Life Style

Neolithic Threshing “Sledge” was Used As Early as 8,500 Years Ago


The threshing sledge, once widely used to separate straw from grain across many Mediterranean countries from Turkey to Spain, may have originated in Greece as early as 6500 BC, according to a remarkable new study. This earns it the distinction of being one of the earliest agricultural machines in Europe, setting the timeline back by 3,000 years than previously thought.

The conclusion was arrived at in a recent study led by an international team of researchers. By employing advanced analytical techniques, including confocal microscopy, on flint tools, the researchers traced the early adoption of this technology, highlighting it as one of the earliest agricultural machines in Europe.

These flint edges founjd at the survey sites are believed to come from threshing sledges, based on the patterns of wear (N Mazzucco et al / Science Direct)

Their research, funded by the European Union, Italy, and Spain, and directed by the University of Pisa in collaboration with the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, has been published in The Journal of Archaeological Science.

Tribulum, and the Increase of Grain Efficiency

The tribulum, an ancient agricultural implement, consisted of a wooden board or frame with sharp stones or metal blades embedded on the underside. Farmers would drag the tribulum over harvested crops, often by animal power, to break apart the cereal stalks and release the grains. Its use spread across various Mediterranean regions, adapting to local agricultural practices.

Known by the Roman term “tribulum” the threshing sledge significantly increased grain processing efficiency. Previously, it was thought that this innovation was associated with the emergence of the first states, but this study reveals its much earlier origins.

Detail of the edges of the flint cutting surfaces reveal they were likely used in threshing sledges (N Mazzucco et al / Science Direct)

“Threshing sledge or tribulum represents an important innovation in agricultural techniques. It allows processing huge amounts of cereals and it has often associated to an increased agricultural production. Their use is attested during the Late Neolithic/Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age both in south-western Asia and Europe. In the Mediterranean area, their use lasted until few decades ago,” write the authors in the study.

They applied confocal microscopy on flint tools from Early and Middle Neolithic sites such as Achilleion, Platia Magoula Zarkou, Revenia Korinos, and Paliambela Kolindros, discovering macroscopic and microscopic use, wearing traces similar to those on ethnographic and archaeological threshing sledges. This technique allowed them to identify the early adoption of these agricultural machines.

“For years we have been working to rebuild the ways and mechanisms of spreading agriculture from the Near East to the rest of the Mediterranean. Discovering the processes of technological innovation and how new machines have been introduced is fundamental for rebuilding the technological systems of the past… In the past, this innovation was believed to be linked to the birth of the first states, but our study shows that its first use is much older”, explains Professor Niccolò Mazzucco of the University of Pisa, principal researcher of the work, in a press release.

The study has demonstrated that the agricultural sector has been a field of technological innovation since prehistory. The findings raise significant questions about the transmission of technological knowledge across different regions of the Mediterranean. What was considered a late innovation just a few decades ago is now shown to have been a practice in existence since the early stages of the Neolithic in Europe.

Using Domesticated Animals Helped, Too

Recent evidence suggests that domesticated animals were not only used for food but also for labor, a significant aspect of technological innovation in the Neolithic, reports Archaeology Mag.

“In recent years, more and more evidence has emerged that the first pets were not used exclusively as a food source, but also as a workforce. And threshing sleds are part of a wider technological innovation process that involves the use of animals in this sense. The detailed analysis of archaeological finds and the use of advanced methodologies thus add a crucial chapter to the history of agricultural development, and underline how the Neolithic was a period of significant technological advancement,” adds Mazzucco.

Evidence for the early use of threshing sledges is limited, with relatively few elements discovered compared to the more numerous sickle components. This difference arises partly because threshing sledges required less frequent maintenance and replacement. Unlike sickles, which needed regular resharpening, threshing sledges did not require sharp edges and often remained at the threshing sites for extended periods.

The study also revealed a notable disparity in the spread of threshing sledges between the eastern and western Mediterranean. While the technology spread quickly from the Near East to the eastern Mediterranean, it did not reach the central and western Mediterranean until much later, around 3000 to 2500 BC, in areas such as the Spanish Meseta and Portuguese Estremadura. This gap highlights differences in the scale and intensity of agricultural production between these regions.

“All this now allows us to better frame the development dynamics of the first European agricultural companies, to understand how the diffusion of agricultural technologies took place and to evaluate their impact on the social structure and on the economy of the time,” concludes Mazzucco.

Top image: Analysis of several sites in Greece suggests these threshing sledges were used up to 3,000 years earlier than thought, making them amongst the first agricultural tools in Europe. Source: University of Pisa / N Mazzucco et al.

By Sahir Pandey


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