The Fearsome Farmers of The Neolithic

When Early People began farming they changed forever, their societies, their diet, the landscape and the very crops they were growing.

Poppies on the edge of the wheat field © Copyright Chris Reynolds and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Wheat became, and still is, an essential part of the evolution of farming and that fundamental change which took place across Western Europe.

The evolution of wheat spikes has been studied by  Rut Sánchez-Bragado and Josep Lluís Araus-Ortega, from the UB Faculty of Biology and Agrotecnio-UdL; Gustavo A. Slafer, ICREA researcher at the UdL School of Agrifood and Forestry Science and Engineering, and Gemma Molero, from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, currently a researcher at KWS Seeds Inc.

The cultivation of wheat began in ancient Mesopotamia between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Over time the spikes of the plant have changed. The plant phenotype has undergone both rapid (within a few hundred years) and slow (thousands of years) changes, such as the weakening of the rachis, the increase in seed size, and the reduction or disappearance of the awns. In particular, awned and awnless wheat varieties are found all over the world, although the latter tend to be abundant in regions with arid climates, especially during the final stages of cultivation in late spring, a condition typical of Mediterranean environments.

Awns, threadlike extensions of the lemma, increase the surface area of the ear in bread wheat by up to 50% (Blum, 1985) and by up to 60% in longer-awned, durum wheat (Blum, 1985Motzo and Giunta, 2002)

Awns reduce grain number to increase grain size and harvestable yield in irrigated and rainfed spring wheat

Josep Lluís Araus, professor at the Department of Evolutionary Biology, Ecology and Environmental Sciences of the Faculty of Biology explained:

“Awns are organs of the spike that have traditionally been associated with the plant’s adaptations to drought conditions. Archaeological and historical records show that the wheat spike has existed predominantly with awns for more than ten millennia after the domestication of wheat. It is not until the last millennium that evidence shows in many cases the absence of awns, indicating a selection by farmers —probably in an undirected way— against this organ.”

Studying how the plant has changed is important due to the change we are facing now in our climate. In arid conditions, the spikes —including the awns— “have better physiological characteristics than the leaves. In addition, the awns allow the light captured by the crop to be more diffused, which facilitates a better distribution of light energy and allows the crop to photosynthesise more. Therefore, in arid conditions, the awns can still be beneficial for the crop, or at most, neutral”, concludes Professor Josep Lluís Araus.

And what about those early farmers, the Neolithic people of Western Europe? Was it a peace loving society as many like to believe, or were they aggressive towards each other?

A team of international researchers say that in some regions the period from 6000BC to 2000BC may be a high point in conflict and violence with the destruction of entire communities. Of the skeletal remains of more than 2300 early farmers from 180 sites dating from around 8000 – 4000 years ago to, more than one in ten displayed weapon injuries, bioarchaeologists found.

Skara Brae, Neolithic village in Orkney

Researchers used bioarchaeological techniques to study human skeletal remains from sites in Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Spain and Sweden.

The team collated the findings to map, for the first time, evidence of violence across Neolithic Northwestern Europe, which has the greatest concentration of excavated Neolithic sites in the world.

The team from the Universities of Edinburgh, Bournemouth and Lund in Sweden, and the OsteoArchaeological Research Centre in Germany examined the remains for evidence of injuries caused predominantly by blunt force to the skull.  

Dr Linda Fibiger, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology, explained:

“Human bones are the most direct and least biased form of evidence for past hostilities and our abilities to distinguish between fatal injuries as opposed to post-mortem breakage have improved drastically in recent years, in addition to differentiating accidental injuries from weapon based assaults.”

More than 10% showed damage potentially caused by frequent blows to the head by blunt instruments or stone axes. Several examples of penetrative injuries, thought to be from arrows, were also found.

Some of the injuries were linked to mass burials, which could suggest the destruction of entire communities, the researchers say.

Dr Martin Smith, of Bournemouth University’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, said:

“The study raises the question to why violence seems to have been so prevalent during this period. The most plausible explanation may be that the economic base of society had changed. With farming came inequality and those who fared less successfully appear at times to have engaged in raiding and collective violence as an alternative strategy for success, with the results now increasingly being recognised archaeologically.”

The Neolithic Ring of Brodgar in Orkney

Click on this link to access, Awned versus awnless wheat spikes: does it matter?, published in Trends in Plant Science.

Click on this link to access, Conflict, violence, and warfare among early farmers in Northwestern Europe, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Fiona Grahame

Categories: Science

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