Why dig up the past?

16 October 2018

Interview with

Natalia Hanziac, University of Toronto & Eske Willerslev, University of Cambridge

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What's the point of investigating the neolithic? Georgia Mills heard from Natalia Hanziac, from the University of Toronto and Eske Willerslev from the University of Cambridge...

Natalia - As you get more into asking questions of the past you realise that you’re really asking the questions that are important to us today. So the questions that we’re asking might not even be relevant to people who lived 10,000 years ago. It might not be something they think about, but it’s the fact that we’re thinking about today tells us a lot about what it is to be a person in the 21st century.

Archaeology is fundamentally figuring out where humans came from and why we are the way we are today. So the materials that we look at, especially if things like ceramics and plaster, we’re investigating the first times humans made synthetic material. And synthetic material is a bit part of our existence today. But furthermore, things like ceramic and like obsidian are still used as components in tools we use today, which is very cool.

Georgia - When you’re looking at things from thousands of years ago do you feel a kind of connection with the past?

Natalia - Absolutely. Pulling something out of the ground that hasn’t been touched in 10,000 years gives you a really close and intimate connection with the last person who touched it. You might not know who that person is but it’s a kind of connection through time and a little bit through space between yourself and essentially people who came before that made us who we are today.

Georgia - I’ve been here for just under a week. I haven’t been getting up as early as you guys - a 5 am start, backbreaking labour. What keeps you doing it because it’s not easy is it?

Natalia - No, it’s not an easy pursuit but it is one that is incredibly rewarding. And part of it is that we work with people to get the work done so you’re forging human connections with people who you wouldn’t necessarily work with daily. We are very very lucky to work with incredible Georgian students for instance. But also the experience of pulling something out of the ground and really revealing parts of the puzzle that you might or might not be able to put together in a coherent way. It’s sort of like catnip, it’ll just keep you going and keep you coming back for more.

Georgia - Kind of like gambling?

Natalia - A little bit like gambling.

Georgia - So how different are we from our neolithic ancestors. Back to Cambridge University’s Eske Willerslev…

Eske - There has been some evidence suggesting the hunter-gatherers originally came into Europe. Their appearance was quite different from today. They had much darker skin, they had blue or grey eyes so they would have looked different from present day Europeans. They would have language but it would have been the hunter-gatherer language which would most likely be very different from the language we are speaking today, because the inter-European language is first really coming into Europe during the early Bronze Age with the Yamnaya expansion.

Georgia - You say they brought in all these innovations but we know these days we know about farming, we have all this scientific reasoning behind this, but they wouldn’t have known any of this. So how did they make so many innovations?

Eske - What made the farmers so successful is that for some reason they must have had more children that survived basically. So the population growth of the farmers seems to have been larger than among the hunter-gatherers. And it’s kind of ironic in the sense that if you look at the health state of the farmers it actually looks like the health state is poorer among the farmers than it is among the hunter-gatherers.

So you can say in some ways it was probably a less good life if you want. I mean that’s how it looks at least from the skeletons. They have teeth problems, they are fairly small,their backs are kind of affected by the line of lifestyle. Their nutrient state is not as good as the hunter-gatherers but they still seem, you can say in terms of numbers, more successful than the hunter-gatherers.

Georgia - The innovations they made like, for example, that if you leave grapes out for a while it makes wine, would this have been intentional or accidental do you think?

Eske - Well, it’s a good question. It’s not very clear exactly how the domestication happened. I mean where you start nourishing little bits of wild crops and turning them into domestic over a long period and it’s something that happens fairly slowly. Others have argued that it’s much more focused, and I don’t think that’s really resolved. But of course when they’re getting into Europe, to some extent they mastered this new way of life at least to an extent where you can say it’s successful and they made possible the spread of that lifestyle.

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