cerdos en la prehistoria the farm portada
09 APR

Webinar ‘Pigs in Prehistory’

(Dr. Marina Mosquera, URV-IPHES) For The Farm Revolution

Pigs belong to the superorder of ungulate mammals (i.e., those that walk on the tips of their toes, usually sheathed in hooves), to the order of artiodactyls (having an even number of toes, of which at least two touch the ground), the family Suidae, the genus Sus, and the species scrofa. The word “pig” implies that it refers to the domestic group, so their morphology and body, skeletal, jaw, and dental sizes differ from those of their wild relatives, the boars. Therefore, their full name would be Sus scrofa domesticus. The term “boar” comes from the Arabic “ǧabalī”, meaning “mountainous”.

Boars have several peculiarities. The first is that their canines grow continuously, so these teeth grow throughout the animal’s life. This characteristic is called hypsodonty. Thus, the larger the canines, the older the individual. This biological phenomenon is normal in herbivores, as their plant-based diet wears down their teeth because plants contain silica particles in their structure. However, hypsodonty is not common in omnivores like boars. Another peculiarity is that, apparently, it is one of only four mammals that have undergone a genetic mutation that protects them from snake venom. The other four are the hedgehog, the mongoose, and the honey badger.

Suids were very scarce in Europe around 2 million years ago (Ma), in some paleontological sites such as Fonelas (Granada). Naturally, we are talking about wild suids with morphological characteristics much earlier than the current ones. According to research, there is a gap of these animals in the paleontological and archaeological records, which lasted about 600,000 years, between 1.8 Ma, until they reappear at the site of Sima del Elefante (Atapuerca, Burgos), 1.2 Ma ago. It seems that the genus and species Sus scrofa, as we currently know it, is already identified in Europe 1 Ma ago.

From that moment, bone remains of the genus Sus have been recovered from numerous European sites, which means that by that date their presence was generalized throughout the subcontinent. When suids are found in an ecosystem, they are usually very abundant among the community of large mammals. The classification as small, medium, or large mammal depends on the type of animals found in a habitat. For example, in an environment without deer or wild horses, the boar – which usually weighs between 50 and 100 kilograms – should be considered a large mammal. Conversely, in environments with elephants, rhinoceroses, bison, horses, deer, and others, the boar would be of medium size, as was the case in the Iberian Peninsula 400,000 years ago.

Suids are very abundant because they are omnivores and because they have a very successful reproductive strategy, in which their short gestation periods are added to the high number of offspring they have. Both characteristics confer them a huge potential for colonizing new and different territories and habitats. And, at the same time, this omnipresence and abundance facilitate the preservation of their remains in archaeological and paleontological sites.

However, despite their great adaptability, suids do not tolerate extremely low temperatures, which suggests that their colonization of Europe must have taken place during relatively benign geological periods, as occurred around 1 Ma ago. In fact, boars are present in North Africa, Asia, and all over Europe, except in Scandinavia. Moreover, it was humans who introduced this animal to North America and New Zealand.

As mentioned, boars are found in numerous prehistoric sites, from 700,000 years ago. Along with rhinoceroses, horses, bison, and deer hunted by the different hominin species that have populated Eurasia and North Africa, suids have been part of the human diet for hundreds of thousands of years. However, there is the particularity that, until relatively recent times, that is, from about 15,000 years ago, suids have never been the focus of special attention by ancient prehistoric hunter-gatherer groups. That is, they appear in the records of prehistoric site excavations, but in very low numbers. This means that these animals were never of interest to human communities until relatively recently. For example, in none of the sites of the Sierra de Atapuerca, which contain a million and a half years of history of our genus, have suids been frequent animals, but rather frankly residual.

However, about 30,000 years ago, the Neanderthals of southern Europe began to take notice of boars, possibly conditioned by the incipient recession of the megafaunas – such as elephants, rhinoceroses, and bison – and the increase of large, medium, and even small animals, represented by horses, deer, boars, goats, and rabbits. Thus, at the Gibraltarian site of Gorham’s Cave, hearths, lithic tools, and remains of boars, rabbits, dolphins, birds, turtles, fish, and pine nuts, consumed by the Neanderthals who used the cave, have been recovered.

However, the true prominence of suids is not in Pleistocene times, but in the Holocene, the era in which we have been for about 10,000 years. The Holocene began with significant climate warming that caused the disappearance of large terrestrial animals from much of the continents, so the smaller ones replaced these large faunas in most of the planet.

Very interesting archaeological excavations that have been carried out in the Jomon culture – Japanese hunter-gatherers who lived between 16,000 and 2,400 years ago – have shown numerous burials of dogs, which indicates that dogs – possibly domesticated about 20,000 years ago – already played an essential role in hunting, so they were honored with special funeral rites. But in addition to burials, archaeologists discovered that the hunter-gatherers had represented in clay figures of dogs cornering boars. In this way, archaeologists conclude that dogs constituted a real hunting technology, as they are now, for cornering or guiding aggressive and extremely fast animals in flight, such as boars.

It is curious how this animal came to have special relevance in some areas, such as the Zagros mountains (Iran and Iraq), where a human settlement has been located with evidence of ritual gastronomic practices related to boars. This is the site of Asiab, dated to around 9,500 years before the present, where a pit was excavated in which 19 perfectly arranged and sealed boar skulls were deposited. Many of the skulls had their canines removed, surely as a trophy.

But it is not until their domestication that suids take on real prominence. Like all domestication processes, it must not have happened suddenly, but after a long period of management and handling of wild herds in environments controlled by humans. It is possible that this management began with feeding with collected products, especially interesting for boars, in specific areas of the territory, so that in the long run the animals would become accustomed to the human presence.

This phenomenon seems to have taken place about 9,000-10,000 years ago, in the Neolithic, in two distant areas of the planet: Anatolia (part of present-day Turkey) and central China. And after domestication, pigs accompanied the first Neolithic herders and farmers in their expansion through Europe and Asia.

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