Until now, researchers believed farming was “invented” some 12,000 years ago in the Cradle of Civilization — Iraq, the Levant, parts of Turkey and Iran — an area that was home to some of the earliest known human civilizations. A new discovery by an international collaboration of researchers from Tel Aviv University, Harvard University, Bar-Ilan University, and the University of Haifa offers the first evidence that trial plant cultivation began far earlier — some 23,000 years ago.
“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 Prof. Sternberg. “Those early ancestors were more clever and more skilled than we knew.”
Evidence among the weeds
Although weeds are considered a threat or nuisance in farming, their presence at the site of the Ohalo II people’s camp revealed the earliest signs of trial plant cultivation — some 11 millennia earlier than conventional ideas about the onset of agriculture
The plant material was found at the site of the Ohalo II people, who were fisher hunter-gatherers and established a sedentary human camp. The site was unusually well preserved, having been charred, covered by lake sediment, and sealed in low-oxygen conditions — ideal for the preservation of plant material. The researchers examined the weed species for morphological signs of domestic-type cereals and harvesting tools, although their very presence is evidence itself of early farming.
“This uniquely preserved site is one of the best archaeological examples worldwide of the hunter-gatherers’ way of life,” said Prof. Sternberg. “It was possible to recover an extensive amount of information on the site and its inhabitants.”
“Because weeds thrive in cultivated fields and disturbed soils, a significant presence of weeds in archaeobotanical assemblages retrieved from Neolithic sites and settlements of later age is widely considered an indicator of systematic cultivation,” according to the study.
The site bears the remains of six shelters and a particularly rich assemblage of plants. Upon retrieving and examining approximately 150,000 plant specimens, the researchers determined that early humans there had gathered over 140 species of plants. These included 13 known weeds mixed with edible cereals, such as wild emmer, wild barley, and wild oats.
The researchers found a grinding slab — a stone tool with which cereal starch granules were extracted — as well as a distribution of seeds around this tool, reflecting that the cereal grains were processed for consumption. The large number of cereals showing specific kinds of scars on their seeds indicate the likelihood of those cereals growing in fields, and the presence of sickle blades indicates that these humans deliberately planned the harvest of cereal.
The new study offers evidence that early humans clearly functioned with a basic knowledge of agriculture and, perhaps more importantly, exhibited foresight and extensive agricultural planning far earlier than previously believed.
They did farm for some years or decades but failed to sustain in the long run (multi-generations)
They farmed and there were other attempts but they failed to lock in the permanent transition from hunter gatherer to farmers for all of their civilization.
Ohalo II functioned as a year-round settlement, as indicated by the remains of migratory birds known to visit the region in different seasons, and the timing of ripening of the identified plant remains. This conclusion is supported by the earliest occurrence of commensal species at the site, such as the house mouse (Mus musculus) and the rat (Rattus rattus).
The plants and faunal remains demonstrate that Ohalo II inhabitants practiced a broad spectrum of exploitation of annual plants and birds. Some of the plants are the progenitors of domesticated crop species such as emmer wheat, barley, pea, lentil, almond, fig, grape, and olive. 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 eventually become domesticated.
The Ohalo II archaeobotanical remains indicate that the locals practiced small-scale cultivation, with no evidence for its continuation in the following period. Similar failed trials with new techniques are known from the history of technology but the ideas remain within the generally same population.
There are several lines of evidence supporting this suggestion:
(i) The large numbers of edible grasses, wild wheat, wild barley and wild oat;
(ii) The large numbers of proto-weeds;
(iii) The common presence of domestic-type disarticulation scars, far beyond the normal representation in wild populations, and
(iv) The presence of the earliest sickle blades, indicating planned cereal harvesting. Indeed, it is important to note that we do not claim a domesticated status for the Ohalo II wheat and barley. We assume that such trial cultivation could be the reason for the significant representation of domestic-type rachises.
Location map of Ohalo II and central area of excavation at the site.
Abstract – The Origin of Cultivation and Proto-Weeds, Long Before Neolithic Farming
Weeds are currently present in a wide range of ecosystems worldwide. Although the beginning of their evolution is largely unknown, researchers assumed that they developed in tandem with cultivation since the appearance of agricultural habitats some 12,000 years ago. These rapidly-evolving plants invaded the human disturbed areas and thrived in the new habitat. Here we present unprecedented new findings of the presence of “proto-weeds” and small-scale trial cultivation in Ohalo II, a 23,000-year-old hunter-gatherers’ sedentary camp on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Israel. We examined the plant remains retrieved from the site (ca. 150,000 specimens), placing particular emphasis on the search for evidence of plant cultivation by Ohalo II people and the presence of weed species. The archaeobotanically-rich plant assemblage demonstrates extensive human gathering of over 140 plant species and food preparation by grinding wild wheat and barley. Among these, we identified 13 well-known current weeds mixed with numerous seeds of wild emmer, barley, and oat. This collection provides the earliest evidence of a human-disturbed environment—at least 11 millennia before the onset of agriculture—that provided the conditions for the development of “proto-weeds”, a prerequisite for weed evolution. Finally, we suggest that their presence indicates the earliest, small-scale attempt to cultivate wild cereals seen in the archaeological record.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.