Thursday, December 20, 2012

Precision Pre-History

A new paper on wooden Neolithic water wells in Germany highlights a trend in research about the prehistory human condition that has been mostly invisible because it has happened in a gradual and diffuse way.  This trend is towards an increasingly precise chronology in the Holocene era (i.e. from around the time that farming and herding were invented) with an increasingly large number of data points.  This is also true, although less strikingly, for the Upper Paleolithic and the Middle Stone Age. 

The linked study, for example, examined 151 oak timbers for four waterlogged Neolithic wells that were dated between 5469 BCE and 5098 BCE.  The date at which the first farmers appeared in each part of Europe and the Fertile Crescent is known to a precision of about +/- 150 years, which isn't bad for events that are 7,000 to 10,000 years old in most of those places.

Written history starts in Egypt and Sumeria about 3500 BCE, and starts to include Anatolia by about 1700 BCE, although the historical record is still quite patchy until a few centuries after 1000 BCE in the Iron Age.  Significant written history is found in Britain around 0 CE although there are gaps in the record, and isn't well established in much of Northern and Central Europe until the early Middle Ages.

But, despite the limited availability of written history, our ability to match times and places comprehensively to archaeological cultures and subcultures and periods within them is increasingly precise, as is the richness of the data available to describe each of them.  Increasingly, paleoclimate data from tree rings and ice cores and organic remains in layers of archaeological sites can be used to calibrate these dates to each other and to broader climatic influences on human civilization.

Rather than having a prehistoric chronology in which there are a few highlight points and big gaps of the unknown in between them, we increasingly have a chronology of prehistory (particularly in Europe and the Middle East) which provides a comprehensive account from the Neolithic all of the way through to the present.

For Holocene era Europe, the timeline can break the entire period from about 6000 BCE to about 1000 CE (after which written records are much more widely available and are present almost everywhere in Europe), with meaningful detail about pretty much every 200-300 years period (about 28 date bins) at a level of geographic precision comparable to the size of the smaller European countries, or to the first or second level subdivisions of larger European countries (a few hundred place bins).  If you break this era of European history and prehistory into the roughly 10,000 bins in space and time, you can put meaningful, empirically based statements about what was going on at the time there in almost all of them.  And, there are many parts of the prehistoric record of Europe where the level of precision in terms of both dates and geography is much finer.

Ancient DNA data, combined with old fashioned but reliable physical anthropology analysis of old skeletal remains whose conclusions are often corroborated by ancient DNA evidence, has given us a solid foundation from which to discuss who the people who practiced these prehistoric cultures were, where they came from, and the extent to which they displaced or were in continuity with prior residents of the same places.

In short, we have reached a point where the breadth and depth of our reliable data on European prehistory since the arrival of the first farmers is almost as good as our ancient history record, where it is available, for the entire period before the Roman era, although, of course, prehistory lacks the many of the names and personalities of the historic record, and likewise lacks definitive resolution of historical linguistic questions even though strong suppositions can be supported.

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