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Sorting the Trees: The Role of Laurus nobilis in the Woodland Management Practices at La Draga (Banyoles, Spain)

In: International Journal of Wood Culture
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Oriol López-Bultó Department of Prehistory, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona Edifici B, 08193 Bellaterra (Cerdanyola del Vallès) Spain

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Patrick Gassmann Independent researcher Barcelona Spain

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Ingrid Bertin Department of Prehistory, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona Edifici B, 08193 Bellaterra (Cerdanyola del Vallès) Spain

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Raquel Piqué Department of Prehistory, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona Edifici B, 08193 Bellaterra (Cerdanyola del Vallès) Spain

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Open Access

Abstract

It is suggested that woodland management (e.g. pollarding, pruning, or coppicing) was practiced from at least the Neolithic onwards. The goal of this work is to discuss woodland management practices in the Early Neolithic waterlogged site of La Draga (5300–4700 cal BC, Banyoles, Spain). To date, different methods and techniques (dendrochronology, roundwood age and diameter, dendrology, etc.) have been applied to address this issue, and some preliminary results have been obtained. However, recent excavations have yielded new wooden archaeological materials which help to approach this issue from another point of view: the presence of scars on the wood surface. For the first time at La Draga, it was possible to identify scars on the wood surface of piles caused by tool marks and partially or totally covered by wound wood ribs, indicating that the trees were marked before being cut down. The marked piles have been identified as laurel (Laurus nobilis) or bay tree, which is well documented at the site (firewood, instruments, and piles), although it played a secondary role after the oak. However, laurel was rarely exploited during the Neolithic in Europe, which poses the question of the intentional selection of this wood at La Draga.

This paper presents the results of a morphological, technological, and dendrological study of laurel piles in the context of the wooden remains of the La Draga site. The results of the different approaches are summarised and contrasted to provide new insights into Neolithic woodland management in Europe. Moreover, the role of laurel trees in the context of the Neolithic is discussed.

1 Introduction

Healed wounds originating from adze tool marks on the surface of laurel or bay trees at the Neolithic site of La Draga (Banyoles, Spain) could represent one of the earliest pieces of evidence of woodland management in the Western Mediterranean and Europe. This paper presents and discusses the results of their analysis, as well as the role of Laurus nobilis in the framework of the possible woodland management practices of early farmers at the site.

1.1 Woodland Management in Prehistory and its Archaeological Identification

The archaeological identification of woodland management has been regularly discussed based on wood assemblages in Europe dating from the Mesolithic to more recent times (Rackham 1977; Murphy et al. 2001; Out 2009; Pedersen 2013; Warren et al. 2013; Klooß 2014; Bishop et al. 2015; Buckley & Mills 2015). Such management was likely practiced in prehistory, but identifying it in archaeological wood assemblages is problematic and, as a consequence, it is difficult to recognise the beginning of woodland management or even to prove that any such practice was developed in prehistory.

Neolithisation gradually introduced innovative technologies, knowledge, and social organisations which encouraged sedentarism. It is traditionally thought that the availability of domesticates affected not only people’s subsistence but also their attitudes towards nature; instead of just hunting and gathering, people now gained control over nature (Childe 1936). An alternative hypothesis is that domestication is the result of a previous change in attitude versus nature. People could gain control over nature independent of the availability of domesticates, and concepts regarding control over nature might have travelled faster than the actual skills and adaptations needed to manage domesticates (Bishop et al. 2015). In any case, people are believed to have had a conspicuous degree of control over nature from the Neolithic onwards. This presumably also included some form of woodland management, although the question can be raised regarding which kind of woodland management was being conducted or whether it was intentional, structural, or planned. In any case, sedentarism and agricultural activities resulted in the local opening of the woodland, as can be seen in reconstructions of the vegetation based on pollen, wood, and charcoal remains (Revelles et al. 2014), with such woodland offering more resources to people as well as space opportunities for settling and cultivation. Based on the expected cognitive skills of people and their understanding of nature, if not their control over nature, woodland management could have taken place from the Neolithic, if not already the Mesolithic. Pollarding, coppicing, and pruning are woodland management activities which have more relevant economic implications, but other incipient woodland management activities such as tree selection, marking, or signalling were presumably developed even before domestication and natural control.

The main activities that we can relate to woodland management (pollarding, coppicing, and pruning) are well documented during historical times by written sources. In prehistoric times, different methods have been assessed and applied: morphology of shafts (Louwe Kooijmans 2001), modifications of wood anatomy, dendro-typology (Billamboz 2011), dendrochronology (Haneca et al. 2005; Billamboz 2011; Shindo et al. 2022) and roundwood age and diameter (Christensen 1997; McQuade & O’Donnell 2007; Out et al. 2013, 2017, 2020). Despite the interesting results obtained with the application of these methods in central and northern Europe, there are still very scarce data for the Iberian Peninsula, where these methods are rarely applied because of the lack of waterlogged archaeological contexts.

1.2 La Draga

In the present study, we focused on the Early Neolithic site of La Draga, the only lake-dwelling site on the Iberian Peninsula. It is a pile dwelling located on the western shore of Banyoles Lake on the northeastern Iberian Peninsula (Fig. 1). Currently, the site is partially under the waters of the lake, but the most extensive area is on the mainland. As a partially submerged site, it is characterised by the good preservation of organic remains, which is quite unusual in the Iberian Peninsula, offering a unique opportunity to explore the practice of woodland management activities during the Early Neolithic in Europe by analysing its waterlogged wooden materials. Its chronology (ca. 5300–4700 BCE) suggests that the settlement was built by some of the first farming groups that settled in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula (Andreaki et al. 2022; Bogdanovic et al. 2015; À. Bosch et al. 2011; Palomo et al. 2014). Because of its early chronology and excellent preservation of organic materials, it is one of the most relevant Early Neolithic sites in southern Europe and the Mediterranean region and represents a notable example to investigate early woodland management.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Location of La Draga and sectors excavated

Citation: International Journal of Wood Culture 3, 1-3 (2023) ; 10.1163/27723194-bja10023

Archaeological excavations began in the 1990s and are ongoing. From 1990 to 2021, approximately 1000 m2 have been excavated, representing approximately 6% of the total area of the site, which is estimated at approximately 15 000 m2. The excavated area was divided into three different sectors, A, B/D and C, which were defined according to the relationship between the archaeological layers and the water table. Sector A is the driest sector of the excavation and is located at the highest part of the site. In sector A, the archaeological layers are well above the water table; therefore, no organic remains have been preserved, except for the tips of the wooden piles driven into the carbonated sands and thus below the archaeological layers. Although Sector B/D is an inland sector, the lowest archaeological levels, which correspond to the earliest occupation of the site, have remained below the water table since the Neolithic period, favouring the preservation of organic matter. Sector C is an underwater sector located at the current lakeshore edge. These sectors, which are permanently covered with water, have also allowed the exceptionally good preservation of organic matter.

Thus, it has been possible to identify two archaeological horizons that correspond to different occupation phases, with some particularities depending on the sector. The recent excavation of sector B/D has allowed the documentation of a clear difference between these two archaeological horizons, clearly separated by the presence of a paved surface of travertine slabs that overlap an older layer of timber logs. The layers above this paved surface correspond to the last Neolithic occupations (5216–4981 cal BC). This archaeological layer remained above the water table and the organic material was not preserved. The layers that appear below this pavement correspond to the earliest occupation (5372–5067 cal BC). This oldest phase is characterised by the exceptional preservation of organic matter, which has allowed the recovery of an exceptional sample of wood remains, including thousands of piles and beams used for the construction of dwellings and wooden tools related to daily life practices.

According to pollen and charcoal data, the La Draga settlement was surrounded during the neolithic occupation by riparian vegetation growing near the lake shores and a dense oak forest (Caruso Ferme & Piqué 2014; Revelles et al. 2014). The inhabitants of La Draga exploited the surrounding forests for several purposes, such as timber, firewood, and raw materials to produce tools and goods (Berihuete-Azorín et al. 2022). The documented long-term occupation had an impact on the woodland composition; in fact, the oak forest decreased coinciding with the arrival of the Neolithic population (Revelles et al. 2014). Moreover, the use of pioneering shrub firewood, such as Buxus sempervirens, increased in the most recent Neolithic occupations, favouring woodland openings produced by human activity (Piqué et al. 2018a,b).

Dendrochronological analysis of the piles has allowed the creation of a floating dendrochronological curve for the Early Neolithic in southwestern Europe for the first time (Piqué et al. 2021; Andreaki et al. 2022; López-Bultó et al. in press). Based on this mean curve, it was possible to cross-date 136 oak samples from the earliest occupation horizon at La Draga. The results obtained so far indicate that the site was mainly constructed in a great construction phase which lasted 1–2 years and could be identified in all sectors of the excavation. It was also possible to identify a small number of oaks felled 4–5 years before the great foundation, which could represent the use of stored wood, reuse, or even preparations of the foundation. The felling of oaks in the years after the great foundation represents repairs or reinforcements of wooden constructions. The results establish a minimum duration of 27 years for wooden construction at La Draga.

The possibility of woodland management activities, understood from a wide perspective, at La Draga has been suggested based on dendrochronological data. According to dendrochronology and the annual ring growth patterns, the study is still ongoing; between three and five oak forests seemed to be exploited at the same time at La Draga, and the younger forests (characterised by fast-growing oaks) seemed to have been managed before the occupation of La Draga (Piqué et al. 2021). Moreover, the method of roundwood age and diameter (Out et al. 2020) applied to a sample of the branches recovered at the site has provided additional information regarding woodland management. The assemblage of branches is strongly dominated by oak (which represents more than 95% of the architectonical elements; López-Bultó & Piqué 2018). The data indicated the use of unmanaged trees, but also overlapped with managed oak trees, pointing to the probable use of fast-growing trees or potentially managed trees (Out et al. 2020). The young, fast-growing trees may have been part of a natural mixed oak forest, such as woodland edge vegetation and/or in open spots, and/or representing wood from the later part of the first occupation phase that grew in clearings where the natural vegetation had been removed. The presence and use of managed trees for a specific context, ‘hidden’ in the overall dataset, could not be excluded.

The materials sampled in both cases (dendrochronology and roundwood method) were sampled based first on their morphology, but also on the number of tree rings; the samples for dendrochronology ranged from 20 to almost 200 tree rings, whereas the materials used for the roundwood method had between 3 and 97 tree rings.

2 Materials and Methods

During the 2021 excavation campaign, a wooden pile with adze tool marks on its surface, partially covered by new wooden tissue, was discovered (Ref. number S-45; Fig. 2). After this identification, the wooden piles from previous excavation campaigns were examined by looking for the same features, and two more wooden piles were identified (PV-1350 and PV-1501; Fig. 2). Two of the three piles (PV-1350 and PV-1501) were found in sector A, whereas S-45 originated from the subaquatic excavation in sector C. The piles were carefully described and registered using pictures, casts, and 3D scanning as defined in manuals on prehistoric tool-mark registration and analysis (Sands 1997; English Heritage 2010; López-Bultó 2015; López-Bultó et al. 2020).

Figure 2
Figure 2

General picture and detail of the three piles analysed in this work

Citation: International Journal of Wood Culture 3, 1-3 (2023) ; 10.1163/27723194-bja10023

Piles S-45 and PV-1350 have evident tool marks on their surfaces, with at least eight at S-45 and four at PV-1350. The tool marks at PV-1501 are not so evident because of surface degradation, but after thorough observation and registration, the presence of at least three adze tool marks inside the wound has been estimated.

To use these three piles in the study of early woodland management at La Draga, different methodologies were applied: morphological analysis, tool-mark analysis, taxonomic identification, and dendrochronology. These methodologies are currently applied to all architectonical remains made of wood at the site; therefore, the three studied piles can be compared with the rest of the materials.

For taxonomic identification, thin slices of the three anatomical sections of the three piles were sampled with a razor blade and observed under a microscope (Olympus BX40, 50–500× magnification). The taxon was identified using a reference atlas and modern wood collection (Schweingruber, 1990). For morphological and tool-mark analyses, a precise description and registration of the three piles was conducted. After naked-eye observation and photographic registration, the wounds and tool marks identified were registered using dental silicone moulds. These moulds were later 3D–scanned (‘CREAFORM GO! SCAN’ equipped with a lens with a resolution of 0.1 mm) for easy and quick analysis. For the dendrochronological study, the samples obtained were close to but not on the wounds themselves (Fig. 2) for preservation issues. The samples/slices were cleaned and prepared using a razor blade, and the tree rings were measured using a measuring table. La Draga’s floating chronology based on oak trees was used as a reference curve.

3 Results

The three piles were identified as Laurus nobilis wood (Fig. 3). Morphologically, the three piles preserved the entire trunk. The three trunks had a maximum diameter of approximately 13 cm. In two of the piles, the pointed ends which were driven into the geologic soil were transformed with a conic end, whereas the other had a single-bevel pointed end.

Figure 3
Figure 3

(A) Transversal section of laurel, (B) tangential section of laurel and (C) diameter distribution of the total piles, laurel piles and marked piles at La Draga.

Citation: International Journal of Wood Culture 3, 1-3 (2023) ; 10.1163/27723194-bja10023

Tool-mark analysis has not been completed because the marks are located inside the wounds, making analysis difficult. But it has been possible to determine that they were made with an adze, based on the comparison with experimental and archaeological adze tool marks at la Draga (López-Bultó 2015; López-Bultó et al. 2020) and on the absence of axes at La Draga (Bosch et al. 2008; Palomo 2012; Palomo et al. 2013). It was also possible to count the minimum number of tool marks per pile as follows: eight at S-45, four at PV-1350, and three at PV-1501. It has also been stated that in none of the scars analysed were there any anatomical signals of branches (Fig. 2). Therefore, these clear anthropic tool marks were not used to cut the bay tree branches.

3.1 Dendrochronology

The floating dendrochronology sequence built thus far at La Draga is based on oak samples (López-Bultó et al. in press). The main peculiarity of the three samples measured in this study is that they are laurel trees, which have not been dendro-analysed before at the site. However, as laurel grows readily in environments inhabited by the distinct species of oaks present around the Mediterranean, the chances of relatedness are tangible.

At the annual growth level, the three laurels showed different degrees of ‘undulating’ rings along their respective circumferences. As a result, the sections taken have a general oval to square shape and are not cylindrical like most trees.

The S-45 sample proved immeasurable because a large part of the rings located in the centre of the slice were too tight against each other, thus making their measurement impossible. Only the first 15 rings at the centre were measured.

Figure 4
Figure 4

(Left) Sample PV-1501 and the three rays measured, (right) diagram of the three measurements of PV-1501

Citation: International Journal of Wood Culture 3, 1-3 (2023) ; 10.1163/27723194-bja10023

For PV-1501 three rays were prepared and analysed. The measurements showed that only the first 12 years were hardly synchronised (Fig. 4). Under these conditions, it is useless, even dangerous, to calculate average growth.

For the PV-1350 sample, after identifying anatomical deformations, two measuring rays were chosen. The two radiuses measured twenty-six characteristic rings. The average sequence of 26 years is shown with two red marks indicating two ‘signatures’, which are significant for dating (Fig. 5).

Figure 5
Figure 5

(Left) sample PV-1350 and the two rays measured, (right) diagram of the three measurements of PV-1350

Citation: International Journal of Wood Culture 3, 1-3 (2023) ; 10.1163/27723194-bja10023

Figure 6
Figure 6

Diagram showing the dendrochronological sequence PV-1350 (in red) in synchronization with two oak piles belonging to the main construction phase (PT-0351 and PS-0005)

Citation: International Journal of Wood Culture 3, 1-3 (2023) ; 10.1163/27723194-bja10023

The only reliable dendrocurve obtained from the three samples measured (PV-1350) was then compared with the oak reference curve. Because of the small number of tree rings present, the comparison was based on visual fitting. PV-1350 is perfectly connected with the last 35 years of the Average Oak-1 (Fig. 6), and its felling date coincides with the main construction phase at La Draga.

4 Discussion

4.1 The Role of Laurel or Bay Tree at La Draga

Laurus nobilis is a thermo-hygrophilous woody taxon and a relic of the subtropical forests that were predominant during the Palaeogene and early Neogene (Rodríguez-Sánchez & Arroyo, 2008). The Mediterranean climate during the Pliocene, with hot and dry seasons, caused a strong reduction in laurel in the Mediterranean basin populations (Rodríguez-Sánchez & Arroyo 2008). Since then, laurel has mostly been associated with humid forests near rivers or water bodies, and in the Northeast of Iberia nowadays, it grows in humid forests mainly between 0–600 m a.s.l.

Laurus nobilis is nearly invisible in pollen records because of the poor preservation of its pollen grains. However, charcoal remains of laurel are present in several archaeological sites in Northeast Iberia, which confirm its presence during the Holocene (Fig. 7). According to the presence of charcoal fragments, during the Early Neolithic (5300–4000 cal BC), when the climate was cooler and more humid than the present conditions, laurel was present in sites located from the south to the north of the region in locations where it is not documented nowadays. Laurel is present currently in the lake surroundings, probably as a relic of the past riparian forest. However, its presence is scarce, having been documented at the majority of sites only at low frequencies.

Figure 7
Figure 7

Early Neolithic sites (numbers) and pollen records (letters) in Northeast Iberia, in red circles the sites with Laurus nobilis (num. 2 = La Draga).

Citation: International Journal of Wood Culture 3, 1-3 (2023) ; 10.1163/27723194-bja10023

The only exception is La Draga, where laurel is well documented among the wooden tools, architectonical wooden elements, charcoal, and even leaves (Caruso Ferme & Piqué 2014; Castells et al. 2020; Berihuete-Azorín et al. 2022). In the case of La Draga, laurel was the second taxon in use as firewood (23% of charcoal fragments in the oldest phase of occupation; Caruso Ferme & Piqué, 2014). The high frequency of laurel charcoal in La Draga is unusual among other contemporary sites in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula. Indeed, in the few sites where laurel has been documented from the Mesolithic to the Bronze Age, it rarely represents more than 5% of the charcoal remains (Piqué et al. 2018a,b; Fig. 8).

Figure 8
Figure 8

Charcoal remains of Laurus nobilis during Early Neolithic at the archaeological sites surrounding La Draga

Citation: International Journal of Wood Culture 3, 1-3 (2023) ; 10.1163/27723194-bja10023

The use of Laurus to produce wooden tools and goods was rare at La Draga; only four objects of the nearly 200 recovered at the site were made with laurel wood (À. Bosch et al. 2006). Moreover, even though it is documented in diverse ways, laurel represents only 1.4% of the wooden piles at the site and almost the same percentage among the horizontal architectonical wooden elements, which are heavily (more than 95%) represented by oak (updated after López-Bultó & Piqué 2018).

Laurel piles were used in a manner similar to the other piles documented at the site; no different treatment has been documented. Morphologically, the three piles preserve the entire trunk section; they were not split or transformed longitudinally, as with 96.6% of the wooden piles at the site (updated after López-Bultó & Piqué 2018). The three trunks had a maximum diameter of approximately 13 cm, which places them in the group with a medium-high diameter among the total piles (Fig. 3). In two of the piles, the pointed end which was driven into the geologic soil was transformed with a conic end, while the other had a single-bevel pointed end. Conic pointed ends represent 7.1% of the pile ends at La Draga, whereas single-bevel ends represent almost 30% (updated after López-Bultó & Piqué 2018).

Pollen and charcoal data show that riparian vegetation (including laurel) had an important presence around Lake Banyoles, where La Draga is located (Caruso Ferme & Piqué 2014; Revelles et al. 2014, 2015). The abundance of laurel charcoal suggests that this taxon played a key role in the Neolithic riparian forest around the lake. The presence of L. nobilis leaf remains at La Draga reinforces the presence of this taxon in the riparian forest near the lake. Laurel is also infrequent at other Mediterranean Neolithic sites, but it is noteworthy that laurel was also one of the taxa documented on the piles of the early Neolithic site in La Marmotta, Italy (Fugazzola & Tinazzi 2010).

The low frequency of use of laurel wood as raw material and timber, despite its availability in the surroundings of Mediterranean lakeshore sites, suggests an intentional avoidance of their use for producing tools or for the construction of dwellings, the reasons being either practical or symbolic.

Currently, laurel has several uses. It is well known for the use of its leaves, bay leaves, for culinary purposes. The fruits and leaves also have medicinal properties. Moreover, the wood of the laurel tree is also used extensively; it is dense, heavy, and homogeneous (Pulgar Lorenzo & Riesco Muñoz 2018). However, one of the most remarkable aspects is the symbolic use of laurel. During Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, their leaves were used for the crowns that represented a symbol of victory and greatness or as a symbol of the highest status (Ogle 1910). In Roman culture, laurel was also associated symbolically with immortality, ritual purification, prosperity, and health, and these symbolic meanings of laurel remain current today.

4.2 Dendrology of the Marked Piles and Woodland Management

Based on the amount of wood covering the wounds and the tree-ring growth rate, these three laurel piles were presumably marked with an adze 5–10 years before their respective felling. This aspect is relevant given that PV-1350 has been dated to the large fundational construction episode. Therefore, these results indicate the presence of human groups around the area of La Draga years before its establishment, selecting, marking, controlling, and therefore practising some kind of subtle management of the woodland. This new data reinforces the hypothesis that people managed these forests long before the installation of the village of La Draga, as suggested by the dendrotypology and dendrochronology of the oak piles. None of this evidence could be considered clear evidence of woodland management in isolation, but the combination and integration of different analyses at La Draga allow confirmation of the presence of human activities which leave a mark (physical and biological) on the woodland and, therefore, could be considered indicative of woodland management.

4.3 Sorting the Trees

Marks on the wood surface completely or partially covered by growing wood are well-documented ethnographically in different regions (mainly North America and Scandinavia) and for different uses: bark procurement for different functionalities (Stewart 1984; Coles & Coles 1989; Niklasson et al. 1994), procurement of inner bark for food (Schefferus 1674; Leem 1767; Rheen 1897; Graan 1899; Lundius 1905; Drake 1918) and trail marks (Berg 1930; Levander 1935; Ågren 1983; Merell 199; Flanagan 20018; Ericsson et al. 2003). However, the morphology, shape, and size of those marks do not resemble those identified in La Draga. The size and shape of the marks presented in this work are similar to those identified at Hauterive-Champréveyres (Pillonel 2007), an archaeological site dating from the classic Cortaillod (3810–3800 BC). In that case, the marks on the tree surface were identified as ownership marks, marks on the trees to distinguish which areas of the forests corresponded to each group or family. It is difficult to draw the same conclusions for the Early Neolithic at La Draga, and further research is needed. However, the inhabitants of La Draga were resident around the region, working on the same woodlands and on the same trees that would be cut off 5–10 years later for the major construction phase, managing the woodland in some fashion. It is also clear that this was happening around 1500 years before the earliest archaeological evidence of this kind yet to have been identified.

Nevertheless, healed wounds originating from tool marks have been ethnographically and archaeologically interpreted as sorting, selecting, or marking trees for future actions. Because the wounded trees at La Draga are all laurel trees, coming from an assemblage of 96.6% of oak piles, the selection or sorting of these three trunks is highly plausible. This could be because laurel was growing in areas contiguous to the site, and thus the marks could be territorial. However, their symbolic meaning should not be dismissed.

5 Conclusions

At the Early Neolithic site of La Draga, tool marks have been identified on the surface of three wooden piles, with new wooden tissue growing over the wounds. One of the sampled piles was dendrochronologically dated during the major construction phase and, therefore, this tree was marked 5–10 years before this moment, before the establishment of human occupation.

The three marked trees have been identified as laurel. Despite laurel being available in the surroundings and being intensively used as firewood, laurel wood was only used to produce a few artefacts: some piles and four objects. This avoidance of laurel wood seems to have been intentional.

The precise functions of these markers remain unknown. However, it seems clear that before the construction of La Draga, the inhabitants were already sorting the trees, knowing, controlling, and somehow practising an incipient management of the woodland and the individual trees which a few years later were to be used for the construction of La Draga. The same type of tool mark was interpreted as clear woodland management at Hauterive-Champréveyres around 1500 years after La Draga. Therefore, it is also clear that this is the earliest evidence of this type in the Mediterranean region.

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