Ruggles-Gates Award – Matthew A. Gasperetti

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Award Holder: Matthew A. Gasperetti
University: University of Cambridge
Title of Research: The Foundations of Agriculture: A Biocultural Study of Diet, Health, and Behaviour in the Prehistoric Southern Levant

My research examines changes in skeletal biology and behaviour across the transition from hunting-and-gathering to sedentary agriculture and urbanism in the prehistoric southern Levant. Plant and animal domestication marked two of the most important accomplishments of populations during the Holocene and led to profound behavioural and socio-cultural changes, which had numerous implications for human biology, adaptation, and culture. The current research will add to the field of anthropology by elucidating complexities of the relationship between human beings and the natural environment, as agricultural domestication became the primary subsistence strategy in the southern Levant.  In order to accomplish this, a robust methodology will be used to study how plant and animal domestication changed the dietary strategies, impacted the health, shaped the behaviour, and affected the skeletal morphology of human populations over the 10,000-year period from cultivation in the Early Natufian (circa 14,600 cal BP) to large-scale agriculture in the Middle Bronze Age II (circa 3,650 cal BP).

The Ruggles–Gates scholarship I received enabled me to examine human skeletal remains from several archaeological sites located in present-day Israel (i.e. Hayonim, Abu Ghosh, Netiv Hagdud, Peqi’in, Wadi Makkuk, Gilat, Shiqmim).  All adult skeletal material was examined macroscopically and data were recorded from intact crania, teeth, maxillae, mandibles, clavicles, humeri, ulnae, femora, and tibiae. In order to study changes in subsistence behaviour, dental attrition and oral pathology (i.e. dental caries, periapical lesions, ante-mortem tooth loss (AMTL), dental calculus, and periodontal disease) were scored, while linear enamel hypoplasia (LEH) was scored in order to study physiological stress. This approach is holistic, draws from established methodologies, and will allow a geographically specific profile of prehistoric dietary strategies to be developed for the southern Levant. In order to quantify diachronic changes in habitual behaviour and skeletal morphology, the cross-sectional properties of long bones were calculated, and standard osteometric data were recorded. A silicone moulding method was used to take moulds at the midshaft of complete adult clavicles, ulnae, femora, and tibiae; humeral casts were taken at 35% length (mid-distal). Finally, osteometric measurements were collected from crania, dentitions, and long bones using established standards.

The results of these analyses will be contextualized within a biocultural framework in order to study the impact plant and animal domestication had on prehistoric populations in the southern Levant. This research will add to the field of biological anthropology by contributing to scholarship on the transition to agriculture in one of the oldest and most understudied loci of prehistoric domestication. It would not have been possible to collect all of the data necessary for this project without travelling to the Middle East and working with scholars at various universities in Israel, which has been invaluable to this project. During my travels, I was able to collect the remainder of the data necessary for my PhD, I was able to make numerous contacts in the region, and I was able gain access to material from archaeological sites that I was previously unaware of. The results of this work will be published in scholarly articles and will add to a growing body of anthropological literature elucidating the transition to agriculture and the socio-cultural changes associated with sedentary life. This research would not be possible without the support of the Ruggles–Gates Fund.