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18 November 2004
Early village life revealed in rubbish

Archaeologists working in the valley of the River Jordan, in the Levant region to the east of the Mediterranean Sea, are looking into how rubbish can distinguish between permanent settlements and transient camps.
    Philip Edwards and Tania Hardy-Smith of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, have been studying some of the earliest villages in the area, in particular a 12,000 year-old Natufian site known as Wadi Hammeh 27. Since the remains of durable stone houses were discovered in the 1950s, they have been regarded as the earliest examples of permanent human settlement.
    However Edwards and Hardy-Smith's analysis of rubbish at the site suggests that the people who lived at Wadi Hammeh 27 were only semi-sedentary. Ethnographic work carried out on more recent semi-settled and settled societies reveals that a defining trait of permanent settlements is the systematic disposal of household waste.
    This systematic disposal rarely occurs at transient camps, and didn't happen at all at Wadi Hammeh 27, where half a million pieces of rubbish were found, including broken pestles and mortars, food scraps, stone chips from tool-making, and even the remains of burnt human skulls. This led Edwards to the conclusion that "this pattern of refuse resembles mobile hunter-gatherers" rather than a settled society.
    A few thousand years later, nearby Neolithic sites show clear evidence of rubbish disposal at the same time as the first signs of agriculture. By between 9200 and 8000 years ago, large farming villages in the area had consistent methods of waste disposal.
    Andrew Garrard of University College, London, who has worked extensively in the Jordan valley, said “The emergence of sedentism had such a profound impact on all aspects of life. With it came a complete change in mentality and morality, laws relating to personal property and communal responsibilities”.

Source: New Scientist (16 November 2004)

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