Off the southwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, a Paleolithic discovery was made in 1989. Following several years of drought and intensive water pumping, the lake’s water level plummeted, revealing the remains of six brush huts and several hearths. The site was named Ohalo II.
A research investigation into the site, made possible by a collaboration between Tel Aviv Univ., Harvard Univ., Bar-Ilan Univ. and the Univ. of Haifa, recently found evidence of trial farming from around 23,000 years ago, 11,000 years earlier than previously thought.
“While full-scale agriculture did not develop until much later, our study shows that trial cultivation began far earlier than previously believed, and gives us reason to rethink our ancestors’ capabilities,” said Marcelo Sternberg, a profess at Tel Aviv Univ.’s Dept. of Molecular Biology and Ecology of Plants. “Those early ancestors were more clever and more skilled than we knew.”
The researchers’ findings were published in PLOS One.
Previously, it’s been accepted that a region of the Middle East known as the Fertile Crescent held the earliest indications of farming by human civilizations. “By 8,000 BC, the cultivation of wheat, barley and other plants had spread from its origins in the Fertile Crescent through much of the indo/European world,” according to Live Science.
The researchers wrote Ohalo II was a sedentary village populated year-round. Its long-time submergence underwater allowed for the preservation of a variety of seeds and fruits, with around 150,000 samples collected by the researchers. The collection revealed the villagers collected over 140 plant species.
One-third of the samples belonged to the grass family, including wild emmer wheat, wild barley and wild oat. “Some of the plants are the progenitors of domesticated crop species such as emmer wheat, barley, pea, lentil, almond, fig, grape and olive,” wrote the researchers. “Thus, about 11,000 years before what had been generally accepted as the onset of agriculture, people’s diets relied heavily on the same variety of plants that would be eventually become domesticated.”
Further supporting evidence of the village processing the wild plants was indicated by a grinding slab, where wild cereal starch granules were extracted.
But the crux of the researchers’ evidence relies on proto-weeds, defined by the researchers as “the first wild plants that entered and thrived in early human-affected habitats, which subsequently led to the evolution of weeds.”
Around 10.5% of the 150,000 seed and fruit specimens collected belonged to 13 weed species. And 93.2% of the weeds belong to two current species found in crop fields, corn cleavers (Galium tricornutum) and ten grains of darnel (Lolium temulentum). “Until now, the original habitat of these plants was unknown as they are rare outside segetal environments in the Levant. Ohalo II therefore provides the oldest and clearest known indication of their origin, as well as the time of their entrance into human-made niches,” the researchers wrote.
According to the researchers, weeds thrive in cultivated fields and disturbed soils. They are prevalent in archaeobotanical collections retrieved from Neolithic sites and settlements, and “are widely considered an indicator of systematic cultivation.”
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