An innovative integration of ethnoarchaeological models with phytolith data to study histories of C4 crop cultivation
Sorghum and finger millet cultivation during the Aksumite period: insights from ethnoarchaeological modelling and microbotanical analysis
Recommendation: posted 25 July 2023, validated 25 July 2023
Loftus, E. (2023) An innovative integration of ethnoarchaeological models with phytolith data to study histories of C4 crop cultivation. Peer Community in Archaeology, 100328. 10.24072/pci.archaeo.100328
This article “Sorghum and finger millet cultivation during the Aksumite period: insights from ethnoarchaeological modelling and microbotanical analysis”, submitted by Ruiz-Giralt and colleagues (2023a), presents an innovative attempt to address the lack of palaeobotanical data concerning ancient agricultural strategies in the northern Horn of Africa. In lieu of well-preserved macrobotanical remains, an especial problem for C4 crop species, these authors leverage microbotanical remains (phytoliths), in combination with ethnoarchaeologically-informed agroecology models to investigate finger millet and sorghum cultivation during the period of the Aksumite Kingdom (c. 50 BCE – 800 CE).
Both finger millet and sorghum have played important roles in the subsistence of the Horn region, and throughout much of the rest of Africa and the world in the past. The importance of these drought-resistant and adaptable crops is likely to increase as we move into a warmer, drier world. Yet their histories of cultivation are still only approximately sketched due to a paucity of well-preserved remains from archaeological sites - for example, debate continues as to the precise centre of their domestication. Recent studies of phytoliths (by these and other authors) are demonstrating the likely continuous presence of these crops from the pre-Aksumite period. However, phytoliths are diagnostic only to broad taxonomic levels, and cannot be used to securely identify species. To supplement these observations, Ruiz-Giralt et al. deploy models (previously developed by this team: Ruiz-Giralt et al., 2023b) that incorporate environmental variables and ethnographic data on traditional agrosystems. They evaluate the feasibility of different agricultural regimes around the locations of numerous archaeological sites distributed across the highlands of northern Ethiopia and southern Eritrea.
Their results indicate the general viability of finger millet and sorghum cultivation around archaeological settlements in the past, with various regions displaying greater-or-lesser suitability at different distances from the site itself. The models also highlight the likelihood of farmers utilising extensive-rainfed regimes, given low water and soil nutrient requirements for these crops. The authors discuss the results with respect to data on phytolith assemblages, particularly at the site of Ona Adi. They conclude that Aksumite agriculture very likely included the cultivation of finger millet and sorghum, as part of a broader system of rainfed cereal cultivation.
Ruiz-Giralt et al. argue, and have demonstrated, that ethnoarchaeologically-informed models can be used to generate hypotheses to be evaluated against archaeological data. The integration of many diverse lines of information in this paper certainly enriches the discussion of agricultural possibilities in the past, and the use of a modelling framework helps to formalise the available hypotheses. However, they emphasise that modelling approaches cannot be pursued in lieu of rigorous archaeobotanical studies but only in tandem - a greater commitment to archaeobotanical sampling is required in the region if we are to fully detail the histories of these important crops.
Ruiz-Giralt, A., Beldados, A., Biagetti, S., D’Agostini, F., D’Andrea, A. C., Meresa, Y. and Lancelotti, C. (2023a). Sorghum and finger millet cultivation during the Aksumite period: insights from ethnoarchaeological modelling and microbotanical analysis. Zenodo, 7859673, ver. 3 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Archaeology. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7859673
Ruiz-Giralt, A., Biagetti, S., Madella, M. and Lancelotti, C. (2023b). Small-scale farming in drylands: New models for resilient practices of millet and sorghum cultivation. PLoS ONE 18, e0268120. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0268120
The recommender in charge of the evaluation of the article and the reviewers declared that they have no conflict of interest (as defined in the code of conduct of PCI) with the authors or with the content of the article. The authors declared that they comply with the PCI rule of having no financial conflicts of interest in relation to the content of the article.
This research has been developed as part of the RAINDROPS Research Project, funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the Horizon 2020 framework (ERC-Stg 759800). Ona Adi was excavated as part of the Eastern Tigrai Archaeological Project (ETAP), funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC Insight Grant #435-2014-0182 and Partnership Development Grant #890-215-003). We are also grateful for the participation of the Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) and the Tigrai Tourism and Cultural Commission (TCTB).
Evaluation round #1
DOI or URL of the preprint: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7859674
Version of the preprint: 1
Author's Reply, 17 Jul 2023
Decision by Emma Loftus, posted 16 Jul 2023, validated 17 Jul 2023
As you will see, you have received two positive reviews of your submission. Both authors have requested minor changes, including the addition of a broader scale map (perhaps as an inset) and providing definitions of some of your terms. Both reviewers have also highlighted the referencing.
I consider your submssion accepted, pending these minor corrections, which will not require that the manuscript is returned to the reviewers for their approval - let me know if you think you cannot accommodate these changes.
Thank you, and best wishes,