In the Archipelago Seasons Farmers don’t Read ‘Science’

28 May, 2012

This week On the Reading Rest I have an excavation report in Swedish:

Stenbäck & al. 2012. Niklas Stenbäck, Marcus Eriksson, Michel Guinard and Roger Wikell, Stenålder vid Påljungshage. En sörmländsk lokal med nedslag från tidig- och mellanneolitikum—Stone Age at ’Paul Young’s Pen’. A Site in Södermanland visited in the Early and Middle Neolithic. [SAU rapport 2010:8, pp 184]. Uppsala 2012. (cf.   )

Once again, a site, excavated because society needs to transform itself and exploit its assets, reveals a micro history easy to grasp. The excavation results, moreover, makes it obvious that a simplistic answer to a wrongly posed but popular Stone Age question, cannot survive the complexity of Prehistory and the straightforward contexts which it gave rise to.

Let’s start with trivia: the dimension and size of log boats is determined largely by the logs from which they are made. Indeed, and for two reasons this means that in the future, Swedish log boats will be very narrow and little used.
(1) Today, when it comes to the exploitation of its assets, Sweden is turning woods into squared production surfaces where firs are planted in an even pattern and expected to grow for 70 years only before they are harvested. Woodlands are rapidly turned into monoculture fir fields and seventy year old firs are still slender trees – useless when it comes to log boats.
(2) All wood production surfaces are eventually ploughed and planted with fir, which means that soon there will be no suitable pines either.

In bygone days when woods were dense with a variety of vegetation and trees grew straight for non-cultural rather than mono-cultural reasons, biological diversity ruled. Trees grew tall and their wide trunks made wonderful log boats or canoes. Some prehistoric boats are impressive.

The rapid loss of biodiversity and ecosystems in Sweden is not trivial, and in most of the world, not least in Sweden, it has become too late to hug the trees of a primeval forest. Instead the loss of everything but firs, young or young adult trees, has resulted in fir field monuments to narrow-minded greed and irrationality. We should accept neither the loss nor the monuments.

During the Stone Age at Påljungshage—Paul Young’s Pen—they didn’t build log boats, but they used them to go there from the mainland in Early Neolithic times. Owing to the high water levels Paul Young’s Pen was not a pen at all, but a protected coast facing south on a small rocky island in the outer archipelago with a good landing place. The landing place was a sandy beach cleared from stones, perfect for canoes.

Those days are behind us. Because of the shore displacement starting when the Scandinavian inland ice and its weight melted away, the water disappeared, the beach became a meadow and eventually a marginal pen before the highway was constructed and the agricultural land replaced by brushwood in a narrow and badly drained corridor between the road bank and the once Neolithic beach. Today, having blown away the bedrock that once formed the top of the island and crushed debris and blasted stone into valuable gravel, the place has become a shopping mall as commonplace to the outskirts of a modern town as ever a beach site in the Neolithic archipelago.

But the excavations conducted before the construction of the shopping centre were excellent. And for once money wasn’t a problem – in part because of all the gravel.

The Stone Age site was a nuisance to the exploiters and not much to bother about, but the Bronze Age – Early Iron Age cemetery on the very top of the former island, once monumentally marking the border zone of the Bronze and Early Iron Age settlement north of Paul Young’s Pen, sat on valuable bedrock and had to go. The whole scene was potent modern exploitation: an end with a bang to the lee and protected beaches of the outer Stone Age archipelago.

Although Paul Young’s Pen was been visited several times in prehistory, the visits in the Early Neolithic, 4th millennium BCE, meet the eye. Careful excavation and interpretation of archaeological variables as well as a number of sophisticated analyses – wear on stone artefacts, lipids in pot shards, thin sections of ceramic ware and analysis of decoration, analysis of macro fossils and diatoms as well as osteology and 14C dates, tell us the following about the Early Neolithic site: Facing the south there were three small sandy shelves close to the shore. They were used simultaneously for similar yet somewhat different purposes. On the eastern shelf the use of fire was important and so was cooking and quarts/quartzite napping. On the western shelf grinding played a prominent role. The central shelf was the better landing site and the arena of the commonplace of daily life when the level of the water was c. 30 metre above today’s sea level. The western and central shelf had direct contact with the water, but the eastern one was isolated.

The central shelf represents the dwelling area, the eastern shelf a rather smoky specialization related to processing, and the western a ‘non-smoking’ area with an element of craftsmanship. The report is built around the systematic presentation and interpretation of a number of artefact categories in view of distribution and density. There are a number of categories: quarts, quartzite, flint, whinstone, rock type, slate, mica slate, sandstone, ceramics, burnt bone, fire cracked stone, lipids and diatoms and they give the reader a typical report insight into the settlement. Moreover, they suggest the mapping of these variables according to their presence in different square metres thus mapping the complexity to the usage of the site. We may do this by representing each category with a certain degree of opacity. If we do so, the colour of the square metre will deepen with the number of variables represented in it. Thus, an opaque red represents the most complex square metres, and clusters small centres of diverse activities.

Obviously Neolithic man used to nap quarts when he produced his tools, and fire cracked stones were endemic to the use of fire. We may therefore expect these categories to be constantly present on a settlement site and weigh them less important than ceramic, slate or flint, which must have been imported to the site by means of more complicated networks. Burnt bones too are significant because they mirror division of labour.

If we map the site in this way, the central and western shelves are characterized by small-scale clusters. At the eastern shelf, repeated activities blurred the complexity—the small-scale clusters—over a relatively large area in the western side of the shelf. Eventually, if the site had been continuously occupied for hundreds of years the small-scale clustering on all the shelves would have disappeared. Since this development didn’t happened we may Suggest that the site was visited at intervals a relatively small number of times. Eventually the coastline fell below 30 m above sea level, but that didn’t prompt Prehistoric man to follow the displaced shore. On the contrary, the few times the area was revisited people sat down on the dry and sandy sheltered shelves.

Bones, lipids, diatoms and macro fossils allow us to infer some basic facts about the Early Neolithic diet. What animals were eaten? What food was cooked and stored? What algae were trapped in the grinding stones? By chance, what plants were charred? The answer is simple: Those who ate at Paul Young’s Pen were farmers as well as hunters. They brought grain and a large grinding stone from their sweet water inland settlement out into the archipelago where diatoms that thrive in brackish water were grinded into whetstones, but not into the grinding stone. In their pots, people cooked vegetables and ruminants, as well as other terrestrial and maritime mammals. They ate wheat and barley as well as fish, seal, pig, and sheep/goat. It looks as if they mostly did this on the eastern shelf, but in reality this was where their use of fire included burning their garbage.

And when did they go there? Two times a year – before and after the farming season. They came in late winter/early spring for the seal hunt – no doubt the brutal hunt that became traditional – and returned in the autumn to fish. Topography, the year cycle and their own traditions seem to have guided their occasional visits during a 500-year period mainly in the early part of the 4th century BCE.

One thing they didn’t do in the archipelago was reading ‘Science’ and that was probably just as well since if they had read Vol 336 no. 6080 pp 466-469 and the comment pp 400-401, they would have felt as cross, neglected and misunderstood as ever a First Nations people.

The authors of the article Origins and Genetic Legacy of Neolithic Farmers and Hunter-Gatherers in Europe (pp 466-469) end up cautiously stating that ‘[o]ur results suggest that migration from southern Europe catalyzed the spread of agriculture and that admixture in the wake of this expansion eventually shaped the genomic landscape of modern-day Europe.’ In News & Analysis, under the heading Ancient Migrants Brought Farming Way of Life to Europe (pp 400-401), this nevertheless becomes ‘evidence that farmers personally took the technology across Europe, and that the first farmers of chilly northern Europe came from the continent’s sunny Mediterranean south’. The rest is www (9,960 hits at Google for the phrase “Ancient Swedish Farmer came from the Mediterranean”) and ‘Science’-true only.

Yet everything is based on a splendid analysis of ancient DNA from humans who died c. 5000 years ago, one of whom may personally have come from southern Europe. Yes, 5000 years ago, i.e. 1000 years after the first peasant-hunter-gatherers at Paul Young’s Pen dropped dead. There is of course no doubt that the forefathers of the people who visited Paul Young’s Pen could have been Europeans and that Europeans continued to find their way into the Scandinavia blind alley, but there is no reason to suggest that coming from somewhere a thousand years too late made anybody the first farmer and certainly not either farmer or hunter-gatherer. No wonder First Nations people usually don’t accept anachronisms.

It is not inconceivable that immigrants in the 3rd millennium BCE ‘catalyzed the spread of agriculture’ and many other things such as cabbages and kings, but that might and might not have happened any time before and after. None the less, well into modern times, coastland and archipelago agriculture was often a node in balanced networking with other nodes such as hunting, fishing and gathering. Such diversity is often a reasonable way to adapt to an environment and make it a human landscape without completely destroying it. Trivial but true.


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