Acorn Eating and Agricultural Origins: California Ethnographies as Analogies for the Ancient near East

Article excerpt

Since cereals and legumes were successful domesticates, archaeologists and botanists have investigated early domestication with particular emphasis on these plants. What about other foods, which may have been staples in their own time, for which we have no simple continuity into a later subsistence in the classic region of Near Eastern domesticates? The mediterranean climate, and the lifeways, of California provide an analogy.


Near Eastern prehistorians have long speculated about the staple resources that sustained pre-agrarian groups from whom the earliest farmers were descended. One theory holds that many Natufian groups, pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherers in the Levant, probably depended heavily on acorn harvests from expanding Mediterranean oak woodlands (e.g. Bohrer 1972: 152; Moore 1991: 290; Olszewski 1993; Rosenberg 1990: 399, 410). Other archaeologists have emphasized a combination of intensive cultivation of wild cereals, seeds and nut harvests (Henry 1989: 34, 54; Bar-Yosef & Belfer-Cohen 1991: 192). The actual plant remains have seldom been recovered that could unequivocally demonstrate which plant foods Natufians harvested and processed in the critical centuries prior to agriculture. Therefore, archaeologists typically rely on indirect evidence, including ethnographic analogies, to model Natufian plant economy. This study examines the ethnographic and ecological evidence used in reconstructing Natufian subsistence in the Mediterranean zone. In particular, discussion of the role of balanophagy, or acorn-eating, in hunter-gatherer economies in other mediterranean ecosystems serves to introduce some potentially valuable perspectives in reconstructing land and resource use in the ancient Near East. (In this paper (upper-case) Mediterranean refers to the circum-Mediterranean sea, while (lower-case) mediterranean describes any of the five geographic regions with mediterranean-type climates and vegetations.)

Natufian groups inhabited the western horn of the Fertile Crescent northeast to the big bend of the Euphrates river and traditionally have been regarded as the most likely incipient agriculturalists of all the pre-Neolithic populations in the Near East. The plant subsistence base of their predecessors is largely unknown, except for the remarkable recovery of a rich diversity of edible wild grasses, seeds and fruits, including acorns, from one Kebaran site (19,000 b.p.) (Kislev et al. 1992). Pioneered by Kebaran groups, the use of mortars, pestles and hand-grinding stones (mullers) continued among Natufians, whose sedentary life-style at the end of the Pleistocene (Henry 1985; Bar-Yosef & Belfer-Cohen 1991: 187-8; Tchernov 1991) manifested communities up to 150 people (Hassan 1981: 91) and sites that were the largest of any to date.

There is little direct evidence as to which plants Natufians ate. Flotation results have been published from Natufian deposits at Tell Mureybet and Tell Abu Hureyra in modern Syria, Wadi Jilat 7 and Wadi Hammah in modern Jordan, and Hayonim Cave in Israel. These sites, arguably occupied by peoples practising very different subsistence strategies (Olszewski 1993: 429), yielded a wide range of wild seeds, fruits and nuts, but no acorns. Only Wadi Hammah and Hayonim Cave, however, lie within an expected range of former Mediterranean oak-forest where acorns might once have been an abundant resource. Tell Abu Hureyra, like Tell Mureybet, lies well beyond the reconstructed former ranges of Mediterranean oak woodlands (Hillman et al. 1989: 257; Bottema & van Zeist 1990).

Wild cereals appeared as unequivocally dominant dietary components only at Tell Mureybet during the early Neolithic period (van Zeist & Bakker-Heeres 1984 (1986): 176-8; Anderson-Gerfaud et al. 1993: 192). Nuts, but not acorns, occurred in all five Natufian sites as a minor component of the plant remains. Preliminary results from within the Mediterranean forest zone at Wadi Hammah do not indicate the presence of acorns (Edwards et al. …