The teeth of domestic (as opposed to field) mice have shown that humans began to live in permanent settlements about 15,000 years ago – 3,000 years before the time that was previously suggested by scientists, according to a new study.
The study, just published in Proceedings of the [US] National Academy of Sciences was conducted at the University of Haifa in cooperation with researchers from the National Center for Scientific Research at the University of Paris and Washington University in St.Louis.
“Until now, scientists believed that agriculture was the reason for permanent settlement, but our research has found that perhaps the opposite is true – people began settling thousands of years ago, and it could be that their living in permanent settlements made them engage in agriculture,” said the University of Haifa’s Dr. Lior Weissbrod, who led the study. The surprising results on domestic mice were reached by his team, which included Prof. Guy Bar- Oz of the university’s Zinman Institute of Archeology and others.
House mice are considered human companions, in that they thrive in a human environment and wander with man wherever he goes. And indeed, from the moment the agricultural revolution began and people began to conquer the Earth, the house mouse spread all over the world. Thus, most researchers believe that the house mouse was a wild mouse that underwent evolutionary adaptation at the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution some 21,000 years ago. This led to the belief that the Agricultural Revolution precedes the beginning of the permanent settlement of mankind, with the transition to agriculture the main reason for the abandonment of nomadic hunter-gatherers lifestyles and the transition to permanent settlement.
In contrast to this view, some scholars claim that already in the Natufian culture in the Levant some 15,000 years ago, there were cases of permanent settlement that preceded the agricultural revolution and may have been the cause of it.
In the study, the researchers examined dental fossils of mice from several prehistoric Israeli sites – from 200,000 years to about 10,000 years ago.
The main and most important site was Einan, located in the Jordan Valley near Kiryat Shmona. It is a site of Natufian culture from 15,000 to 11,500 years ago, in periods when there was still no agriculture until shortly after the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution.
The researchers tried to distinguish this way between house mice and wild mice – a task that became possible only thanks to the latest technology.
“The length of the largest mouth tooth is just over a millimeter, and it is impossible to detect differences between the teeth of the two types of mice using the naked eye, not even with a microscope,” Weissbrod explained.
The findings revealed that until 15,000 years ago, all the teeth found in the various sites were of wild mice only, but then, a total change occurred.
All of the teeth from this period found at the Einan site were of domestic mice only.
It was clear to the investigators that this change had to be explained – and to find it they turned to Africa.
The contemporary Masai tribe resemble ancient hunter- gatherers. “The Masai tribe live in a way of life of temporary permanent settlements.
They stay put for a while, then migrate, and then stay put again,” the researchers explained. When examining the distribution of domestic and wild mice among the Masai, about 80% of them were domestic and 20% were wild.
“If temporarily permanent residents found 80% house mice, it was clear to us that 100% house mice were evidence of permanent settlement,” they said.
They also found that in the later stages of the Einan site, there is a complete reversal – this time, 100% of the teeth are of wild mice. According to the researchers, this finding is consistent with the view that the Natufians were the first to settle in permanent settlements.
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