Friday, April 20, 2012

The Transition to Food Production

Excerpts from "The Emergence of a Food-Producing Economy in the Sahara" by A. Muzzolini from The Archaeology of Africa edited by Thurston Shaw, Paul Sinclair, Bassey Andah and Alex Okpoko (Link)


"In an arid zone, a degree of sedentism is necessary to maintain a close link to a water supply.  Complete sedentism, with permanent dwellings, appears to be a more or less obligatory condition for the cultivation of cereals, but not for the pastoral system of the Saharan Neolithic.  Nevertheless, increased sedentism is clear as compared to epipalaeolithic or earlier times; ethnic groups now became distinct, characterized by, for example, specialized lithic industries and styles of rock art.  The people remained nomadic but confined to certain territories, thus producing ethnic identity."

Material culture and economy

"In the early Holocene, material equipment was considerably improved.  Pottery may have been used for the storage of grain, and was possibly also used for cooking; the lithic industry developed beyond all recognition - edge-ground cutting tools, and above all microliths, allowing for the manufacture of specialized and efficient composite tools.  Various skillfully flaked macrolithic tools, such as arrowheads and adzes, were added to the toolkit.  Specialized hunting and fishing, together with intensive collecting of wild grain, which characterized the early Holocene everywhere, may have developed in association with the specialization and the efficiency of these new tools."

Demographic pressure

"The density of remains and sites in certain areas of the Sahara gives clear evidence of demographic pressure:  for every one Aterian or Acheulean site there are a hundred neolithic.  This radical increase in population, immediately obvious from Pachur & Roper's (1984, p. 64) tables, and emphasized by Gabriel (1986, p. 21) for the eastern Sahara, is also illustrated by Tassilian rock art 'villages' with their abundance of engravings and paintings (Muzzolini 1986); a similar trend is observable in Capsian territory (Lubell, Sheppard & Jackes 1984), in the 'late Neolithic' of Nabta Playa/Bir Kiseiba (Wendorf, Close & Schild 1985), in the southern Atbai (Marks, Abbas, Hays & Elamin 1983) and in the valley of the Nile (Hassan, Ch. 33, this volume).  The suddenness with which this population explosion burst upon the scene - and the uneven way in which it then progressed in comparison with other factors - suggests that, although not the sole cause of the neolithic upheaval, it must have been a major one."

   "The principal objections against population pressure models stress that the 'carrying capacity' of a biotope constitutes only a flexible ceiling, and numerous adaptations can modify it (Hassan 1979).  However, this objection seems less valid in an arid zone."

   "In fact, the vital link with a water source, for animals as well as for humans, rigidly determines land occupation as soon as a critical population threshold is reached and all the sources of water are in use (that is, either permanently occupied or regularly visited, according to the 'rights' of each group).  Neither animals nor humans then have any further possibility of migrating to another supply of water.  This first 'crisis', which had never occured before the Neolithic, had the end result of creating and fixing 'territories' within finite limits."

   "As a result of demographic increase all possible 'territories' were occupied; these now included even the most difficult, such as the sand seas.  For the first time there was no more virgin land in the Sahara.  There followed an increase in sedentism, competition between groups, specialized hunting of the only species existing in the biotope and an intensification of local food-collecting; all this resulted in an accelerated population increase.  This continued until a second 'crisis' was set off by the inevitable natural limitations and carrying capacity of the biotope, which is more fragile and, above all, less flexible in an arid zone, if it continues to be exploited in the traditional way by semi-sedentary people.  Two solutions were possible.  Warfare, in the modern sense of the term, emerged as a new form of relationship between organized groups.  Evidence of this exists in J. Sahaba in Nubia, around 12,000 bp, where a burial ground yielded fifty-nine projectile points protruding into twenty-four bodies (Wendorf 1968c).  Alternatively, a transition to a still more intensive and planned exploitation of the 'territory' could be made.  The possibility had been known; now it became a necessity.  It consisted of the regulation of reserves to a far higher degree than simple storage of collected grain in pots or granaries; it involved the accumulation of protein in managed livestock or, where possible, in cultivated cereals."


Pachur, H. J. & H. P. Roper 1984.  Die Bedeutung palaoklimatischer Befunde aus den Flachbereichen der ostlichen Sahara und des nordlichen Sudan. Zeitschrift fur Geomorphologie 50, 59-70.

Gabriel, B. 1986.  Die ostliche libysche Wuste im Jungquartar.  Berlin:  Institut fur Geographie der Technischen Universitat.

Muzzolini, A. 1986.  L'Art rupestre prehistorique des massifs centraux sahariens.  Oxford:  British Archaeological Reports.

Lubell, D., P. Sheppard & M. Jackes 1984.  Continuity in the Epipalaeolithic of north Africa with special emphasis on the Maghreb.  In Advances in World Archaeology 3, Wendorf, F. & A. E. Close (eds), 143-91.  New York:  Academic Press.

Wendorf, F., A. E. Close, R. Schild 1985.  Prehistoric settlements in the Nubian desert.  American Scientist 173, 132-41.
Marks, A. E., M. A. Abbas, T. R. Hays & Y. Elamin 1983.  Preliminary report of the Butana Archaeological Project.  The 1982/3 field season.  Nyame Akuma 22, 26-7.
Hassan, F. A., Town and village in ancient Egypt: ecology, society and urbanization, The Archaeology of Africa, Shaw, Sinclair, Andah, Okpoko (eds). 1993.
Hassan, F. A. 1979.  Demography and archaeology.  Annual Review of Anthropology 8, 137-60.
Wendorf, F. 1968c.  Site 117:  a Nubian final palaeolithic graveyard near Jebel Sahaba, Sudan.  In The Prehistory of Nubia, Vol. 2. Wendorf, F. (ed.), 954-95.  Dallas:  Fort Burgwin Research Center & Southern Methodist University Press.

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