Prehistoric Garbage Crisis?

Science  08 Oct 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5694, pp. 224
DOI: 10.1126/science.306.5694.224c

Did civilization begin when people started taking out the garbage? Two Australian archaeologists say the answer may be yes. Tania Hardy-Smith and Phillip Edwards of La Trobe University in Victoria took a close look at the rubbish situation at the 12,000-year-old settlement of Wadi Hammeh 27, a site occupied by the Natufians, sedentary hunter-gatherers who lived in present-day Israel. The scientists counted more than 439,000 pieces of refuse, mostly debris from stone tool making and discarded animal bone, on one occupation level. They found 82% of the trash within two stone structures believed to be dwellings.

Dwellings at other Natufian sites, the researchers found, were also “smothered in a rich farrago of refuse.” But a look at several later Neolithic farming settlements revealed that people became more fastidious over time, depositing their garbage in exterior areas apart from dwellings, the authors report in the September Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

The Natufians did suffer from a “veritable garbage crisis,” says archaeologist Nigel Goring-Morris of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But he cautions that the structures at Wadi Hammeh 27 might have been used for “symbolic purposes,” such as ritual dining, rather than as dwellings. The lack of hygiene, he adds, also may have been deadly: The Natufians appeared to have had higher death rates than did the later farming people.

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