Used until a few decades ago to separate straw from grain in many Mediterranean countries, from Turkey to Spain, the threshing sledge may have appeared in Greece as early as 6500 B.C.

This is affirmed by a recent study conducted by an international team of researchers, led by the University of Pisa, which, by applying advanced analytical methods to flint industries, including confocal microscopy, has been able to trace the early adoption of this technology and the adaptation of what can be considered among the first agricultural machines in Europe.

The research, carried out as part of several research projects funded by the European Union, Italy, and Spain and directed by the University of Pisa, in collaboration with the CSIC in Spain and the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, thus anticipates by at least 3,000 years the previous records of this technology in Europe, providing new insights into the technological innovations of Neolithic societies.

A threshing sledge
A threshing sledge. Credit: University of Pisa

We have been working for years to reconstruct the routes and mechanisms of the spread of agriculture from the Near East to the rest of the Mediterranean, explains Professor Niccolò Mazzucco, of the University of Pisa, principal investigator of the work, discovering the processes of technological innovation and how new machines were introduced is fundamental to reconstructing past technological systems.

The use of the threshing sledge, also known by the Roman term tribulum, allowed for a considerable increase in the amount of grain processed and accelerated its processing. In the past, it was believed that this innovation was linked to the birth of the first states, but our study shows that its first use is much older.

In recent years – adds Mazzucco – more and more evidence has emerged that the first domesticated animals were not only used as a source of food but also as labor. And threshing sledges are part of a broader process of technological innovation that involved the use of animals in this sense. The detailed analysis of archaeological findings and the use of advanced methodologies thus add a crucial chapter to the history of agricultural development and underline how the Neolithic was a period of significant technological advances.

Identification of possible threshing from macroscopic and microscopic wear patterns
Identification of possible threshing from macroscopic and microscopic wear patterns. Credit: N.Mazzuco et al.

All of this, concludes the researcher, now allows us to better frame the development dynamics of the first European agricultural societies, understand how agricultural technologies spread, and assess their impact on the social structure and economy of the time.

The results of the study coordinated by the University of Pisa, presented in the latest issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, thus demonstrate that the agricultural sector has been a field of technological innovation since prehistory and raise important questions about the transmission of technological knowledge between different regions of the Mediterranean.

What until a few decades ago was considered a late innovation is now shown to be, in fact, a practice that has existed since the earliest Neolithic stages in Europe.


University of Pisa | N. Mazzuco, J.J. Ibáñez, et al., Use-wear evidence for the use of threshing sledges in Neolithic Greece. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, vol.56, June 2024, 104579.

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