Prehistoric Farmers Were Bugged By Insects, Mice, Study Says

Stone Age farmers in southern France were fighting mice and insects feasting on their supplies 4,000 years ago, a new study has revealed.

An international team of archaeologists led by Basel University examined sediment layers of three prehistoric wells to find out more about settlements around 4,000 years ago, and were surprised to find the bones of more than 40 wood mice in one of the wells.

Basel University scientist Dr. Simone Haeberle thinks they were part of a larger population attracted by food supplies stocked in the settlement.

Bones of wood mice from France
Lower jaw and front limb bones of wood mice evaluated by the University of Basel in Switzerland. Raul Soteras, AgriChange Project/Zenger

Haeberle assumes that the farmers had thrown the mice they managed to catch into an abandoned well nearby.

"The wood mouse therefore probably established itself in human settlements before it was ousted by the house mouse in the Bronze Age," Haeberle explained.

"This shows that people were already changing the natural ecosystems even back then, and that their settlements were an attractive habitat for certain wild animals."

The archaeologist said that her research group also discovered the remains of many insects, including the grain weevil.

"The grain weevil is only a few millimeters long. It still infests grain stores today," she said.

Archaeologist Marguerita Schaefer pointed out it was "very rare that the remains of both small mammals and insects can be examined in one place."

She added that "The waste material collected in the wells has been exceptionally well-preserved thanks to the permanent wet conditions and the resulting lack of oxygen."

Basel University underlined the significance of the investigation considering that previous research on ancient farms neglected the effect of pests.

Blackthorn fruit stones
Blackthorn fruit stones with gnawing traces of mice evaluated by the University of Basel in Switzerland. Raul Soteras, AgriChange Project/Zenger

The institution announced: "Particularly for the western Mediterranean region, there had been almost no record of the occurrence of harmful insects and rodents until now."

The scientists' examination took place at the Neolithic settlement Les Bagnoles in the south of France which has been dated to around 4,300 to 3,700 BC.

The Neolithic Era (10,000 to 4,500 BC) was the final period of the Stone Age. It began when some groups of humans gave up the nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle completely to begin farming.

Researchers at Basel University discovered that Neolithic settlers in southern Europe had reacted to the threats of small rodents and insects by switching to less vulnerable kinds of grain.

"Around 4,000 BC, people in various places around the western Mediterranean switched from naked wheat - which is vulnerable to storage pests - to glume wheat," said study group leader Professor Ferran Antolin.

"After that, evidence of grain weevils in Les Bagnoles seems to decrease."

Glume wheat, which has similarities with emmer, is extinct today.

Antolin said the agriculture industry of the 21st century should take the study result into account.

Grain weevil exoskeleton
Selection of grain weevil exoskeletal elements: head and pronotum (a, b, c, d, e, f, h, I, m, o); extremity (g); elytra (j, k, l, n). Raul Soteras, AgriChange Project/Zenger

He explained: "These more resistant grains such as einkorn and emmer only account for a small part of our cultivated land today.

"More attention should definitely be paid to them when it comes to the future resilience of agriculture."

The wood mouse, which is found across most of Europe, is a very common and widespread species. They are primarily seedeaters, particularly seeds of trees such as oak, beech, ash and lime.

The grain weevil, also known as wheat weevil, is an insect that feeds on cereal grains including wheat, oats, rye and barley. It can cause substantial damage to harvested store grains and has the potential to drastically decrease crop yields.

One pair of weevils can produce up to 6,000 offspring per year.

The University of Basel cooperated with the ETH Zurich University and the Berlin-based German Archaeological Institute in carrying out their latest examinations.

Founded in 1460, Basel University is the oldest university in Switzerland and currently registers more than 13,000 students.

The team's findings, titled "Small Animals, Big Impact? Early Farmers and Pre- and Post-Harvest Pests from the Middle Neolithic Site of Les Bagnoles in the South-East of France," were published in Animals.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.