History & Culture

Ancient Farming Systems | Ask the Expert

Did ancient civilisations farm differently from us? Did they struggle with issues similar to those we face today? I interviewed Dr Shyama Vermeersch, a zooarchaeological scientist who is working to piece together farming systems of the past to help us strengthen the food systems of today.

What exactly is zooarchaeology? 

As zooarchaeologists, we study animal remains in the context of humans. What this looks like in practice is examining animal bones, teeth, ivory, antlers, horns, and skin. But very importantly, always in context with humans. When we study animal remains, we look for things like butchery traces. We try to figure out if someone took an axe to this animal. Whether they filleted it. We can examine if the animal pulled a cart, or if a bone was broken and healed. All these things tell us about the relationship humans had with animals in the past.

Dr. Shyama Vermeersch cleaning samples in the lab

How do you study ancient farming systems?

I specialise in the development of farming systems, exploring how farming came to be and what roles animals played in ancient farming systems. I try to investigate things like what were these people eating? Why were they eating that? How did they procure it? 

When looking at farming systems, it’s not just animals that are studied. In the past, animal protein was not as big a part of the human diet as it is today. I work together with archaeobotanists who study plants and crops from the past. By examining carbonised plant remains that we find, we can estimate what kind of crops were grown, whether animals were used in growing them, if the crops were used for human consumption or for something else. 

What methods are used to analyse these remains?

We use a method called stable isotope analysis to analyse the different ratios of elements like carbon and nitrogen in these remains. For instance, if plant remains show higher nitrogen content, it probably means they were getting some supplements - like fertilisers to enhance soil. If you have animal remains, their carbon and nitrogen ratios can reflect what kind of feed they consumed during their lifetime. 

The way we divide and use our available agricultural land is often a point of contention. Is this a recent conflict, or has land use always been an issue? 

Nowadays, thanks to factory farming, you have animals in huge numbers and it really is an abnormal situation. We eat three times the amount of meat compared to what we used to even 50 years ago. So, the scale of today’s land use conflict is a new development. Never before in the history of our civilisation have we reared animals in such large numbers. That being said, we have seen these debates in ancient times as well. 

Many ancient civilizations made clear divisions between land that was meant for growing food for people and animals. For example, in ancient Mesopotamia, settlements were built as concentric circles where the outermost rings were reserved for pastures for sheep and goats to graze. The ring within that would be for farms where crops for human consumption and fodder could be grown. This system offered farmers a shorter distance to transport crops - both as food to the centre of the settlement and as fodder to the outer livestock rearing pastures. The close proximity of animal pastures to crop growing areas also allowed farmers to easily transport manure from sheep or goats into the fields where they could be used as fertilisers. 

We also see information about land use in taxation and trade records. For example, there are records from the later Bronze Age indicating that important people like vassals and generals would send out messages to the authorities to inform them about crop failure and consequently, lack of food for people and animals. In situations of scarcity like these, important decisions regarding land use had to be made. 

Did animals help manage domestic food waste in the past?

A nice example of that is the domestication of pigs and chickens in the Levant. Pigs will eat most things. In fact, they can have a diet very similar to humans. One of the advantages of having a pig in your backyard is that you can feed it leftovers from your meal or scraps from your kitchen. Now, the big caveat here is that they need a lot of water and shade. 

In the early Bronze Age, in southwestern Asia, there were quite a lot of pigs. Later during this period, we are talking about two to three thousand years BCE, you see the number of pigs dwindle until you almost can't see them anymore. One theory is that this happened because chickens became the preferred backyard animal during this time. Like pigs, you can feed chickens all your leftovers. And because the chicken is so small, you can have many chickens and they lay eggs which can be consumed as well. So, it’s a convenient system where you feed them your scraps, and you get eggs in return. And once the chicken is older, you can have some meat to share with your family. But pigs, on the other hand, get very large and need far greater input. There’s also a theory that governments weren’t too happy about people rearing pigs. Animals were used as currency to pay taxes, and pigs were too large to be moved from one city or kingdom to another. 

Did these ancient farming systems have to adapt to climate change as well? 

Climate change, which is a natural phenomenon, happens all the time. The geological time period we're in now is called the Holocene. A characteristic of the Holocene is that certain cyclical events related to ice rafting in the North Atlantic region cause major changes in the climate every 1000 years or so. Historically, climate change has meant that the climate will change from, for instance, humid to dry. But the scale and pace at which it is happening today is unprecedented. It’s really different from what people have dealt with in the past. 

Having said that, an example of climate change from the past is the transition from the late Bronze Age to the Iron Age - around 2000 BCE. In the late Bronze Age, the age of internationalism, you had these mega empires trading with each other. Life was really flourishing. Suddenly, something happened, and this entire system of interconnectivity collapsed. Mega empires like ancient Egypt dwindled, and international trade came to a halt. This downfall coincides with climate change. The climate in southwestern Asia and the eastern Mediterranean became drier, so crops and animals stopped thriving. This caused civilisations to collapse.

Beehive structures in Harran, Turkey. This modern historical village is the site of a major city in ancient Upper Mesopotamia.

To cope with this, people started moving away from long-distance trade and grand infrastructure. Instead, they focused on local production and trade—back to family, community, and kinship. They circumvented climate adversities by downsizing and focusing on self-sufficiency. We see this focus on community, local food production systems, and short supply chains as a way to cope with climate change today as well.  

How can these observations from the past help strengthen our food systems today?

The connection between our work and present-day food systems is becoming important to many young scholars in my field. We are keen on playing a role in informing food and climate policies. In popular culture, archaeology is still painted as this romantic image of Indiana Jones with his hat in the field, but that is really not the case. It’s not that we can offer a golden key to solve all issues. But what we can offer is knowledge acquired because of the longevity of our field. We have been studying things like climate change, pastoralism, and farming systems over tens of thousands of years. We want a seat at the table because we can actively apply this knowledge to help address various pressing issues that humanity faces today.

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