An Age-Old Story: Farmers against Pests

As early as the Neolithic period, pests posed a threat to agricultural yields, as shown by the remains of mice and insects found in prehistoric wells by a Basel-led archaeological research team. However, there are also indications that people knew how to defend against these pests – for example, by switching to less vulnerable kinds of grain.

Lower jaw and front limb bones of wood mice (Apodemus cf. sylvaticus) and blackthorn fruit with gnawing traces by mice. (Photos: Raül Soteras, AgriChange Project)

Around 8,000 years ago, people began creating more permanent settlements in Europe and practicing agriculture. While many research projects have focused on the agricultural practices of that time, they have generally left aside the effect of pests. Particularly for the western Mediterranean region of Europe, there has been almost no record of the occurrence of harmful insects and rodents until now.

A study by the research group led by Professor Ferran Antolín at the University of Basel has now shown that people in southern Europe had to deal with pests such as wood mice and grain weevils even back in the middle Neolithic period – and also developed effective strategies to counteract them. The study was conducted as part of the AgriChange project, financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation. ETH Zurich and the German Archaeological Institute were also involved.

Preserved in dirt

Farmers against pests
Selection of grain weevil (Sitophilus granaries) exoskeletal elements: head and pronotum (a, b, c, d, e, f, h, I, m, o); extremity (g); elytra (j, k, l, n). (Photos: Raül Soteras, AgriChange Project)

For their study, Dr. Simone Häberle and Dr. Marguerita Schäfer examined the sediment layers of three prehistoric wells, looking for the remains of insects and small rodents. The wells are part of a Neolithic settlement Les Bagnoles (southern France) that has been dated to around 4300–3700 BCE. The waste material collected in the wells has been exceptionally well preserved thanks to the permanent wet conditions and the resulting lack of oxygen.

Unexpectedly, the archaeozoologists found the bones of more than forty wood mice in one of the wells. These were probably part of a larger population attracted by the waste and the food stored in the settlement – the farmers may have disposed of the mice they found stealing their supplies in the abandoned well.

“The wood mouse therefore probably established itself in human settlements before it was ousted by the house mouse in the Bronze Age,” says Häberle. “This shows that people were already changing the natural ecosystems even back then, and that their settlements were an attractive habitat for certain wild animals.”

The samples also contained the remains of many insects – such as the grain weevil, which is only a few millimeters long and still infests grain stores today, in addition to other potentially harmful seed and ground beetles.

“It’s very rare that the remains of both small mammals and insects can be examined in one place,” says Schäfer. “That makes our observations all the more relevant and suggests interesting possibilities for future research into prehistoric pests.”

Resilience against pests


Press release from the University of Basel

Dove i classici si incontrano. ClassiCult è una Testata Giornalistica registrata presso il Tribunale di Bari numero R.G. 5753/2018 – R.S. 17. Direttore Responsabile Domenico Saracino, Vice Direttrice Alessandra Randazzo. Gli articoli a nome di ClassiCult possono essere 1) articoli a più mani (in tal caso, i diversi autori sono indicati subito dopo il titolo); 2) comunicati stampa (in tal caso se ne indica provenienza e autore a fine articolo).

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