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Update: Agriculture began 11,000 years earlier than previously thought

Professor Ehud Weiss, of Bar-Ilan University is shown above holding a sample of the cereal grains found at the excavation site. These showed signs of early attempts to domesticate wild plants. Professor Ehud Weiss, of Bar-Ilan University is shown above holding a sample of the cereal grains found at the excavation site. These showed signs of early attempts to domesticate wild plants.

As reported several days ago, a new discovery at a 23,000-year-old site on the shores of the Sea of Galilee is sure to shake up accepted beliefs about the dawn of agriculture. Here, archeologists have uncovered the earliest evidence of plant cultivation in the eastern Mediterranean regions of the Levant—a find that pushes back the beginnings of farming some 11,000 years.

According to accepted theory, the agricultural revolution arose in the middle east—in the general vicinity of what is now Iraq, areas of Iran, the Levant, and parts of Turkey—around 12,000 years ago. However, a new study published July 22 in the open-access journal PLOS One tells a new and stunningly different story.

The Ohalo II site, which was was inhabited 23,000 years ago at the height of the last ice age by a community of hunter-gatherers, was discovered in 1989 when the Sea of Galilee’s dropping water levels exposed six brush huts, the exceptionally well-preserved remains of both plant and animal food, and abundant evidence of flint tool use and manufacture.

The authors—archeologists, botanists and ecologists from Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv University (TAU), Haifa University, and Harvard University—base their  conclusion that these ancient humans engaged in farming on “three inter-connected findings,” according to lead researcher Prof. Ehud Weiss of Bar Ilan University’s Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archeology in a statement provided to Science Recorder.

First, the site contains a higher than expected presence of domestic-type grains, including wheat and barley, instead of wild varieties. Second, the team detected a high concentration of ‘proto-weeds,’ which tend to grow in disturbed or cultivated soils. Third, they found a number of implements associated with farming, including sickles with embedded flint and bone handles and a grinding slab.

The ancient settlement was discovered on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, about 5.5 miles from the city of Tiberias after the lake water level dropped, exposing the remains of brush huts preserved in the sediment.

The ancient settlement was discovered on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, about 5.5 miles from the city of Tiberias after the lake water level dropped, exposing the remains of brush huts preserved in the sediment.

“The plant remains from the site were unusually well-preserved because of being charred and then covered by sediment and water which sealed them in low-oxygen conditions,” explains Weiss. “Due to this, it was possible to recover an extensive amount of information on the site and its inhabitants—which made this a uniquely preserved site, and therefore one of the best archeological examples worldwide of hunter-gatherers’ way of life.”

Weiss added: “Here we see evidence of repeated sowing and harvesting of later domesticated cereals.”

Within the Ohalo II huts the researchers found as many as 150,000 plant remains, representing more than 140 different plant species, including edible wild emmer, barley, and oats. In addition, 13 species of proto-weeds appear to have been unintentionally gathered together with the edible grains.

“Because weeds thrive in cultivated fields and disturbed soils, a significant presence of weeds in archeobotanical assemblages retrieved from Neolithic sites and settlements of later age is widely considered an indicator of systematic cultivation,” write the authors.

Importantly, the grinding slab the team discovered provides “unequivocal” evidence that grains were gathered, brought into the hut, and ground into flour, Weiss notes.

Because there are no signs that plant cultivation continued in the Levant, the researchers think the Ohalo II site may represent the first trial efforts at simple agriculture. Nevertheless, the discovery that humans were becoming familiar with farming practices as early as 23,000 years ago is showing that, “our ancestors were cleverer and more skilled than we had assumed,” says Weiss. “Although full-scale agriculture did not develop until much later, the attempt had already begun.”

Delila James

Delila James

Associate Editor/Writer
Delila James practiced civil rights and employment law for almost 20 years. Before going to law school, she raised organic lamb on a ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills, ran a dairy farm in Muscoda, WI, and then owned a popular live music nightclub in Madison, WI. She has a Master's degree in the History of Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she went to law school. She also is a published poet. She now is a book editor, writes legal blogs, and is trying to finish a book. She has been writing for Science Recorder since March, 2013.
About Delila James (1312 Articles)
Delila James practiced civil rights and employment law for almost 20 years. Before going to law school, she raised organic lamb on a ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills, ran a dairy farm in Muscoda, WI, and then owned a popular live music nightclub in Madison, WI. She has a Master's degree in the History of Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she went to law school. She also is a published poet. She now is a book editor, writes legal blogs, and is trying to finish a book. She has been writing for Science Recorder since March, 2013.