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The role of food storage in human niche construction: An example from Neolithic Europe


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Niche construction theory, a branch of evolutionary biology, places emphasis on the capacity of organisms, through their metabolism, activities and choices, to modify natural selection in their environment and thereby act as co-directors of their own evolution as well as that of others. Humans are potent niche constructors, and understanding how niche construction regulates ecosystem dynamics is central to understanding the impact of human populations on their ecological and developmental environments. A classic example is provided by the evolution of dairying by Neolithic groups in Europe and the significant role played by storage in the development of the dairying niche.
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The role of food storage in human niche
construction: An example from Neolithic
Michael J. OBrien1, R. Alexander Bentley2
University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, USA,
University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
Niche construction theory, a branch of evolutionary biology, places emphasis on the capacity of organisms,
through their metabolism, activities and choices, to modify natural selection in their environment and thereby
act as co-directors of their own evolution as well as that of others. Humans are potent niche constructors, and
understanding how niche construction regulates ecosystem dynamics is central to understanding the impact
of human populations on their ecological and developmental environments. A classic example is provided by
the evolution of dairying by Neolithic groups in Europe and the significant role played by storage in the
development of the dairying niche.
Keywords: Cattle, Dairying, Milk, Neolithic, Niche construction, Storage
As the papers in this issue attest, storage, especially of
food but extending to water, weapons and any number
of other phenomena, is and always has been a key
component of human society. Because of this central-
ity, storage has long been a focus of archaeological and
ethnological interest. Drawing from Morgans (2012)
summary, storage has been seen as a necessary precur-
sor to agriculture (Bender 1978); as an indicator of
sociocultural complexity (Price and Brown 1985); as
a concomitant feature (Testart 1982), if not a cause
(Flannery 1972; Rafferty 1985; Yoder 2005; Pearson
2006), of sedentism; as an important step in concep-
tualising private property (Bettinger 1999); as a
means of social control (Wesson 1999); as a form of
shared knowledge (Hendon 2000) and as a motivation
for the development of numerical counting
(Divale 1999).
Despite long-standing interest in storage on the part
of social scientists, Morgan (2012) pointed out that
there has been only minimal quantitative assessment
of the causes and effects of food-storage variability
and how these might play out in evolutionary-ecologi-
cal contexts. Our goal here is not to attempt to sum-
marise all the varied opinions on the role(s) of
storage in human societies but rather to consider
Morgans call in terms of the co-evolutionary nature
of organisms and storage features and more specifi-
cally the downstream evolutionary and ecological
consequences of storage. That perspective derives
from niche construction theory (NCT), a branch of
evolutionary biology that places emphasis on the
capacity of organisms, through their metabolism,
activities and choices, to modify natural selection in
their environment, which food storage does, and
thereby act as co-directors of their own evolution as
well as that of others (Odling-Smee et al. 2003).
Anthropologists have long known the power that
culture exerts in shaping the human condition, but it
is becoming increasingly clear that the interactions of
genes and culture literally, their co-evolution
offer a faster and stronger mode of human evolution
than either by itself (e.g., Aoki 1986; Durham 1991;
Ehrlich 2000; Richerson and Boyd 2005; Hawks
et al. 2007; Laland et al. 2010; Richerson et al. 2010;
Ihara 2011; Rendell et al. 2011). Nowhere has gene-
culture co-evolution happened faster than within
societies whose subsistence economies fall somewhere
on the broad spectrum that ranges from incipient
plant and/or animal domestication to full-blown agri-
culture economies that depend heavily on food
storage as an adaptive strategy. The NCT approach
to the evolution and development of agriculture has
provided numerous opportunities to link the findings
of human genetics with those of anthropology and
archaeology and to generate novel hypotheses about
human evolution (Itan et al. 2009; Laland and
OBrien 2010; Laland et al. 2010; Richerson et al.
2010; Gerbault et al. 2011; OBrien and Laland 2012).
Humans are not the only animals to have evolved
the ability to store food; food storage is practiced by
Correspondence to: Michael J. OBrien, University of Missouri, Columbia,
MO, 65211, USA. Email:
© Association for Environmental Archaeology 2015
DOI 10.1179/1749631414Y.0000000053 Environmental Archaeology 2015 VOL. 0NO. 01
literally tens of thousands of species of mammals, rep-
tiles, birds and insects (Vander Wall 1990; Nowak
1991). These can be remarkably human-like beha-
viours: some animals hoard in central larders, which
they often guard closely, whereas others scatter their
hoards in order to minimise the risk of catastrophic
loss from theft. Some species go to great lengths to
hide or disguise caches whereas others are quite open
as to location (Koenig and Mumme 1987). Some
even tolerate pilfering, apparently following a tit-for-
tat strategy that what they lose today theyll make up
through their own pilfering tomorrow. Some species
practice food sharing whereas most do not.
Even the size and complexity of storage structures
can blur the lines between humans and animals, one
example of which is seen in the enormously complex
underground nest and storage facility of a leaf-cutter
ant species shown in Fig. 1. As impressive as that facil-
ity is, humans, being the ultimate niche constructors
(Odling-Smee et al. 2003), have gone to incredible
lengths in constructing storage facilities, from the
granaries of the earliest food-producing societies of
the Near East, such as the 11,000-year-old sloped-
floor structure at Dhra, Jordan, in Fig. 2, to the
massive Roman granaries at Karanis, Egypt, in Fig. 3.
Out of the almost limitless examples of the role
played by storage in human niche construction, we
selected one that dates roughly between 9000 and
6000 years ago and took place over a region that
encompasses much of modern-day Europe and
Turkey (Anatolia). That period, referred to as the
European Neolithic, witnessed the introduction of
cattle from Anatolia northward into the hunting-
and-gathering economies of Europe and the spread
of domesticated cereals, longhouses and associated
storage facilities, Indo-European languages, and cul-
tural practices that included dairying (Renfrew 1987;
Bogucki 1988; Whittle 1996; Weisdorf 2005;
Edwards et al. 2007; Bramanti et al. 2009; Haak
et al. 2010; Bickle and Whittle 2013). The Neolithic
example provides an excellent opportunity to
examine the ecology of food storage in several guises,
all of which played key roles in the evolution of
genetic change among Neolithic populations,
especially the evolution of the capacity for adults to
digest milk. The example illustrates not only the
wide range of storage features that humans have
created but also the role that storage behaviours play
in effecting genetic change.
Niche Construction
Ecologists and evolutionary biologists have long
recognised the complex interplay of animal behaviour
and the physical environment, with Mayr (1973, 388)
claiming that behaviour is perhaps the strongest selec-
tion pressure operating in the animal kingdom.
Despite this recognition, standard evolutionary
theory often treats the interplay of behaviour and the
environment as unidirectional, where adaptation is
always asymmetrical; organisms adapt to their
environment, never vice versa(Williams 1992, 484).
The standard evolutionary perspective that the
environment poses the problem; the organisms
posit solutions,of which the best is finally chosen’’
(Lewontin 1983, 276) is shown in Fig. 4 (top).
Notice that (1) niche construction is recognised as a
product of natural selection but not as an evolutionary
process and (2) inheritance is primarily genetic.
The missing element in this standard perspective is
the fact that the selective environments of organisms
are themselves partially built by their own niche-con-
struction activities. Thus organisms do not adapt to
their environments; they construct them out of the
bits and pieces of the external world(Lewontin
1983, 280). The adaptive fit between organism and
environment involves the capacity of organisms to
modify environmental states, often, but not exclu-
sively, in a manner that suits their genotypes (Fig. 4
(bottom)). Such matches are the dynamic products
of a two-way process that involves organisms both
responding to problemsposed by their environments
through selection the standard view of evolution
and setting themselves new problems by changing
environments through niche construction the
addition to the standard view (Lewontin 1983, 2000;
Odling-Smee 1988; Laland and Sterelny 2006 (see
also debate in Scott-Phillips et al. 2014)). Examples
of niche construction include bacteria fixing nutrients
(Wcislo 1989; Jones et al. 1994, 1997; Odling-Smee
et al. 2003); fungi decomposing organic matter;
plants changing levels of atmospheric gases and mod-
ifying nutrient cycles; animals manufacturing nests,
burrows, webs and pupal cases; and humans construct-
ing houses, animal pens and storage facilities and
domesticating plants and animals (Smith 2007a;
Odling-Smee and Turner 2011).
The Extended Phenotype: A Basis for Human
Niche Construction
Standard evolutionary theory treats niche construc-
tion as phenotypic, or extended phenotypic
(Dawkins 1982), consequences of prior selection, not
as a cause of evolutionary change. Following
Dawkins (1982), extended phenotypeis defined as
an adaptation that is the product of genes expressed
outside of the body of the organism that carries
them for example, a birds nest, a spiders web or a
caddiss house. As a result, there exists extensive
theory within evolutionary biology and evolutionary
ecology concerning how selection shapes the capacity
of organisms to modify environmental states and con-
struct artefacts (Alcock 1972; St Amant and Horton
OBrien and Bentley Role of food storage in human niche construction
Environmental Archaeology 2015 VOL . 0NO. 02
2008; Shumaker et al. 2011) and structures (Hansell
1984; Turner 2000), but there is little theory concerned
with how niche construction modifies natural selec-
tion, particularly selection acting at loci other than
those expressed in the niche construction (Odling-
Smee et al. 2003).
Likewise in archaeology, the notion of the extended
phenotype has been applied to features such as
ceramic vessels, stone tools and wattle-and-daub
houses (OBrien and Holland 1992, 1995), but again,
there has been little or no discussion of the feedback
effects of human artifacts on natural selection
(Laland and OBrien 2010, 2014; Odling-Smee and
Turner 2011). As a result, there has been, for
example, an underappreciation of the ability of
humans to control temperature by manufacturing
clothes and building shelters, which has damped
selection favouring anatomical and physiological
responses to temperature extremes and fluctuations
and allowed us to inhabit colder areas of the world
(Laland et al. 2007).
More significant for discussion here, the crops and
animals that humans domesticate aspects of a con-
structed niche have substantially modified selection
on alleles expressed in the ability of humans to store
foods, to process novel diets and to resist inadvertently
produced disease (Laland et al. 2010; Richerson et al.
2010; OBrien and Laland 2012). This feedback from
cultural processes is not restricted to the genetic
level, given that pots, houses, storage facilities, crops
and myriad other cultural products also transform
the developmental niche (Sterelny 2009), altering
learning environments and shaping local traditions
(Talhelm et al. 2014). An important insight from
Figure 2 Interpretive reconstruction of an 11,000-year-old granary at Dhra, Jordan. The exposed area shows upright stones
supporting larger beams, with smaller wood and reeds above, and finally covered bya thick coating of mud. The suspended floor
sloped 7 degrees and served to protect stored foods from high levels of moisture and rodents. From Kuijt and Finlayson (2009).
Figure 1 Subterranean portion of a giant leafcutter ant nest in Brazil. Concrete was poured into the nest in order to create a cast
of the inside. The nest branches out to cover more than 67 m
and contains 1920 chambers, 238 of which are occupied by fungus
farms. The cut leaves are used as fertiliser for the fungus cultures. Courtesy Bilfinger Magazine.
OBrien and Bentley Role of food storage in human niche construction
Environmental Archaeology 2015 VOL . 0NO. 03
NCT is that acquired characters Laland et al. (2000)
lable them smart variants’–play an evolutionary role
by transforming selective environments (Fig. 5).
Ecosystem Engineering: Modulating Energy and
Matter Flow
An important concept in NCT, which comes out of
ecology, is ecosystem engineering, by which organ-
isms modulate flows of energy and matter through
their environments (e.g., Jones et al. 1994, 1997;
Jones and Lawton 1995; Cuddington et al. 2007;
Cuddington 2011). Such engineering activity can
have significant impacts on community structure,
composition, and diversity. Young beavers, for
example, inherit from their parents not only a local
environment comprising a dam, a lake and a lodge
but also an altered community of microorganisms,
plants and animals (Naiman et al. 1988; Wright
et al. 2002). Moreover, niche construction/ecosystem
engineering can generate long-term effects on ecosys-
tems. For instance, beaver dams deteriorate without
beaver activity, but this leads to meadows that can
persist for nearly a century and that rarely return to
the original vegetation (Hastings et al. 2007). This
kind of situation certainly is not news to anthropolo-
gists and other social scientists, who have long had
an ecological perspective when it comes to humans
and their interactions with natural and cultural
environments (e.g., Steward 1955; Geertz 1963;
Vayda 1969; Hardesty 1972; Diamond 1997). In fact,
with anthropology characterised by polemical debate
regarding evolutionary theory, it is worth noting that
NCT offers common ground even to approaches that
reject evolutionary approaches, such as structuration
Figure 3 Views of two massive Greco-Roman granaries at the site of Karanis, Egypt: (top), plan view of granary C123; (bottom),
sectional view of granary C65. Granary C123 occupied an area of about 22 ×28 m and was two stories tall, with vaulted storage
rooms opening onto central corridors. Granary C65, a three-story structure, covered an area approximately 16 ×18 1 /2m.From
Husselman (1952).
OBrien and Bentley Role of food storage in human niche construction
Environmental Archaeology 2015 VOL . 0NO. 04
theory (Giddens 1984), which emphasises the feedback
among human actions, social organisation and built
environments (OBrien and Laland 2012).
Ecological Inheritance: Downstream
Consequences of Niche Construction
The outcomes of previous niche-constructing beha-
viours those that persist as a legacy to modify selec-
tion on subsequent generations are known variously
as ecological inheritance(Odling-Smee 1988, 2007)
or ontogenetic inheritance(West et al. 1988).
Ecological inheritance does not depend on the pres-
ence of environmental replicatorsbut merely on
intergenerational persistence of whatever physical
or, in the case of humans, cultural changes are
caused by ancestral organisms in the local selective
environments of their descendants. Through their
niche construction/ecosystem engineering, organisms
produce and destroy habitats and resources for other
organisms, generating an additional engineering
webof inteconnected organisms and regulated ecosys-
tems. Environmental changes that exemplify human
niche construction, such as habitat degradation, defor-
estation and industrial and urban development, often
destroy the control webs that underlie ecosystems,
which motivates new conservation strategies to quan-
tify the economic benefits of these environmental ser-
vices. Storage can, at times, act to damp some of these
effects for example, seeds can be stored, whether by
Neolithic farmers for future plantings or by modern
crop scientists interested in conserving genetically
diverse germplasm.
Figure 4 Two views of adaptation. Under the conventional perspective (top), niche construction is recognised as a product of
natural selection but not as an evolutionary process. Inheritance is strictly genetic. Under the niche-construction perspective
(bottom), niche construction is recognised as an evolutionary process. Here, ecological inheritance plays a parallel role to
genetic inheritance. From Laland and OBrien (2011).
OBrien and Bentley Role of food storage in human niche construction
Environmental Archaeology 2015 VOL . 0NO. 05
NCT in the Human Sciences
Researchers in the social sciences have begun to find
the NCT conceptual framework useful for framing tes-
table hypotheses. For example, Smith (2007a, 2007b,
2009, 2011) proposes a cultural niche-construction
model of initial domestication as a fresh alternative
to optimal-foraging-theory accounts. Buchanan et al.
(2011) applied NCT to ethnographic data to explore
the causes of cross-cultural variation in the diversity
of subsistence toolkits, finding that predictions from
NCT provide a good fit to the data, unlike some estab-
lished theories that view either risk or population size
as the prime mover of toolkit diversity, regardless of
subsistence strategy (Collard et al. 2013). Other
successes of NCT relate to ecosystem and population
dynamics, macroevolutionary change, cultural evol-
ution and agriculture (Bleed 2006; Bleed and Matsui
2010; Broughton et al. 2010; Laland and OBrien
2010; Riel-Salvatore 2010; Gerbault et al. 2011;
Kendal et al. 2011; Riede 2011; Rowley-Conwy and
Layton 2011; Shennan 2011; Wollstonecroft 2011;
OBrien and Laland 2012; Zeder 2012).
The example on which we focus concerns the coevo-
lution of dairy farming and the allele for adult lactose
absorption. Several lines of evidence now support the
hypothesis that Neolithic dairy farming created the
selection pressures that favoured this allele in pastoral-
ist populations (Simoons 1970; Durham 1991; Holden
Figure 5 Interconnectedness of three domains of information acquisition and their roles in niche construction. Notice that in
niche construction acquired characters have an additional evolutionary role. From Laland and OBrien (2011).
Figure 6 Construction chain depicting the flow of causal influences following a cultural niche-constructing practice for
Neolithic dairy farming. Cultural processes are shown in white boxes, and genetic change is shown in shaded boxes. The
domestication of cattle triggers (1) milk consumption, which(2) favours the spread of LP, (3) promoting further milk consumption,
which (4) elicits further milk-product manufacture and consumption, which (5) leads to selective breeding of cattle, which (6)
selects for alleles conferring high milk yield in dairy cattle. In addition, cattle farming and dairy-product consumption (7) lead to
population growth, which (8) triggers dispersal into new environments. From OBrien and Laland (2012).
OBrien and Bentley Role of food storage in human niche construction
Environmental Archaeology 2015 VOL . 0NO. 06
and Mace 1997; Myles et al. 2005; Burger et al. 2007;
Leonardi et al. 2012). This example shows food
storage as a niche-constructing behaviour and also
the wide variation in storage behaviours found in
human societies.
The Coevolution of Cattle Husbandry, Storage
and Lactase Persistence
Milk is often thought of as a nutritional bonus
(Wooding 2007) because of its high content of fat, pro-
teins, carbohydrates, vitamins and calcium. This rosy
picture, however, overlooks the fact that much of the
world something on the order of 65% (Ingram
et al. 2009; Itan et al. 2010; Leonardi et al. 2012)
cannot digest milk beyond the age of about eight
(the digestion requires the body to break down the dis-
accharide sugar lactose into the two monosaccharides
glucose and galactose from which it is synthesised).
Most babies naturally produce the enzyme lactase
(also known as lactase-phlorizin hydrolase or LPH)
so that they can take advantage of the nutrients in
mothers milk, but for most of the worlds population,
lactase production shuts down in the postweaning
years. Drinking milk after that leads to a battery of
symptoms, including diarrhea, cramping, gas, nausea
and vomiting.
Simoons (1970) and McCracken (1971) were among
the first to notice a pattern in the geographic distri-
bution of lactose tolerance, usually referred to as
lactase persistence (LP): populations that show high
percentages of LP those in northern Europe, for
example, can exceed 95% (Ingram et al. 2009; Itan
et al. 2010) also exhibit a history of cattle dairying
that goes back at least several millennia. As Simoons
(1981, 29) put it, with the beginning of dairying
significant changes occurred in the diets of many
human groups. In some of these, moreover, there
may have been a selective advantage for those aberrant
individuals who experienced high levels of intestinal
lactase through life. That advantage would have
occurred in situations where milk was, or could be,
an important part of the diet, where the group was
under dietary stress, and where its members did not
process all of their milk into low-lactose products
such as cheese, yogurt and kumis.
As Gerbault et al. (2011) point out, the development
and spread of LP is a good example of niche construc-
tion, a process that began with those Neolithic groups
drinking milk gaining a selective advantage within
their specific environmental conditions. The niche
construction developed over subsequent millennia, as
LP and dairying coevolved with the genetic diversity
of human populations. The path diagram shown in
Fig. 6 illustrates a hypothesised chain of causal influ-
ences (OBrien and Laland 2012), with cultural pro-
cesses in white boxes and genetic change in shaded
boxes: The domestication of cattle triggers (1) milk
consumption, which (2) favours the spread of LP, (3)
promoting further milk consumption, which (4)
elicits further milk-product manufacture and con-
sumption, which (5) leads to selective breeding of
cattle, which (6) selects for alleles conferring high
milk yield in dairy cattle. In addition, cattle farming
and dairy-product consumption (7) lead to population
growth, which (8) triggers dispersal into new environ-
ments, such as the temperate forests of Europe (e.g.,
Renfrew 1987; Bocquet-Appel 2011).
As interesting and potentially informative as a path
diagram might be, the real issue is the fit between
expectations and data, the latter of which can be
notoriously messy, especially when long time intervals
are involved. Here, things are even more difficult
because there is reason to suspect that there was no
single path that the spread of LP took and that the
strength of selection was not always the same. One
might be tempted to think that a trait such as LP
would occur only once and that its wide distribution
would be a result of either diffusion intergroup trans-
mission of a trait or demic spread groups moving
and taking their animal herds with them. At one
time, genetic analysis made the single-appearance
model appear likely, but recent work (Enattah et al.
2002, 2008; Mulcare et al. 2004; Tishkoff et al. 2006;
Ingram et al. 2007; Itan et al. 2009; Gerbault et al.
2011; Nagy et al. 2011) has supported Holden and
Maces (1997) earlier conclusion that alleles for post-
weaning lactase production had multiple origins
perhaps as many as four (three in Africa and one in
Europe) and involved different animals. Despite
the multiple origins, the pattern in Europe, which is
tied to a single nucleotide polymorphism
(13910*T) located 13·9 kilobases upstream of the
lactase (LCT) gene (Enattah et al. 2002), has been
shown to explain most of the modern distribution of
LP (Itan et al. 2010).
There are three complementary lines of evidence
that make up the empirical underpinning of the path
shown in Fig. 6 as it pertains to the spread of LP in
Neolithic Europe that obtained from modern gen-
etics, from archaeology (including zooarchaeology),
and from a combination of modelling and archaeoge-
netics. We consider each of these in turn below.
Modern Genetic Evidence
Based on a study of a Scandinavian population,
Bersaglieri et al. (2004, 1111) estimated that the coef-
ficient of selection associated with carrying at least
one copy of the LP allele to be between 0·09 and
0·19 –‘among the strongest yet seen for any gene in
the genome. Gerbault et al. (2011) make a similar
point with respect to the estimated dates of origin of
the (13910*T) allele, which range from 218820,650
OBrien and Bentley Role of food storage in human niche construction
Environmental Archaeology 2015 VOL . 0NO. 07
years ago (Bersaglieri et al. 2004) to 745012,300 years
ago (Coelho et al. 2005). They note that these esti-
mates are remarkably recent for an allele found at
such high frequencies in multiple populations: it is
easy to envisage recent alleles being rare since they
change in frequency slowly, and in a directionless
way, by genetic drift. However, a recent allele that
has reached such high population frequencies requires
more than genetic drift alone; it requires the extra
kickof natural selection (Gerbault et al. 2011, 864).
Here, cultural evolution supplied the catalyst for the
Archaeological Evidence
A common feature of most populations with high fre-
quencies of LP is a history of dairying activity
(Gerbault et al. 2011). In terms of the timing of milk
production, various lines of evidence derived from
analysis of animal bones from Neolithic sites age
at death, presence of cutting marks, DNA analysis
together with precise radiocarbon dating of the
bones, show that farmers began domesticating cattle,
goats and sheep between 10,000 and 11,000 years
ago in Anatolia, western Iran and northern
Mesopotamia (Zeder and Hesse 2000; Troy et al.
2001; Helmer et al. 2005; Peters et al. 2005). At that
point, selection would not have favoured LP, or only
weakly so, because it was frequently damped by
alternative activities of the niche constructors, who
consumed the animals that would otherwise have
been sources of selection. Slaughtering-age profiles
derived from dated archaeological sites have demon-
strated that animal exploitation in Mediterranean
Europe and the Middle East is consistent with milk
production from the early Neolithic onwards (Vigne
and Helmer 2007).
In terms of artifactual evidence, Bogucki (1984,
1986, 1988, 1993) first proposed that perforated
pottery found at early Neolithic sites in Poland had
been used as cheese strainers. These sherds are now
the worlds oldest evidence of cheese production,
dating to 60007000 years ago (Salque et al. 2013).
The production of cheese was of critical importance
because during its manufacture, lactose-rich whey is
separated out. Thus, cheese production allowed the
preservation of milk products in a nonperishable and
transportable form and made milk a more digestible
commodity for early prehistoric farmers (Lomer
et al. 2008).
As for milk itself, residues on fragments of ceramic
vessels (Dudd and Evershed 1998; Salque 2012) point
to widespread occurrence of early milk exploitation
across Europe, beginning as early as 80009000 years
ago in southeastern Anatolia, a millennium or so
later in Hungary, Romania and Slovenia, and in
Britain by at least 6000 years ago (Copley et al.
2003, 2005; Craig et al. 2005a; Craig et al. 2005b;
Evershed et al. 2008; Šoberl et al. 2008; Craig 2011).
Modeling and Archaeogenetic Evidence
In Europe, the spread of domestic animals is without
question directly associated with the movement of
the Neolithic cultural tradition from the Near East
(Gerbault et al. 2011), but was it demic a movement
of people or diffusion a transmission of ideas? The
speed of the wave suggests the former (Cavalli-Sforza
et al. 1994), with a rate of 0·61·3 km per year (Fort
et al. 2004; Pinhasi et al. 2005). Itan et al. (2009)
used computer simulation to model the spread of LP,
dairying and other subsistence practices across
Europe and western Asia and estimated that the coevo-
lution of European LP and dairying originated in a
region between the northern Balkans and central
Europe sometime between ca. 6250 and 8700 years
ago. They proposed that after cattle herding and dairy-
ing became increasingly important components of
southeastern European Neolithic culture, natural
selection began acting on a few LP individuals in
Neolithic cultures of the northern Balkans. After the
initial slow increase of LP frequency in those popu-
lations and the onset of the LBK culture around
7500 years ago, LP frequencies rose more rapidly in
a geneculture coevolutionary process and on the
wave front of a demographic expansion into central
and north-central Europe that brought along cattle
(Edwards et al. 2007; Bramanti et al. 2009; Haak
et al. 2010). This led to the establishment of highly
developed cattle-based (as well as goat-based) dairying
economies throughout central and northern Europe by
6500 years ago (Collard et al. 2010). Burger et al.
(2007) subsequently found that the LP allele was
absent in ancient DNA extracted from early
Neolithic Europeans, suggesting that it was absent or
at low frequency 70008000 years ago. The spread of
dairy farming also affected geographical variation in
milk protein genes in European cattle breeds, which
covary with present-day patterns of lactose tolerance
in humans (Beja-Pereira et al. 2003).
The Role of Storage in the Neolithic Dairying
Animal domestication provided almost unlimited
avenues for niche construction among Neolithic
groups. In addition to their meat and hide, which
wild aurochs (Bos primigenius) also provided, domesti-
cated cattle (Bos taurus) provided not only meat, milk,
blood and labour but also a source of household
differentiation, social capital and mobile wealth
(Bogucki 1993; Conolly et al. 2012) Sherratts
(1981, 1983) secondary products revolution.Keyto
the success of the niche was food storage, or more
properly, the storage of energy for both short- and
OBrien and Bentley Role of food storage in human niche construction
Environmental Archaeology 2015 VOL . 0NO. 08
long-term use. Numerous kinds of storage structures
played important roles in the Neolithic dairying
niche, all of which potentially left evidence in the
archaeological record to one extent or another.
Perhaps the most important storage structureswere
the animals themselves. For the dairying niche to
have evolved, there was a significant shift in perspec-
tive among Neolithic peoples from one that empha-
sised cattle as meat on the hoof a short-term
energy gain to one that emphasised meat on the
hoof plus milk in the bank a much longer view of
available energy sources.
It was quite a rich bank from the standpoint of
energy because for each unit of food that ruminants
consume, their milk yields four to five times the
amount of energy and protein compared with meat
(Salque 2010). However, it becomes complicated
when we attempt to evaluate the precise role of milk
production in a subsistence economy (McCormick
1992; Halstead 1996; Balasse and Tresset 2002;
Craig 2011) because it requires estimating the
amount of milk available for human consumption.
This in turn requires knowing both the milk yield of
primitive cattle, which itself is difficult to estimate
(Gregg 1988; Peske 1994; Tresset 1996), and the
amount of milk actually devoted to human as
opposed to calf consumption. Modern U.S. dairy
cattle produce something on the order of 6070
pounds of milk per day; Indian and Chinese cattle,
which are probably better analogs, produce around
715 pounds per day (FAOSTAT 2010). Neolithic
cattle might have produced less, but milk would still
have been a human nutritional bonanza(Wooding
2007, 8) if it could be digested.
Without the shift in emphasis from meat to milk,
selection would not have favoured LP and there
would have been no dairying niche. The shift was
not an overnight phenomenon, and neither was
animal domestication itself. Nor was there a single tra-
jectory toward domestication but rather considerable
regional and temporal variation in the process
(Rowley-Conwy 2004; Conolly et al. 2011). We tend
to treat domestication as an either/or state, meaning
either something is or is not domesticated, but there
is a huge amount of grey area in between more so
in animals than in plants and more so in some
animals than in others. Selective pressures on
animals undergoing domestication focus on behav-
ioural changes, some of which may leave physiological
or morphological markers for example, tooth-size
reduction and juvenilisation of the skull whereas
others might not. Such markers can be considered
signatures of cultural niche construction.
Multiple early Neolithic animal-bone assemblages
from southwest Asia suggest it may have taken as
long as 2000 years before domesticated cattle began
to fix within agricultural communities as the dominant
domestic animal (Conolly et al. 2011, 2012; Manning
et al. 2014). Such a time span is predictable given an
unfamiliarity with the intricacies of effective milk pro-
duction and use on the part of Neolithic farmers. Just
as cattle domestication was a lengthy process, so too
was developing the knowledge and tools for tapping
the resource effectively an acquired knowledge that
itself is a key component of the agricultural niche
(OBrien and Laland 2012).
To accommodate the new role of animals, Neolithic
pastoralists needed reliable, year-round food supplies,
which would have, at least on occasion, involved
storage. Conolly et al. (2012) use a species-distribution
model applied to zooarchaeological data to show that
the process of cattle domestication involved a change
in the types of environmental ranges in which cattle
exploitation occurred. They convincingly demonstrate
that there was an early Neolithic expansion of cattle
rearing in temperate environments as opposed to
drier environments a conclusion also reached by
Evershed et al. (2008). Even with more-temperate
environments, however, there is no guarantee that con-
ditions are stable. Open ranges are viable when con-
ditions fall within certain parameters, but when
conditions decline periodic droughts, for example
cattle might require pasturing and alternate sources
of water. With respect to niche construction, it is
worth remembering that pastures are products of
human, not natural activities (Milisauskas and Kruk
2002). This may well have limited herd sizes (Hüster-
Plogmann and Schibler 1997). With respect to alter-
nate sources of water, wood-lined early Neolithic
wells have been reported from eastern Germany
(Tegel et al. 2012). These could have served to water
both plants and animals.
As cereal grains came under more intensive
domestication (Colledge et al. 2005; Coward et al.
2008) across Neolithic central and northern Europe,
they would have provided additional sources of
animal food, just as they did human food. Carbon
and nitrogen isotopic analysis of sectioned cattle
teeth can reveal variation in cattle diets (Balasse
et al. 1999; Craig 2011). This method could be particu-
larly applicable to the identification of foddering
regimes, such as the addition of C4 plants such as
maize and millet. In turn, domesticated animals
contributed back to the Neolithic agricultural niche
by producing manure, which could be used on
agricultural plots. Stable isotope determinations of
charred cereals and pulses from 13 Neolithic sites
across Europe demonstrated that early farmers used
livestock manure and water management to enhance
crop yields (Bogaard et al. 2013). Differential access
to heritable lands, perhaps through patrilineality
(Bentley et al. 2012), could have led to social
OBrien and Bentley Role of food storage in human niche construction
Environmental Archaeology 2015 VOL . 0NO. 09
differentiation in Neolithic farming communities
(Bogaard et al. 2011, 2013).
Although they do not use the concept of niche con-
struction, note the way in which Bogaard et al.s (2013)
discussion of the manuring of Neolithic fields parallels
the earlier discussion of the path diagram in Fig. 6:
Interpretations of weed evidence in southern and
northern Europe suggest that early farmers invested
considerable labor in the maintenance of long-estab-
lished cultivation plots.
Investigations of faunal assemblages indicate that
small-scale intensive herding was the norm in
various regions across Europe.
Pasturing herds near hamlets and villages of early
farmers would have enabled integration of cultivation
and livestock keeping, with periodic stalling and use
of crop material as fodder, introducing scope for use
of manure on arable land.
The practice of manuring to enhance soil productivity
and tractability has implications for the long-term
outlook of farmers on account of the slow-release
of essential macronutrients.
Intensive manuring, therefore, has important impli-
cations for investmentin land and territorial claims
by farming groups.
Neolithic niche construction is even more apparent
in Bogaards (2005, 179) statement regarding inten-
sive mixed farming, which refers to intensive cultiva-
tion integrated with intensive livestock herding:
Cultivation provides forage and fodder for livestock,
while livestock provide manure for cultivated plots
and regulate crop growth. The functional interdepen-
dence between crop and animal husbandry in intensive
mixed farming looks like this (Bogaard 2005):
Animal contribution to crop
Crop contribution to animal
Manure to fertilise the soil,
from either grazing animals
or from collected manure
Grazing of unripe crops to
prevent lodging and
promote tilling
Crop by-products (spoiled
or surplus) used as fodder
Cultivation plots provide
Not surprisingly, grain-storage structures both
cylindrical and bell-shaped pits and above-ground
structures became increasingly common features of
European Neolithic communities (Tripkovic
Although they are referring specifically to later Celtic
pits, Audouze and Buchsenschutzs (1992, 129)
description applies to earlier pits as well:
Storage pits can be distinguished from innumer-
able pits found all over protohistoric settlements
by their characteristic shape. They are usually cir-
cular in plan and generally small, being only
rarely more than 3 m in diameter. The depth is
usually equal to or greater than the maximum
diameter. The opening was originally smaller in
diameter than the maximum diameter of the
pit. These characteristics stem from the need to
have as large a storage capacity as possible with
the smallest possible opening, which usually
seems to have been worked out so as to allow a
man to get inside.
Wood (2000, 9899) provides one explanation of how
the pits functioned:
Grain is poured into the pit after the harvest and
a plug of clay was used to cover it, with a layer of
turf on top to stop the clay from drying out
The grain on the edge of the pit had contact
with the damp earth. This grain then began to
germinate, thereby utilizing all the remaining
oxygen in the sealed pit, releasing carbon
dioxide in exchange. When the oxygen was
fully consumed, the germinating grain died and
formed a crust on the outer edge of the pit. The
grain within was sealed in a vacuum and would
keep for years without deteriorating.
It should be clear by now that it is difficult to overem-
phasise the role food storage played in the evolution of
the Neolithic dairying niche, with the star of the show
being the animals themselves and supporting roles
being played by granaries, structures for fodder,
corrals and protective sheds, wells, ceramic vessels in
which to store milk products, and the milk products
themselves. Of course, all of this is a moot point if
one doesnt know how to process milk into products
an acquired knowledge that, as noted earlier, provided
the initial kick to the dairying niche. Milk is host to a
variety microorganisms Streptococcus,Lactobacillus,
Bacillus, yeasts and molds and each plays a role in
converting milk into milk products such as yogurt by
breaking down lactose into lactic acid, which sours
the milk and coagulates the milk protein, allowing
yeast and mold to proliferate and reduce the acid.
The fermented milk product can then be safely
stored because it is still acidic enough to kill harmful
microorganisms. Alternatively, cheese is made by
adding the digestive enzyme rennet to acidified milk,
coagulating it to the point that solids can be set
aside and stored. Cheese making possibly was discov-
ered by accident when milk was stored in a container
made from the stomach of an animal, which still con-
tained rennet. The heat from the sun turned the milk
sour and the rennet turned the milk into curds and
whey (Ridgwell and Ridgway 1986).
Here again is an illustration of long-term conse-
quences of niche construction: keeping cattle for
their milk, together with the spread of LP, created
OBrien and Bentley Role of food storage in human niche construction
Environmental Archaeology 2015 VOL . 0NO. 010
the developmental niche that scaffolded the invention
of various processed-milk products and their associ-
ated technologies (OBrien and Laland 2012). Again,
it is unclear in some cases whether milk itself was
being consumed or whether it was being processed
into cheese or other products and stored in those
forms. Itan et al. (2009) suggest that few early
Neolithic individuals were lactose tolerant, which
apparently is one reason why cheese, and probably
other milk products, was manufactured. As Bogucki
(1984) proposed 30 years ago, the cheese sieves ident-
ified from Neolithic Poland played an important role
in early dairy production, for the manufacture of
cheese was an essential step in the exploitation of
milk by populations who possibly had a high level
of lactose intolerance. Whether or not the LP allele
achieved high frequency depended on the probability
of the offspring of milk drinkers not just consumers
of milk products becoming milk drinkers themselves
(Feldman and Cavalli-Sforza 1989). In other words,
milk drinking had to be not just a learned tradition
but a reliably learned tradition (see Aoki 1986).
Here, then, is an excellent example of the strong role
that cultural, as opposed to only natural, selection
can play in shaping the genotype.
To sum up, NCT allows us to make an account of
the full picture of how dairying co-evolved with its
genetic and socioeconomic implications. Cattle are
effectively portable storage vessels, not just nutrition-
ally of meat, milk and blood but also of wealth and/
or status for the owners (Bogucki 1993). Livestock
ownership may well have been unequally distributed
in the Neolithic (e.g., Bogucki 1993; Hayden 2001;
Bentley et al. 2005). Also, cattle ownership is condu-
cive to patrinineal kinship (Holden and Mace 2003).
These patterns lead us to expect patrilocality and
unequal access to resources in Neolithic Europe, for
which there is increasing archaeological, genetic and
linguistic evidence (Bogucki 1993; Haak et al. 2008;
Bogaard et al. 2011; Fortunato 2011; Lacan et al.
2011; Bentley et al. 2012).
With a NCT perspective, we can hypothesise that
owners of large dairy herds would have had a selective
advantage over smaller owners or non-owners because
wealth in agro-pastoralist societies predicts better
reproductive success, that is, more surviving children
(e.g., Holden and Mace 2003). Consider this along
with the possibility that Neolithic populations experi-
enced boom-and-bust cycles of growth and decline
(Shennan et al. 2013). These population bottlenecks
must have had substantial effect on the genetic and
cultural diversity of each subsequent population
growth period. Different niches may well have deter-
mined different survival rates, resulting in strong selec-
tive alteration of the population emerging through the
It is quite possible that dairy farming constituted its
own niche, such that lactase-tolerant lineages emerged
from bottlenecks as an increased proportion of the
population. Isotopic studies of Neolithic skeletons
are suggestive of different patrilineages that specialised
in different forms of subsistence, such as livestock
herding and cultivators (Bogucki 1993; Bentley et al.
2008). If we consider the factors of dairying possibly
as hereditary specialisations, and the wealth associated
with the livestock also as hereditary and possibly
unequal, these bottlenecks may have served as very
strong selection in favour of wealthy, lactase-persistent
cattle-owning lineages.
The socioeconomic element of this hypothesized
niche-construction process may help explain why LP
did not flourish everywhere in the Neolithic world,
such as China or Southeast Asia. In fact, recent
studies have demonstrated that the rice-based
Chinese Neolithic may have brought about different,
more egalitarian and collective norms of food
sharing (Talhelm et al. 2014) than the wheat-based
European Neolithic. Hence, the socioeconomic niche
in China co-evolved differently with agricultural prac-
tices there. The point is NCT allows us to consider all
of these factors together in the evolution of LP,
whereas standard evolutionary theory would focus
on the nutritional aspects, which make it hard to
explain why LP evolved only in particular Neolithic
regional populations.
NCT offers conceptual tools not yet readily used within
the human sciences, such as a variety of experimental
and theoretical methods for establishing where niche
construction is consequential and quantifying its
impact (Odling-Smee et al. 2003; OBrien and Laland
2012). It also offers theoretically and empirically
derived insights into the dynamics of evolving
systems, which add to the tools used by archaeologists,
anthropologists and other social and behavioural scien-
tists interested in understanding complex systems such
as the European Neolithic dairying niche. NCT pro-
motes a systems approach to exploring human evol-
ution and ecology using standard methods regularly
and successfully deployed by archaeologists, anthro-
pologists, ecologists and evolutionary biologists.
What is different is the focus of investigation, which
moves from the study of the ecological impact or evol-
utionary response in a single taxon to the investigation
of human eco-evolutionary systems, pathways or net-
works. This requires that we move beyond normal
practice and ask, what causes the selection pressures
leading to a specific evolutionary response?rather
than treating those selection pressures as a starting
point (Laland and OBrien 2014). The key to progress
is (1) to break down complicated pathways in networks
OBrien and Bentley Role of food storage in human niche construction
Environmental Archaeology 2015 VOL . 0NO. 011
into tractable component pieces such as the role of
storage in the evolution of the Neolithic dairying
niche (2) to subject each to analysis and (3) to recon-
struct the network, including the strength of inter-
actions and how they vary over time. Carrying out
such a programme successfully has steep data require-
ments, and in the case of Neolithic dairying we have
much better data than exists in most instances. Still,
the effort is worth it in terms of what it will tell us
about the ecological as well as evolutionary conse-
quences of human behaviours such as food storage
(Morgan 2012). Hopefully, the broad outline sketched
here will attract the attention of others who are inter-
ested in understanding those consequences.
We thank Andrea Balbo for his kind invitation to con-
tribute this paper and Tim Mighall and two anon-
ymous reviewers for excellent suggestions for
revision. We also thank Kevin N. Laland, who is
equally responsible with MJO for some of the ideas
on niche construction and Neolithic dairying pre-
sented here.
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... Disagreements about the initial circumstances and causal chains that gave rise to the first villages and the shift from foraging to food production have occupied archaeologists for decades (e.g., Bar-Yosef and Belfer-Cohen 2002;Clem and Serge 2017;Cohen 1985;Gremillion et al. 2014;Gronenborn 2009;Hodder 2018;Kennett and Winterhalder 2006;Redding 2005;Robb 2014;Smith 2015;Vigne et al. 2011;Zeder 2009). There is a parallel dispute about what ancient people might have anticipated as the pros and cons of such profound changes (e.g., Abbo and Gopher 2020;Cohen 2009;O'Brien and Bentley 2015;Zeder 2012a). And, there is the larger question of how many times early farming communities emerged quasi-independently within the narrow time frame of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (Asouti 2006;Fuller et al. 2012;Rosen 2007;Russell 2011;Vigne 2011;Vigne et al. 2012). ...
... The labor requirements of food production changed what people did with their time, where they spent it, and even who they shared resources with, setting up new arenas for further social evolution (see O'Brien and Bentley 2015). The time and labor commitments of food production may also have potentiated new status configurations and opportunities by gender. ...
Full-text available
The first Neolithic settlements in Southwest Asia began with a dual commitment to plant cultivation and a sedentary lifestyle. The benefits that foragers-turned-farmers gained from this commitment came with some inescapable constraints, setting new evolutionary pathways for human social and economic activities. We explore the developmental process at the early Pre-Pottery Neolithic site of Aşıklı Höyük in central Anatolia (Turkey), specifically the relationship between internal dynamics and external influences in early village formation. Feedback mechanisms inherent to the community were responsible for many of the unique developments there, including domestication of a variant of free-threshing wheat and the early evolution of caprine management, which gave rise to domesticated stock. Gradual change was the rule at Aşıklı, yet the cumulative transformations in architecture, settlement layout, and caprine management were great. The many strands of evidence reveal a largely local (endemic) evolution of an early Pre-Pottery Neolithic community. However, burgeoning inequalities stemming from production surplus such as livestock likely stimulated greater regional interaction toward the end of the sequence.
... If dairy products can be digested, however, they become an excellent supply of fat, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, calcium, and water (Wooding 2007). Hence, Neolithic individuals with the biological capacity for adult lactose tolerance and carbohydrate digestion would have had a selective advantage, increasing lactosetolerant lineages in a population over time ( Itan et al. 2009Itan et al. , 2010Laland et al. 2010;Gerbault et al. 2011;O'Brien and Laland 2012;O'Brien and Bentley 2015). Evidence from both faunal remains and milk residues on pottery indicate that milk production began about 8000 years ago in Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East ( Vigne and Helmer 2007;Conolly et al. 2011Conolly et al. , 2012Manning et al. 2014), 7000-8000 years ago in northwestern Anatolia ( Dudd and Evershed 1998), 7000 years ago in central Europe ( Salque et al. 2013), and about 6000 years ago in Britain ( Copley et al. 2003Copley et al. , 2005Evershed et al. 2008;Craig 2011). ...
... If dairy products can be digested, however, they become an excellent supply of fat, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, calcium, and water (Wooding 2007). Hence, Neolithic individuals with the biological capacity for adult lactose tolerance and carbohydrate digestion would have had a selective advantage, increasing lactosetolerant lineages in a population over time ( Itan et al. 2009Itan et al. , 2010Laland et al. 2010;Gerbault et al. 2011;O'Brien and Laland 2012;O'Brien and Bentley 2015). Evidence from both faunal remains and milk residues on pottery indicate that milk production began about 8000 years ago in Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East ( Vigne and Helmer 2007;Conolly et al. 2011Conolly et al. , 2012Manning et al. 2014), 7000-8000 years ago in northwestern Anatolia ( Dudd and Evershed 1998) et al. 2009), followed by a rapid demographic expansion into central and northcentral Europe by way of the LBK culture 7500-8000 years ago ( Dolukhanov et al. 2005;Edwards et al. 2007), after which cattle-based dairying economies established themselves about 6500 years ago. ...
Despite having been a pedigree stretching for several decades, computational approaches remain highly debated in archaeology, hailed by some as the future of the discipline and discarded by some as a poor, arrogant and overgeneralizing attempt at mimicking the past. This introductory chapter argues that traditional criticisms made at computational models stem from several fundamental misunderstandings. In particular, several archaeologists favouring either a more “social theory” perspective or a more “fieldwork first and avoid generalizing” approach have negatively commented upon what they perceived as simple models when compared to the complex, holistic nature of social life. We argue here that modelling scientific teams, combining archaeologists and modellers, are aware of these complexity and uncertainty and rather prefer to tackle it by explicitly focusing upon a minimal set of epistemological procedures, concepts and parameters, set in an explicitly formal environment. The implications of this epistemological standpoint are evaluated in view of the various contributions to this volume, presented at the end of this contribution.
... Others have pointed out that cooking is a niche-constructing process (Wollstonecroft, 2011). O'Brien and Bentley (2015) noted that food storage is also a niche-constructing process. Smith (2007Smith ( , 2011Smith ( , 2015 argued that farming and the domestication of plants and animals are niche-constructing processes. ...
Full-text available
Over the past decade, niche construction theory (NCT) has been one of the fastest-growing theories or scholarly approaches in the social sciences, especially within archaeology. It was proposed in the biological sciences 25 years ago and is often referred to as a neglected evolutionary mechanism. Given its rapid acceptance by the archaeological community, it is important that scholars consider how it is being applied and look for discrepancies between applications of the concept. Many critical discussions of NCT have already been published, but most of them are in biology journals and may be overlooked by scholars in the social sciences. In this manuscript, my goal is to synthesis the criticisms of NCT, better allowing archaeologists to independently evaluate its usefulness. I focus on the claims of novelty and differences between NCT and other approaches to conceptualizing anthropogenic ecosystem impacts and culture-evolution feedbacks. I argue that the diverse concepts currently included in the wide-reaching purview of NCT are not new, but the terminology is and may be useful to some scholars. If proponents of the concept are able to unify their ideas, it may serve a descriptive function, but given that lack of a testable explanatory mechanism, it does not have a clear heuristic function.
... Storage is also an important component, being a feature of sedentism, a necessary precursor to agriculture, as well as an indicator of sociocultural complexity and a means of social control (O'Brien and Bentley 2015;Hendon 2000). Varying factors can affect storage patterns, including climatic conditions (Hillman 1981), cultural practice and an ability to organize large numbers of people for agricultural purposes (Fuller and Stevens 2009). ...
Research on food has a long history in archaeology and anthropology, with many agreeing that we need to examine the food of complex societies in a more holistic way, through the various stages from production to disposal. Typically, this has occurred through the application of the concept of foodways, although this has a range of definitions and is generally only used in historical archaeological and anthropological research. By building on this important area of research this paper will explore the usefulness of applying a food-systems framework to understanding food in the past. Systems research is already well established in archaeology, sharing elements with approaches such as social-network analysis and complexity science. These theories have been used to address a broad array of questions about the relationships between actors, activities and outcomes for individuals and larger groups at a range of social scales. Thus food systems can help us to explore greater connections between food, human society and the environment via a combination of different archaeological evidence and comparative data.
... Ancient DNA of human fossils of this period shows the point mutation on the LCT gene was not present. However, persistent dietary intake of milk products favored this point mutation in their descendants (O'Brien & Bentley, 2015). ...
Full-text available
Cambridge Core - Philosophy of Science - The Challenge of Evolution to Religion - by Johan De Smedt
... If dairy products can be digested, however, they become an excellent supply of fat, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, calcium, and water (Wooding 2007). Hence, Neolithic individuals with the biological capacity for adult lactose tolerance and carbohydrate digestion would have had a selective advantage, increasing lactosetolerant lineages in a population over time ( Itan et al. 2009Itan et al. , 2010Laland et al. 2010;Gerbault et al. 2011;O'Brien and Laland 2012;O'Brien and Bentley 2015). Evidence from both faunal remains and milk residues on pottery indicate that milk production began about 8000 years ago in Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East ( Vigne and Helmer 2007;Conolly et al. 2011Conolly et al. , 2012Manning et al. 2014), 7000-8000 years ago in northwestern Anatolia (Dudd and Evershed 1998), 7000 years ago in central Europe ( Salque et al. 2013), and about 6000 years ago in Britain ( Copley et al. 2003Copley et al. , 2005Evershed et al. 2008;Craig 2011). ...
In modeling ancient Neolithic societies over many generations, it is essential to consider how cultural knowledge is inherited, including specific transmission pathways, often directed by kinship systems, and their feedback. The transmission of cultural knowledge, by effecting behavior, subsequently feeds back into itself in subsequent generations. This is niche construction—a process by which humans and domesticated plants and animals, through their metabolism, activities, and choices, modify natural selection, which can have significant evolutionary repercussions for subsequent generations. Here we discuss the evolution of dairying by Neolithic groups in Europe, with emphasis on specific intergenerational cultural-transmission pathways and how Granger causality and pathway analysis might be applied to modeling the Neolithic transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture.
... Animal domestication led to the introduction of lactose into the diets of some adult human populations. Milk and dairy products, principally from domesticated goats, sheep, and cattle, may have been important as supplements to the energy-dense but micronutrient-limited grain-based diets during the Neolithic (Leonardi et al., 2012;O'Brien & Bentley, 2015). ...
On the evolutionary timescale, milk and milk products are relatively recent additions to adult human diets that have had profound impacts on our culture, biology, genetics, and behaviour. All mammals produce milk to feed their offspring, with lactose as the principal carbohydrate. Humans, however, are one of the few species to incorporate milk and dairy products from other animals into their diet. This change in diet was followed by the genetic adaptation of lactase persistence (LP) in some human populations. LP—the continued expression of the gut enzyme lactase into adulthood—is the most strongly selected single-gene trait to have evolved in Europeans and some African groups over the last 10,000 years, and is the strongest and most often cited example of recent natural selection, gene–culture co-evolution, and convergent evolution in humans. This chapter examines the deep evolutionary origins of lactose as the principal carbohydrate in milk, the archaeological evidence for milk and dairy product production and consumption by adult humans, and the genetics and evolutionary history of LP. Lastly it explores some possible factors that have shaped the uneven global distribution of LP today.
In the Marquesas Islands, topographically rugged and prone to droughts, the subsistence economy at Western contact was strongly focused on arboriculture. Drawing on niche construction theory, we detail the socio-natural processes that gave rise to this cultivation system using the largest Polynesian archaeobotanical study to date. Inceptive, counter-active, and proactive niche construction was evidenced over six centuries of human occupation. Two 13th century tree translocations were identified: candlenut (Aleurites moluccana) and breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis). Establishment of these and other crops was accompanied by extensive forest clearance and repetitive burning-indicative of shifting cultivation. These activities brought consequential changes to native coastal and lowland vegetation, and extinctions of indigenous forest and bird species. Fifteenth-century counter-active niche construction involved the rapid dispersal and increasing uptake of tree cultivation (especially breadfruit) within and across valleys, and diversification of the tree crop inventory. The advantages of breadfruit cultivation-nutritional, economic, ecological, and geomorphic-were considerable and from the mid-17th century arboriculture came to dominate the Marquesan economy, perhaps accelerated by unpredictable climatic conditions. Six centuries of niche construction created an array of novel selective conditions, invoking evolutionary responses in Marquesan people, flora, and fauna, and fostering a unique ecological inheritance for future generations.
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We present detailed accounts of the archaeobotanical remains recovered from the excavations of the southern Levantine Pre-Pottery Neolithic A site of Dhra‘, including metric and morphological analysis of barley grains. Comparisons with other early Epi-Palaeolithic and Neolithic sites indicate that the Dhra‘ grains are larger than recorded wild specimens, but fall at the lower range of domestic species, consistent with intermediary pre-domestication cultivation status. We contextualize these results in relation to associated evidence for food storage at Dhra‘, as well as the ecology of wild plants and early crops, and processing technologies across the Levant.
This study draws on a range of nineteenth- and twentieth-century ethnographic materials from an agrarian community in Greece to explore the links between a nexus of behaviours related to avoiding subsistence risk. Producing a ‘normal surplus’, along with storage strategies and the growing of a wide range of crops, was part of a mix of risk-avoidance behaviours. Ultimately, however, the success of these behaviours depended on access to sufficient agricultural land. A lack of intra-community status differentiation based on land ownership noted during ethnographic fieldwork in the later twentieth century partly resulted from two historical factors: (1) households lacking sufficient land to produce an adequate ‘normal surplus’ left the community to take up other lower status activities in the wider (‘complex’) society of Greece; (2) wealthier households, unable to generate substantial wealth from sales of agricultural surpluses beyond the community, sold their property to generate capital for participation in other economic activities elsewhere.
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Lactase persistence (LP) is common among people of European ancestry, but with the exception of some African, Middle Eastern and southern Asian groups, is rare or absent elsewhere in the world. Lactase gene haplotype conservation around a polymorphism strongly associated with LP in Europeans (-13,910 C/T) indicates that the derived allele is recent in origin and has been subject to strong positive selection. Furthermore, ancient DNA work has shown that the -13,910*T (derived) allele was very rare or absent in early Neolithic central Europeans. It is unlikely that LP would provide a selective advantage without a supply of fresh milk, and this has lead to a gene-culture coevolutionary model where lactase persistence is only favoured in cultures practicing dairying, and dairying is more favoured in lactase persistent populations. We have developed a flexible demic computer simulation model to explore the spread of lactase persistence, dairying, other subsistence practices and unlinked genetic markers in Europe and western Asia's geographic space. Using data on -13,910*T allele frequency and farming arrival dates across Europe, and approximate Bayesian computation to estimate parameters of interest, we infer that the -13,910*T allele first underwent selection among dairying farmers around 7,500 years ago in a region between the central Balkans and central Europe, possibly in association with the dissemination of the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik culture over Central Europe. Furthermore, our results suggest that natural selection favouring a lactase persistence allele was not higher in northern latitudes through an increased requirement for dietary vitamin D. Our results provide a coherent and spatially explicit picture of the coevolution of lactase persistence and dairying in Europe.
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In Europe, the Neolithic transition (8,000–4,000 b.c.) from hunting and gathering to agricultural communities was one of the most important demographic events since the initial peopling of Europe by anatomically modern humans in the Upper Paleolithic (40,000 b.c.). However, the nature and speed of this transition is a matter of continuing scientific debate in archaeology, anthropology, and human population genetics. To date, inferences about the genetic make up of past populations have mostly been drawn from studies of modern-day Eurasian populations, but increasingly ancient DNA studies offer a direct view of the genetic past. We genetically characterized a population of the earliest farming culture in Central Europe, the Linear Pottery Culture (LBK; 5,500–4,900 calibrated b.c.) and used comprehensive phylogeographic and population genetic analyses to locate its origins within the broader Eurasian region, and to trace potential dispersal routes into Europe. We cloned and sequenced the mitochondrial hypervariable segment I and designed two powerful SNP multiplex PCR systems to generate new mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal data from 21 individuals from a complete LBK graveyard at Derenburg Meerenstieg II in Germany. These results considerably extend the available genetic dataset for the LBK (n = 42) and permit the first detailed genetic analysis of the earliest Neolithic culture in Central Europe (5,500–4,900 calibrated b.c.). We characterized the Neolithic mitochondrial DNA sequence diversity and geographical affinities of the early farmers using a large database of extant Western Eurasian populations (n = 23,394) and a wide range of population genetic analyses including shared haplotype analyses, principal component analyses, multidimensional scaling, geographic mapping of genetic distances, and Bayesian Serial Simcoal analyses. The results reveal that the LBK population shared an affinity with the modern-day Near East and Anatolia, supporting a major genetic input from this area during the advent of farming in Europe. However, the LBK population also showed unique genetic features including a clearly distinct distribution of mitochondrial haplogroup frequencies, confirming that major demographic events continued to take place in Europe after the early Neolithic.
An introduction to twenty-three studies focused mainly on showing how components of the behavioral repertoire of particular human groups -- their "cultural behavior" -- may be made intelligible by relating them to the material world in which they occur or have developed.