Starch grains and the origins of agriculture

A couple of papers discussed here and here (among other places: the chili pepper story in particular has been getting a lot of media coverage) describe how the minute, species-characteristic starch grains found in micro-crevices on stone tools and cooking utensils recovered from archaelogical sites are being used to study the domestication of crops as varied as maize, cassava and chilies in the Americas. The findings are pushing back the timing of domestication and suggesting that wet lowland areas were more important in the process than previously thought. Jeremy blogs on the chili angle at greater length here. No word on the past of cactus cultivation, at least in these papers, but this piece suggests its future may be troubled.

Amazing maize stories

Apparently, maize recovered from ancient burials in NW Argentina is genetically “almost identical” (whatever that means!) to the landraces still being grown in the area. I wonder if it was prepared in the same way too. This piece in the Washington Post certainly shows that maize culinary traditions are strong, and can go back a long way.

What did Neanderthals eat?

Recent media reports that Neanderthals were occasional cannibals and that women may have accompanied the men on their hunts got me thinking about the Neanderthal diet in general. In particular, did they eat much in the way of plant products at all? While meat was clearly the mainstay of the diet, it does seem from this interesting rebuttal of the hunting women hypothesis that:  

Vegetable foods may well have been part of Middle Paleolithic diets in Eurasia, but these were more like salads, snacks, and desserts than energy-rich staples…Large underground storage organs are common among plant taxa in arid sub-Saharan Africa, but the high-yield edible plant foods of temperate and Mediterranean Eurasia tend to be seeds and nuts that, while potentially nutritious, require more effort to collect and process and thus afford low net yields (Kuhn and Stiner 2006:957).

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to promote some underutilized nut as a Neanderthal dessert? Or perhaps that would not be such a clever idea, given that the Neanderthals died out… Anyway, although some of the information sources listed seem somewhat suspect, there is a compendium of internet resources on the “paleolithic diet” here.

Fido not a domesticated wolf?

Domestic dogs are derived from wolves, right? Maybe not. There is apparently a minority view that says that a better interpretation of behavioural, morphological and genetic differences between the domestic dog and the wolf is that the dog was domesticated from a now-extinct, pariah-like precursor, with occasional hybridization with wolves along the way. You can read more about this controversial view on Darren Naish’s zoological blog.

Domestication my ass

Why was the Somali wild ass domesticated and not, say, the zebra? It’s a cantankerous animal at best. Washington University archaeologist Fiona Marshall is travelling the world looking at bones and wild populations, but she is also studying the behaviour of the St Louis Zoo’s five wild asses with Zoo researcher Cheryl Asa to seek “clues as to how they were turned into donkeys,” according to this article.