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.
Archaeologists 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.
Haeberle assumes that the farmers have thrown the mice they managed to catch in an abandoned well nearby.
Haeberle explains: “The wood mouse therefore probably established itself in human settlements before it was ousted by the house mouse in the Bronze Age.
“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.
Haeberle said: “The grain weevil is only a few millimetres long. It still infests grain stores today.”
Archaeologist Dr 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: “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.
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 4,300-3,700 BC.
The Neolithic Era (10,000-4,500 BC) is 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 by small rodents and insects by switching to less vulnerable kinds of grain.
Study group leader Professor Ferran Antolin said: “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.
“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.
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.
Wood mice are primarily seed eaters, 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 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. It currently registers more than 13,000 students.