The last hunter-gatherers and the first farming communities of Muge (Central Portugal)

Cabeço da Amoreira

The Mesolithic-Neolithic transition remains one of the most controversial issues in prehistory archaeology and has attracted, and will continue to attract, significant archaeological debate and extensive research. The main reason is that this was a period of crucial changes in human relationships with the natural world, marking the end of the last hunter-gatherers and the appearance of the first food producing societies in Western Europe. Our knowledge of both periods remain limited, as does our understanding of the transition between them – whether this is entirely cultural in nature or involves the arrival of new Neolithic populations and the demise of the indigenous Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. The case of Central Portugal, and more specifically of the Tagus valley, with the Muge shellmiddens complex, is currently one of the most important regions to study this transitional phase and certainly help move debate forward. On the one hand, because there is an overlap of a few hundred years in the region between the Muge Mesolithic and the exogenous early Neolithic populations, and on the other, because recent work carried out in the Mesolithic shellmiddens of Muge revealed preliminary evidence of cultural and genetic interaction between both populations. This last point contradicts the prevailing traditional perspectives on a full human population replacement during the transition. If confirmed, the interaction between these two very different adaptation systems is of great importance for our understanding of human eco- and cultural dynamics at the beginning of the Holocene and how these have shaped our own evolutionary path. Due to its complexity, diversity of artifact assemblages, excellent faunal and human bone preservation, evidence for multiple site function and the presence of a newly discovered wet context (potentially similar to those known from Star Carr, Duvensee and other coastal sites across Europe from where Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic organic artefacts such as paddles and boats have been recovered) (e.g., Bokelmann, 2012; Conneller et al., 2009; Milner et al., 2011) Cabeço da Amoreira and Cabeço da Arruda, in Muge, are an ideal opportunity to study the Mesolithic complex hunter-gatherers and their probable integration in the newly arrived exogenous Neolithic societies coming from the Mediterranean sea, trying at the same time to understand the impact of these food producing societies on the natural environment, regional ecology and cultural background. This project will develop and expand our knowledge of the transition of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers to Neolithic farmers in central Portugal, and to increase our understanding of the complex changes not only in technology and subsistence, but also in how people thought about themselves and their worlds, the nature of their interactions and the related social processes. This project aims to continue excavations at the two shellmiddens to get new data on the absolute chronology, isotopic and DNA, material culture, paleoenvironment, and human burial contexts and patterns that will allow us to test the hypothesis of a cultural and genetic integration process between the Mesolithic and Neolithic communities in the Muge region.

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João Cascalheira
Assistant Researcher