Ancient Pots Show How Humans Adopted Farming

The switch from hunting and gathering to farming was revolutionary—but was it fast or slow?

These artifacts are thought to have been offerings from the earliest farming communities that lived in this area. Chemical analysis of charred food residues preserved inside a number of vessels shows they were used for processing freshwater fish, which supplemented their fledgling agricultural economy. Image courtesy of Anders Fischer

When humans made the switch from being hunter-gatherers to farmers, it was a revolutionary transition. Archaeologists have linked the change to population growth and a wider variety in diet. Traditionally, archaeologists saw this as a relatively instantaneous changeover, with societies adopting livestock and cereal cultivation as well as the use of ceramic containers to process and store foodstuffs. But using pots as an indicator of when this shift took place is problematic, especially given evidence that even foraging societies used vessels. Now a new study of pots paints a different picture of this pivotal point in human history and suggests that the shift to farming was not as rapid as previously thought.

Researchers from the University of York and the University of Bradford focused their attentions on potsherds from inland and coastal settlements around the Baltic. Farming has been practiced there since about 4,000 B.C. Human remains from before this point in time show a diet heavy in marine life, while later remains indicate a diet heavy in land-based foods. So if anything, it’s also a region that could support the rapid change view. In an analysis of lipids (fats and other molecules) on 133 potsherds, the researchers found that even after the practice of domesticating plants and animals was well in place, people still continued to forage for food in nearby waterways. So even though the know-how was there, the cultural shift to relying on farmed foodstuffs was much more gradual.

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