By Bernie Bell
The fields are being ploughed ready for sowing. The archaeologists are gearing up for a different kind of season of digging, and Howie has been combining the two……
“I have been reflecting, and realising that it is only when anyone does something physically that they can truly appreciate how difficult it is and what an achievement it was when it was done for the first time.
So in the case of the plant breeders of the Neolithic, they transformed teosinte grass into maize and the plant architectures are so different that it was only the use of DNA analysis in recent years that finally confirmed it. Wild teosinte is bushy while maize grows tall stalks, and teosinte seeds have a hard covering, very unlike maize. Because some of teosinte’s features come from regions of the same gene, it’s possible that if you start cross-breeding by keeping selecting for fewer and shorter side branches then you find more and larger seeds. But they say that to fix this one gene would take from 300 to 1000 years of breeding. The result of their work was one of the three main cereal crops that feed us all today, and one of the big questions is how did they even start?
I would like to see someone setting up a project in which teosinte plants were cross-bred and selected, to see directly how long it would take to make any noticeable difference. This is what Claude Lévi-Strauss said about the extent of the skills of the Neolithic:
“To transform a weed into a cultivated plant, a wild beast into a domestic animal, to produce, in either of these, nutritious or technologically useful properties which were originally absent or could only be guessed at; to make stout, water-tight pottery out of clay which is friable and unstable, liable to pulverize or crack (which, however, is possible only if from a large number of organic and inorganic materials, the one most suitable for refining it is selected, and also the appropriate fuel, the temperature and duration of firing and the effective degree of oxidation); to work out techniques, often long and complex, which permit cultivation without soil or alternatively without water; to change toxic roots or seeds into foodstuffs or again to use their poison for hunting, war or ritual – there is no doubt that all these achievements required a genuinely scientific attitude, sustained and watchful interest and a desire for knowledge for its own sake. For only a small proportion of observations and experiments (which must be assumed to have been primarily inspired by a desire for knowledge) could have yielded practical and immediately useful results. There is no need to dwell on the working of bronze and iron and of precious metals or even the simple working of copper ore by hammering which preceded metallurgy by several thousand years, and even at that stage they all demand a very high level of technical proficiency.
Neolithic, or early historical, man was therefore the heir of a long scientific tradition.”
This reminds me of one of my Mother’s sayings….’Necessity is the Mother of Invention.” – Necessity – Persistence and Methodology.
And who is Howie? I should have said….Howie is Howie Firth, Director of the Orkney International Science Festival – coming to you in September!
Putting together Howie’s thoughts about the early domestication of ‘grasses’, and Fiona’s on-going researches into Orkney straw-plaiters – I was thinking – textiles have been found at Pre-historic sites, also rope twisted from – for example – honeysuckle stems, and basketry. I wonder if the first farmers also made use of the stems as well as the grain from grasses to produce decorative objects, by plaiting? If so, they would have probably rotted away – but – you never know what might be found.