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The project AGRINA investigated the chronology and locations of the first appearance of the Near Eastern domesticates in North Africa and their subsequent spread, and the cultural interactions involved in these processes. Although it is commonly accepted that domesticated plants and animals from the Near East (wheat, barley, cattle, sheep/goats) were introduced into North Africa in the Early and Middle Holocene (c. 8000-4000 cal. BC), a period of profound climatic change, when and how these migrations took place, and what form they took, remain extremely uncertain.
Until recently, Africa's potential contribution to the understanding of the such processes has been considered limited, and the earliest occurrences of food production in North Africa have been regarded as largely derivative, involving the importation of domesticated species from the Near East and Europe. The AGRINA project contributed to shifting this debate, by adding a more nuanced understanding of this process. To this end Dr. Lucarini worked to better characterize the peculiar nature of the Saharan Neolithic, showing the inadequacy of applying a single explanatory model for the origins of food production on a global scale. This was achieved by conducting extensive fieldwork in Egypt and Libya, in contexts with contrasting past environments but sharing the same lithic technology and similar faunal and plant resources. The project focused on four case study areas, to investigate and compare forager-farmer interactions and processes of ‘Neolithization’: the Fafra Oasis in the Egyptian Western Desert, the Wadis of the Central Egyptian Eastern Desert, the Cyrenaican coast and the Nile Delta. In particular, the project took advantage of four current fieldwork programmes by European teams collecting high quality palaeoclimatic and palaeoenvironmental data essential for understanding human group activities in this period of significant climatic change: the Cyrenaican Prehistory Project, directed by Prof. Graeme Barker (McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge); the Farafra Archaeological Project, directed by Prof. Barbara Barich (ISMEO) and Dr. Giulio Lucarini (McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge and ISMEO, Rome); the Imbaba Prehistoric Survey, directed by Prof. Joanne Rowland (Freie Universität Berlin); and the Archaeological Mission in the Central Eastern Desert, directed by Prof. Irene Bragantini (University of Naples).
The innovative functional (organic residue/use-wear) and geochemical approach to lithic analysis Giulio Lucarini adopted, integrated with the direct dating of food-remains, allowed him to better clarify how the exploitation of Levantine domesticates was combined with that of African wild species, and how Saharan and Nilotic communities interacted.
From the data collected from the fieldwork and lab analysis it emerged clearly that Holocene North African groups developed different but equally very successful and low risk economies based on hunting and foraging a number of wild resources, integrated mainly with domestic animal keeping. Domestic species thus represented an addition to and not a replacement of the local wild resources, mainly wild grasses in the Sahara, terrestrial and marine gastropods along the littoral, and fishes along the Nile Valley, that continued to be highly exploited even during the Holocene. Moreover, the almost absolute lack of domestic crops in North Africa prior to Classical times is another aspect which is common in several North African regions, not only in the Sahara, but also along the coast. Evidence of domestic crops during the Neolithic only comes from the Nile Valley and the northern coast of Morocco. Even in these sites, the use of domesticated crops was combined with foraging and herding and long time passed before these groups developed a more significant commitment on agriculture. It is not surprising that even for contexts that were for long considered as areas of the earliest farming experiments in North Africa, like Fayum, recent investigations have stressed the importance given by Neolithic groups to wild resources. The use of definitions such as ‘low level food production’ seems today much more appropriate for these contexts.
The absence of proper farming activities in the Haua Fteah, Farafra and the Eastern Desert was also confirmed by the absence of other types of tools usually connected with the exploitation of plants, such as sickle blades. As shown in the EgyptianWestern Desert, it is likely that the gathering of wild plant could also have been carried out using bare hands or opportunistic debitage elements that were used for short time before being discarded.
Moving away from a simplistic focus on the beginning of ‘agriculture’ and from the traditional dichotomy ‘wild Epipalaeolithic’ versus ’domestic Neolithic,’ the data so far available for North Africa indicate a far more complex and articulated pattern of exploitation and interaction with the environment. Our results confirmed that Mid Holocene groups developed a very successful and low risk economy based on hunting and collecting a broad spectrum of wild resources, mainly shellfish and plant, integrated with small-scale livestock herding. This was preferred to only relying on domestic crops and animals, which is a highly risky strategy especially in regions characterized by strong climatic and rain variations.