Mid-Holocene climate adaptation and Neolithic agriculture in the Fayum basin, Egypt

John M. Marston is an Assistant Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology at Boston University. He is a member of the Editorial Board for Open Quaternary and an environmental archaeologist with research concentrations agricultural sustainability, climate-change adaptation, and the environmental impact of empire in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean. In this week’s post, he describes recent research on Mid-Holocene climate adaptation in the Fayum basin of Egypt [map].

The URU (University of California Los Angeles, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, University of Auckland) Fayum Project has explored Holocene environmental change, agricultural adaptation, and human mobility in the desert margin of Egypt since 2003. We study the archaeological remains of several periods, from ephemeral Epipaleolithic (9300-800 cal a BP) and Neolithic (7500-6000 cal a BP) sites and artifact scatters to a major Roman city, Karanis (3rd-6th centuries AD). The URU Fayum Project includes multiple perspectives on human interaction with biological and geological landscapes, from archaeological survey and excavation to the analysis of archaeological animal and plant remains and geomorphological reconstruction. In this post, I highlight recent research on the Mid-Holocene Neolithic period in the Fayum, where we have the earliest evidence for integrated agricultural economies in Africa during a chronologically restricted climatic amelioration in the Sahara.

Figure 1. The hyperarid Western Desert of Egypt was a savanna during the Early and Mid-Holocene. credit: John Marston

Figure 1. The hyperarid Western Desert of Egypt was a savanna during the Early and Mid-Holocene. credit: John Marston

The Western Desert of Egypt, currently a hyperarid region characterized by limited rainfall and marginal vegetation cover was dramatically different during the Mid-Holocene, when the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) moved north of its current position in eastern Africa, bringing increased precipitation to the southern Sahara (Kröpelin et al. 2008); the impact of the ITCZ shift on the northern Sahara, however, has not been well understood. Recent work by the URU Fayum Project has linked the timing of human occupation of the Fayum depression, some 80 km southwest of Cairo and the Nile Valley, to increases in Mediterranean winter rainfall (Phillipps et al. 2012). Neolithic human settlement was restricted to the period prior to 6000 cal a BP, the period when the ITCZ held its more northerly course. Early use of domesticated plants in the Fayum appears to have depended on winter rainfall for a spring and summer growing season, unlike later Predynastic agriculture in the Nile Valley where summer inundation was followed by a winter growing season (Phillipps et al. 2012).

Recent work by project members also highlights surprising patterns of mobility among Neolithic populations in the Fayum, which archaeological evidence suggests were more restricted than previously assumed (Holdaway et al. 2010; Linseele et al. 2014). Zooarchaeological evidence for seasonal procurement of fish, the major source of meat in the Neolithic diet, suggests at least seasonal residence at two sites, Kom K and Kom W, located along the edge of the paleolake Birket Qarun (Linseele et al. 2014). Surprisingly, also present at these sites are bones of pigs, which are not well suited to mobile pastoral strategies due to their high water requirements and inability to digest a high-cellulose diet of grasses. The presence of pigs corresponds with the analysis of lithic artifacts from regional survey that suggest restricted movement within the Fayum basin (Holdaway et al. 2010).

Figure 2. Tamarix nilotica is abundant along the lakeshore of Birket Qarun today and was the primary fuel wood for Neolithic populations in the Fayum. Credit: John Marston

Figure 2. Tamarix nilotica is abundant along the lakeshore of Birket Qarun today and was the primary fuel wood for Neolithic populations in the Fayum. Credit: John Marston

My role in the URU Fayum Project focuses on changes in woodland resources utilized by Early Holocene Epipaleolithic and Mid-Holocene Neolithic inhabitants of the region. Prior study of archaeological wood charcoal from the northern Sahara demonstrates that the Mid-Holocene Sahara had much greater rainfall than today, with scrub forests and savanna landscapes dominating what is today a hyperarid region (Neumann 1989a, b). Preliminary research in the Fayum indicates nearly exclusive use of tamarisk (Tamarix spp.) for fuel wood during both the Epipaleolithic and Neolithic. This suggests a focus on lakeshore resources for fuel and indicates that the inhabitants of Kom K and Kom W had abundant local fuel resources. We also have evidence for the use of sheep and goat dung as fuel, and future work in the Fayum will explore how and why Neolithic populations incorporated this new fuel into their economy.

References Cited

Holdaway S, Wendrich W & Phillipps R. 2010. Identifying Low-Level Food Producers: Detecting Mobility from Lithics. Antiquity 84:185-194.

Kröpelin S, Verschuren D, Lezine A.-M, Eggermont H, Cocquyt C, Francus P, Cazet J-P, Fagot M, Rumes B, Russell JM, Darius F, Conley DJ, Schuster M, Suchodoletz H & Engstrom DR. 2008 Climate-Driven Ecosystem Succession in the Sahara: The Past 6000 Years. Science 320(765):765-768.

Linseele V, van Neer W, Thys S, Phillipps R, Cappers R, Wendrich W & Holdaway S. 2014. New Archaeozoological Data from the Fayum ‘‘Neolithic’’ with a Critical Assessment of the Evidence for Early Stock Keeping in Egypt. PLOS ONE 9(10):22.

Neumann K. 1989a Holocene Vegetation of the Eastern Sahara: Charcoal from Prehistoric Sites. African Archaeological Review 7:97-116.

Neumann K. 1989b. Zur Vegetationsgeschichte der Ostsahara im Holozan Holzkohlen aus Prahistorischen Fundstellen. In Forschungen zur Umweitgeschichte der Ostsahara, edited by Rudolph Kuper, pp. 13-181. Heinrich-Barth-Institut, Köln.

Phillipps R, Holdaway S, Wendrich W & Cappers R. 2012. Mid-Holocene Occupation of Egypt and Global Climatic Change. Quaternary International 251:64-76.

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About downwithtime

Assistant scientist in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Studying paleoecology and the challenges of large data synthesis.
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