The earliest crops were wheat, barley, various legumes, grapes, melons, dates, pistachios and almonds. The world's first wheat, peas, cherries, olives, rye, chickpeas and rye evolved from wild plants found in Turkey and the Middle East. The technique of dating starch granules found in cracks in rocks used to grind up plant material have has been used to find the earliest known use of several foods, including beans and yams from China dated to between 19,500 and 23,000 years ago. [Source: Ian Johnston, The Independent, July 3, 2017]
Analysis suggests that domesticated-type cereals appeared 12,000 to 10,000 years ago Iraq, Iran, Syria and southern Turkey. Legumes, fruits and nuts likely dominated people’s diets before then. “It was surprising to discover that despite being considered very important, and despite their dominant role in our agriculture, domesticated cereals might not have been so important in Neolithic times, in many regions” archaeobotanist Amaia Arranz Otaegui told the International Business Times. [Source: Léa Surugue, International Business Times, December 5, 2016 ||*||]
“On most of the archaeological sites, researchers usually focus on cereal remains despite the archaeological often being quite poor. I would like to shift this focus and have us look at the record for other plants, because that may help us better understand ancient cultures and better characterise their agriculture”. The study thus emphasises the need to re-assess the importance that scientists attribute to cereals such as wheat and barley and to investigate past exploitation of other plants such as lentils, beans and peas because they were potentially crucial to the diets of people living in the eastern Fertile Crescent more than 10,000 years ago.
Websites and Resources of Early Agriculture and Domesticated Animals: Britannica britannica.com/; Wikipedia article History of Agriculture Wikipedia ; History of Food and Agriculture museum.agropolis; Wikipedia article Animal Domestication Wikipedia ; Cattle Domestication geochembio.com; Food Timeline, History of Food foodtimeline.org ; Food and History teacheroz.com/food ;
Archaeology News and Resources: Anthropology.net anthropology.net : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; archaeologica.org archaeologica.org is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience livescience.com/ : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel archaeologychannel.org explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites besthistorysites.net is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities essential-humanities.net: provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory
The Natufians (12,500 -9500 B.C.) — hunter- gathers who are believed to have played a role in the development of agriculture — may have collected almonds, acorns and pistachios. Pistachios are a member of the cashew family, originating from trees native to Central Asia and the Middle East. Archaeology shows that pistachio seeds were a common food as early as 6750 B.C. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were said to have contained pistachio trees during the reign of King Merodach-Baladan about 700 B.C.. The modern pistachio P. vera was first cultivated in Bronze Age Central Asia, where the earliest example is from Djarkutan, modern Uzbekistan. [Source: Wikipedia +]
Almonds come from a species of tree native to Mediterranean climate regions of the Middle East, from Syria and Turkey to India and Pakistan. It was spread by humans in ancient times along the shores of the Mediterranean into northern Africa and southern Europe. The wild form of domesticated almond grows in parts of the Levant and is believed to be native to Armenia and western Azerbaijan where it was apparently domesticated. Wild almond species were grown by early farmers, "at first unintentionally in the garbage heaps, and later intentionally in their orchards". +
Almonds were one of the earliest domesticated fruit trees due to "the ability of the grower to raise attractive almonds from seed. Thus, in spite of the fact that this plant does not lend itself to propagation from suckers or from cuttings, it could have been domesticated even before the introduction of grafting". Domesticated almonds appear in the Early Bronze Age (3000–2000 BC) such as the archaeological sites of Numeria (Jordan), or possibly earlier. Another well-known archaeological example of the almond is the fruit found in Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt (c. 1325 BC), probably imported from the Levant. +
Archaeologists have found large quantities of hazelnut shells in Mesolithic (1200- 9000 B.C., dates vary) and Neolithic (9000-4000 B.C., dates vary) sites in what is now Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. Evidence fo hazelnuts in China dates to around 3000 B.C. In 1995, evidence of large-scale nut processing, some 9,000 years old ago, was found in a midden pit on the island of Colonsay in Scotland. The evidence consists of a large, shallow pit full of the remains of hundreds of thousands of burned hazelnut shells. The nuts were radiocarbon dated to 7720+/-110BP, which calibrates to circa 6000 BC. Similar sites in Britain are known only at Farnham in Surrey and Cass ny Hawin on the Isle of Man. [Source: Hazelnut Hill, Wikipedia]
Broad beans have been known in Europe for a long time. They were first domesticated in the Mediterranean or western Asia. Remains of them dating to 6000 to 7000 B.C. have been found at sites in Israel. By 3000 B.C. they were grown widely across central Europe and northern Africa and have been found with mummies in ancient Egyptian coffins. Soybeans come from wild soybeans, ground-dwelling vines that are found in northeastern China and very different from modern, commercial soy bean plants. The black and brown beans from these wild plants were collected by prehistoric Chinese at least by 3500 B.C., first cultivated by Chinese farmers about 1000 B.C., and fashioned into tofu about a 1000 years later.
The technique of dating starch granules found in cracks in rocks used to grind up plant material have has been used to find the earliest known use of several foods, including beans from China dated to between 19,500 and 23,000 years ago. [Source: Ian Johnston, The Independent, July 3, 2017]
Beans are one of the longest-cultivated plants. Broad beans, also called fava beans, in their wild state the size of a small fingernail, were gathered in Afghanistan and the Himalayan foothills. In a form improved from naturally occurring types, they were grown in Thailand since the early seventh millennium B.C., predating ceramics.[ They were deposited with the dead in ancient Egypt. Not until the second millennium B.C. did cultivated, large-seeded broad beans appear in the Aegean, Iberia and transalpine Europe. In the Iliad (8th century B.C.) is a passing mention of beans and chickpeas cast on the threshing floor. [Source: Wikipedia +]
The oldest-known domesticated beans in the Americas were found in Guitarrero Cave, an archaeological site in Peru, and dated to around the second millennium B.C.. However, genetic analyses of the common bean Phaseolus shows that it originated in Mesoamerica, and subsequently spread southward, along with maize and squash, traditional companion crops.
Early Soybeans in China
Soybeans come from wild soybeans, ground-dwelling vines that are found in northeastern China and very different from modern, commercial soy bean plants. The black and brown beans from these wild plants were collected by prehistoric Chinese at least by 3500 B.C., first cultivated by Chinese farmers about 1000 B.C., and fashioned into tofu about a 1000 years later. Soy beans were not known by Europeans until a German physician in Japan wrote about them in 1690. They remained largely unknown in the West until 1900. Soybeans remain a major crop in China, Japan, and Korea. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]
According to “Origin, History and Uses of Soybean” (Glycine Max) by Lance Gibson and Garren Benson, “The first domestication of soybean has been traced to the eastern half of North China in the eleventh century B.C. or perhaps a bit earlier." However they are believed to have been used as a food and a component of drugs since 5,000 years ago. The wild ancestor of the soybean is Glycine soja (previously called G. ussuriensis), a legume native to central China. Wild-size soybeans have been found in the Yellow River basin of China.
The oldest preserved soybeans found in archaeological sites in Korea have dated to about 1000 B.C.. Radiocarbon dating of soybean samples recovered through flotation during excavations at the Early Mumun period Okbang site in Korea indicated soybean was cultivated as a food crop in around 1000–900 B.C.
Olives were one of the first processed foods. At a Stone Age site in Spain 8000-year-old olive seeds were found and archeologist speculate that the olives had to have been processed somehow, otherwise they would have been too bitter to eat.
The ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans all consumed olives and olive oil. Olives were first cultivated in Palestine around 4000 B.C. and spread to Syria and Turkey and reached the ancient Egypt around 1500 B.C. (the Egyptian were using olive purchased from Palestine long before that). The Phoenicians took olives to Carthage and Greece and the Greeks took them to Italy, southern Spain, and Sicily. The Romans brought them to southern France.
The Greeks and Romans used olive oil as food, soap, lotion, fuel for lamps and fragrances, as a base for perfumes and treatment for heart ailments, hair loss, stomach aches and excessive perspiration. The Greeks rubbed cult statues with olive oil. Romans burned it in the alter of their gods. Greek athletes anointed their bodies with olive oil scented with flowers and roots when they worked out and competed.
Sago Palms Farmed Before Rice in Southern China
Before rice cultivation became widespread on southern coast of China, people there relied on sago palms as staple plant foods, according to research published in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Xiaoyan Yang and colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, China. Little is known about prehistoric diets of those who lived in southern subtropical China, as the acidic soils and humid climate of the region cause poor preservation of plant remains. In this study, researchers analyzed starch granules recovered from Neolithic stone tools used approximately 3,350-2,470 B.C., and found these to resemble starches typically found in sago-type palms. They found that people at this time also likely relied on bananas, acorns and freshwater roots and tubers as important plant foods prior to the cultivation of rice. [Source: Eurkeakalert!, May 8, 2013]
According to the article: “Sago-Type Palms Were an Important Plant Food Prior to Rice in Southern Subtropical China: “Poor preservation of plant macroremains in the acid soils of southern subtropical China has hampered understanding of prehistoric diets in the region and of the spread of domesticated rice southwards from the Yangtze River region. According to records in ancient books and archaeological discoveries from historical sites, it is presumed that roots and tubers were the staple plant foods in this region before rice agriculture was widely practiced. But no direct evidences provided to test the hypothesis. Here we present evidence from starch and phytolith analyses of samples obtained during systematic excavations at the site of Xincun on the southern coast of China, demonstrating that during 3,350–2,470 aBC humans exploited sago palms, bananas, freshwater roots and tubers, fern roots, acorns, Job’s-tears as well as wild rice. A dominance of starches and phytoliths from palms suggest that the sago-type palms were an important plant food prior to the rice in south subtropical China. We also believe that because of their reliance on a wide range of starch-rich plant foods, the transition towards labour intensive rice agriculture was a slow process. [Source: “Sago-Type Palms Were an Important Plant Food Prior to Rice in Southern Subtropical China” by Xiaoyan Yang, Huw J. Barton, Zhiwei Wan, Quan Li, Zhikun Ma, Mingqi Li, Dan Zhang and Jun Wei, PLOS one, May 8, 2013 ==]
Peaches Domesticated in China 7,500 Years Ago
In September 2014, researchers at the University of Toronto announced that peaches were domesticated in China at least 7,500 years ago. Archeology magazine reported: “Farmers began to domesticate peach trees 7,500 years ago in the lower Yangtze River Valley of southern China, according to a new study of ancient peach pits conducted by Yunfei Zheng and X. Chen of the Zhejiang Institute of Archaeology, and Gary Crawford of the University of Toronto Mississauga. Since peach trees mature quickly and produce fruit within two to three years, the results of selective breeding for preferred traits, such as larger, sweeter peaches, would have been seen by early farmers relatively quickly. And peach pits survive in the archaeological record." The study was published in PLOS ONE. [Source: Archeology magazine, September 9, 2014 ==]
The ancient peach stones (pits) were dated using radiocarbon dating, “By comparing peach pits from six sites that spanned a period of 5,000 years, the scientists determined that peaches were indeed growing larger in the Yangtze Valley, becoming the fruit we recognize today over a period of about 3,000 years. “We're suggesting that very early on, people understood grafting and vegetative reproduction, because it sped up selection. They had to have been doing such work, because seeds have a lot of genetic variability, and you don't know if a seed will produce the same fruit as the tree that produced it. It's a gamble. If they simply started grafting, it would guarantee the orchard would have the peaches they wanted," Crawford told Science Daily." ==
Crawford and his colleagues think that it took about 3,000 years before the domesticated peach resembled the fruit we know today. “The peaches we eat today didn't grow in the wild," Crawford told Scientce Daily. “Generation after generation kept selecting the peaches they enjoyed. The product went from thinly fleshed, very small fruit to what we have today. Peaches produce fruit over an extended season today but in the wild they have a short season. People must have selected not only for taste and fruit size, but for production time too." [Source: Science Daily, September 6, 2014 ***]
Andes potatoes Potatoes are one of the worlds’ oldest foods. The have been grown in their place of origin, South America, as long as the first cultivated in the Fertile Crescent. The first wild potatoes were harvested as high as 14,000 feet in Andes perhaps as long as 13,000 years. Of the seven cultivated species of potato six are still grown only in the upper elevations of the Peruvian Andes. The seventh, S. tuberosum, grows in the Andes too, where it is known as “unproved potato” but also grows well at lower elevations and is grown all over the world as dozens of different vanities of potatoes that we know and love.
The wild potato-like plants come in wide variety and range over an area in the Andes that extends from Venezuela to northern Argentina. There is so much diversity among these plants that scientists have long thought that early potatoes were cultivated at different times in different places, perhaps from different species. A study in the mid 2000s by scientist from the University of Wisconsin of 365 specimens of potato as well as primitive species and wild plants seems to indicate that all modern potatoes come from a single species, the wild plant Solanum bukasovi , native to southern Peru.
Evidence of potato domestication has been found at a 12,500-year-old archeological site in Chile. Potatoes are thought to have been first widely cultivated around 7000 year ago. Before 6000 B.C. nomadic Indians are believed to have collected wild potatoes on the central Andean plateau, 12,000 feet high. Over the millennia they developed potato agriculture.
First Bananas, Pumpkins, Watermelon and Peppers
Bananas may be the world's oldest cultivated crop. There is evidence that bananas were cultivated in the highlands of New Guinea at least 7,000 years ago and that Musa varieties were being bred and grown in the Mekong Delta area of Southeast Asia as long as 10,000 years ago.
In the first or second millennium B.C. Arab traders carried banana suckers from Southeast Asia back home and introduced the fruit to the Middle East and the east coast of Africa. Swahili people from the coast of Africa traded the fruit with Bantu people from the interior of Africa and they carried the fruit to western Africa. The introduction of the banana to Africa occurred so long ago that areas of Uganda and the Congo basin have become secondary centers of genetic diversity.
Pumpkins are believed to have originated in Central America. Seeds from related plants have been dated to 5500 B.C. Watermelon originated in Africa. Domesticated watermelon seeds dated to 4000 B.C. were found in the 1980s in southern Libya. Dorian Fuller of University College London told the New York Times, “The wild watermelon is a horrible, dry little gourd that grows in wadis of the northern savannahs but it has seeds you can roast up and eat." The watermelon we eat was not developed until Roman times.
Wild chilies probably originated in Bolivia and were carried into Central America by birds. They were cultivated as early as 5000 to 3500 B.C. The Cora Indians believed that the first peppers were created from the testes of the first man and dropped onto the plates of startled guests at a dinner party. In the Inca creation myth, chilies were also one of the four brothers that begat mankind.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ancientfoods.wordpress.com ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018