-fangled farming technologies, awaits me in Chapter 5. So, with this in mind, what do we make of the Mesolithic site at Oakhanger in the Weald with its unusually high percentages of hazel and ivy pollen? The interpretations cited by Cunliffe are thought-provoking (p.109):

“…there may have been deliberate felling of other trees such as alder, lime, and oak around the camp to allow hazel to flower  more freely and thus to produce a greater yield of hazel-nuts…”

“…one suggestion is that ivy was collected and brought to the periphery of the camp as fodder to attract deer during the winter months [i.e. to hunt them], when food was in short supply…”

Now, while it would perhaps be playing semantic games to call these practices “agriculture”, nonetheless to my mind this is something rather more than hunting-gathering: it seems like a kind of environmental management, to enhance local access to wild foods. I suppose the difference is that the productive environment isn’t being entirely managed by human hands. The encouragement of hazel growth isn’t quite arboriculture; but if you started planting and nurturing hazel saplings in your own specially-grown plants, would that count? And, crucially, how could we identify such a subtle difference in the archaeological record?

One archaeological clue, at least for some species, in at least some circumstances, is domestication. The emergence of domesticated varieties, distinct from their wild progenitors, implies that “environmental management” had passed a tipping point, that human intervention had effectively disrupted the process of natural selection: domestic traits are those which offer little or no advantage in the wild, but are selectively favoured (consciously or otherwise) by farming.

Here’s a nice example: the shattering and non-shattering of wheats. Put simply, wild wheats shatter; domesticated wheats don’t shatter. That is to say: wild wheats have a brittle rachis, which allows spikelets to disarticulate spontaneously, thus shattering the reproductive units (grains) over the ground and helping the plants to reproduce themselves; barbs on the spikelets help them to stick in the ground, and to deter hungry animals, to increase chances of germination. Domesticated varieties, by contrast, don’t shatter: the spikelets stay put, all the better for harvesting by hand.

So, a simple indicator of the division between “gathering” and “farming”?

Well, no, as it happens, because you could sow and harvest a shattering variety of wheat, just so long as you harvest the spikelets before they start spontaneously disarticulating. It would not be a domesticated crop, in this case, but it would be a cultivated crop: an important distinction, and one central to the debate about when and how agriculture began.

But that’s another story.

Some references:

Cappers, RTJ & Neef, R (2012). Handbook of Plant Palaeoecology (Barkhuis, Groningen): pp.380-387.

Renfrew, C & Bahn, P (2012). Archaeology: Theory, Methods and Practice (6th ed., Thames & Hudson, London):pp.273-292.

Tanno, K-I & Willcox, G (2006). “How fast was wild wheat domesticated?”, Science 311 (no.5769): p.1886.