ORIGIN AND EARLY HISTORY OF AGRICULTURE

AGRICULTURE

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wheat field
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 32,600-year-old oats found in southern Italy, 23,000-year-old barley and wheat discovered in Israel, and beans and yams from China dated to between 19,500 and 23,000 years ago. [Source: Ian Johnston, The Independent, July 3, 2017]

Gideon Shelach and Teng Mingyu wrote: “The development of agriculture and sedentary ways of life are two processes that altered the subsistence strategies, dietary habits, and living conditions of humans in many regions of the world. At the same time, they are also associated with meaningful transformations of social relations and cultural formations that dramatically changed the nature of human societies and set the stage for the development of complex societies. [Source: “Earlier Neolithic Economic and Social Systems of the Liao River Region, Northeast China” by Gideon Shelach and Teng Mingyu, A Companion to Chinese Archaeology, Edited by Anne P. Underhill, Blackwell Publishing, 2013, samples.sainsburysebooks.co.uk PDF]

Swidden [slash and burn] farming is believed to be the earliest extensively used method of farming. Fields cleared in this way remained productive only two to three years; then the farmers moved to a new site. This type of agriculture could not support permanent settlement, nor large communities. Even rain-watered open lands, where farmers also practiced, could only support small groups who had no assurance of regular annual harvests Swidden farmers spread rapidly from the Near East through Europe to the Atlantic and the British Isles before 3000 B.C.. In the well watered areas of Europe and its islands, small groups were able to exist in the same place indefinitely, barring human or natural catastrophe. They even developed villages and common-ground ceremonial centers, but no cities. [Source: Internet Archive, from UNT]

Good Websites Archaeology News Report archaeologynewsreport.blogspot.com ; Anthropology.net anthropology.net : archaeologica.org archaeologica.org ; Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com ; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org ; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com; Live Science livescience.com/ ; Food Timeline, History of Food foodtimeline.org ; Food and History teacheroz.com/food

Earliest Agriculture

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wheat
Agriculture began around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Considered the most important human advance after the control of fire and the creation of tools, it allowed people to settle in specific areas and freed them from hunting and gathering. According to the Bible, Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, developed agriculture and domesticated animals, “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground," the Bible reads.

The general consensus is that cultivation of plants began in the Fertile Crescent, including the Levant and northern Mesopotamia, and the Zagros Mountains of today’s Iran. From there it spread to central Turkey and later Europe and elsewhere. Early agriculture also developed in China. Animal herding may have evolved with agriculture or separately from it.

The first documented agriculture occurred 11,500 year ago in what Harvard archaeologist Ofer Ban-Yosef calls the Levantine Corridor, between Jericho in the Jordan Valley and Mureybet in the Euphrates Valley. At Mureybit, a site on the banks of the Euphrates, seeds from an uplands area — where the plants from the seeds grow naturally — were found and dated to 11,500 years ago. An abundance of seeds from plants that grew elsewhere found near human sites is offered as evidence of agriculture.

Early agriculture is most famously associated with the Fertile Crescent, an arc of land that extends from southern Turkey into Iraq and Syria and finally to Israel and Lebanon. Seeds of 10,000-year-old cultivated wheat have been discovered at sites in Iraq and northern Syria. The region also produced the first domesticated sheep, goats, pigs and cattle.

Around 10,500 years ago agriculture began developing in the Middle East and China and to a lesser extent in Mexico, the Andes and Nigeria. The is also evidence that bananas and taro were cultivated in the highlands of New Guinea at least 7,000 years ago.

Gathering Grasses and Grain

Early man ate wild grasses that upon maturity produced seeds that didn't immediately fall to the ground and get dirty and germinate and thus could easily be gathered and eaten. They collected seeds that grew on the plants in areas that were convenient so they didn't have to wander around looking for them. It is believed that Neolithic women invented agriculture because they have traditionally been in charge of gathering while men did the hunting.

Hunter-gatherers have long collected grass seeds. Like some Bushmen and Australian Aborigines, who still collect seeds today, ancient hunter-gatherers no doubt found it easier to collect seeds from the head of the plant than on the ground and learned where they could find plants the bore such seeds. Once found the seeds were easy to pluck and winnow from the husks.

It is reasoned that when seeds or seed-laden stalks were collected and brought back to a cave or shelter some of the seeds fell to the ground and germinated. The next step was to deliberatly scatter them some place with the intention of have the seeds germinate to produce food later on.

Grains as Steppe Grasses

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barley field
Grains such as wheat, barley, oats and rye were originally steppe grasses. The grass family is one of the largest in the plant kingdom, embracing some 10,000 different species worldwide. Contrary to what you might think, grasses are fairly complex plants. What you see are only their leaves.

Grass flowers are often not recognizable as such. Because grasses rely on the breeze to distribute pollen (there is a usually lots of wind on the steppe) and they don't need colorful flowers to attract pollinators such as birds and bees. Grass flowers have scales instead of pedals and grow in clusters on special tall stems that lift them high enough to be carried by the wind.

Grasses need lots of sunlight. They do not grow well in forests or other shady areas. Tall feather grass grows well in the well-watered parts of the steppe. Shorter grass grows better in the dry steppe where there is less rainfall. Chiy, a grass with cane-like reeds, is used by nomads to make decorative screens in the yurts

Grasses can tolerate lack of rain, intense sunlight, strong winds, shredding from lawnmowers, the cleats of Athletes and the hooves of grazing animals. They can survive fires: only their leaves burn; the root stocks are rarely damaged.

The ability of grass to endure such harsh conditions lies in the structures of its leaves, The leaves of other plants spring from buds and have a developed a network of veins that carry sap and expand into the leaf. If a leaf is damaged a plant can seal its veins with sap but do little else. Grass leaves on the other hand don't have a network of veins, rather they have unbranched veins that grow straight, and can tolerate being cut, broken or damaged, and keep growing.

Why Did Early Farmers Choose Wheat and Barley Over Other Grasses

According to the University of Sheffield: “Scientists, looking at why the first arable farmers chose to domesticate some cereal crops and not others, studied those that originated in the Fertile Crescent, an arc of land in western Asia from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. They grew wild versions of what are now staple foods like wheat and barley along with other grasses from the region to identify the traits that make some plants suitable for agriculture, including how much edible seed the grasses produced and their architecture. [Source: University of Sheffield, December 11, 2012]

“Dr Catherine Preece, who worked on the study with colleagues from the University’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and Department of Archaeology, said: “Our results surprised us because numerous other grasses that our ancestors ate, but we do not, can produce just as much seed as wild wheat and barley. It is only when these plants are grown at high densities, similar to what we would find in fields, that the advantage of wild wheat and barley is revealed.”

“The study identified two key characteristics shared by the wild relatives of current crop plants. Firstly they have bigger seeds, which means they grow into bigger seedlings and are able to get more than their fair share of light and nutrients, and secondly, as adult plants they are less bushy than other grasses and package their big seeds onto fewer stems. This means crop wild relatives perform better than the other wild grasses that they are competing with and are better at growing close together in fields, making them ideal for using in agriculture. Dr Preece said: “Before humans learnt how to farm, our ancestors ate a much wider variety of grasses. If we can understand what traits have made some grasses into good crops then we can look for those characteristics in other plants and perhaps identify good candidates for future domestication.”

From Hunting and Gathering to Agriculture

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barley fruit
Over time these hunters and gatherers began settling down. They big breakthrough occurred when early man realized that instead of eating all the seeds, he would save some and plant them and wait for them to produce seeds. With this advancement he could build sturdy homes and live in one place permanently or semi-permanently.

In hunter gatherer societies woman usually have done the collecting and men have done the hunting. Based on this tradition, scholars argue that women were the first ones to practice agriculture, and men only became involved after heavier, more demanding plows were introduced. In many parts of the world women continue to do most of the agricultural field work today.

In Rise of the West William McNeil wrote: "The transition to agricultural life involved very great strains...Think of what it meant not to eat meat...that you had to save seed for the next year. This was an enormous transformation for modern man...The laborious practice of breaking ground with a digging stick and covering the seed to keep it from birds may well have spread slowly...hunting communities seldom remained long enough in one locality to engage in extended tillage."

Agriculture allowed the hunter-gatherers to store grain and carry it with them. The conventional wisdom has traditionally been shift to agriculture occurred when wild grains became less available and producing grain for oneself produced more reliable supplies. There is evidence that ancient hunters and gatherers were aware of agricultural techniques but never practiced them wholeheartedly because they were such a bother. Agricultural plants needed to be watered and carried for. There were always worries about rain, insects and cold weather. By contrast wild grains grew in such abundance there was plenty for everyone and if you couldn't find them in one place you simply moved on found them in another place.

Neolithic Revolution Theory

V. Gordon Childe, an Australian transplant to Britain, invented the concept of the Neolithic Revolution in the 1920s. Charles C. Mann wrote in National Geographic, " In today's terms, Childe's views could be summed up like this: Homo sapiens burst onto the scene about 200,000 years ago. For most of the millennia that followed, the species changed remarkably little, with humans living as small bands of wandering foragers. Then came the Neolithic Revolution — "a radical change," Childe said, "fraught with revolutionary consequences for the whole species." In a lightning bolt of inspiration, one part of humankind turned its back on foraging and embraced agriculture. The adoption of farming, Childe argued, brought with it further transformations. To tend their fields, people had to stop wandering and move into permanent villages, where they developed new tools and created pottery. The Neolithic Revolution, in his view, was an explosively important event — "the greatest in human history after the mastery of fire." [Source:Charles C. Mann, National Geographic, June 2011]


Natufian burial

Of all the aspects of the revolution, agriculture was the most important. For thousands of years men and women with stone implements had wandered the landscape, cutting off heads of wild grain and taking them home. Even though these people may have tended and protected their grain patches, the plants they watched over were still wild. Wild wheat and barley, unlike their domesticated versions, shatter when they are ripe — the kernels easily break off the plant and fall to the ground, making them next to impossible to harvest when fully ripe. Genetically speaking, true grain agriculture began only when people planted large new areas with mutated plants that did not shatter at maturity, creating fields of domesticated wheat and barley that, so to speak, waited for farmers to harvest them.

Rather than having to comb through the landscape for food, people could now grow as much as they needed and where they needed it, so they could live together in larger groups. Population soared. "It was only after the revolution — but immediately thereafter — that our species really began to multiply at all fast," Childe wrote. In these suddenly more populous societies, ideas could be more readily exchanged, and rates of technological and social innovation soared. Religion and art — the hallmarks of civilization — flourished.

Childe, like most researchers today, believed that the revolution first occurred in the Fertile Crescent, the arc of land that curves northeast from Gaza into southern Turkey and then sweeps southeast into Iraq. Bounded on the south by the harsh Syrian Desert and on the north by the mountains of Turkey, the crescent is a band of temperate climate between inhospitable extremes. Its eastern terminus is the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Iraq — the site of a realm known as Sumer, which dates back to about 4000 B.C. In Childe's day most researchers agreed that Sumer represented the beginning of civilization. Archaeologist Samuel Noah Kramer summed up that view in the 1950s in his book History Begins at Sumer.

Natufians and the Debunking of Neolithic Revolution Theory

The Natufian culture refers to most hunter-gatherers who lived in modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria approximately 11,500 to 15,000 years ago. They were among the first people to build permanent houses and cultivate edible plants. The advancements they achieved are believed to have been crucial to the development of agriculture during the time periods that followed them.

The Natufian people lived by hunting and gathering. The preservation of plant remains at Natufian sites is poor because of the soil conditions, but wild cereals, legumes, almonds, acorns and pistachios may have been collected. Animal bones show that gazelle (Gazella gazella and Gazella subgutturosa) were the main prey. Deer, aurochs and wild boar were hunted in the steppe zone, as well as onagers and caprids (ibex). Water fowl and freshwater fish formed part of the diet in the Jordan River valley. Animal bones from Salibiya have been interpreted as evidence for communal hunts with nets. A pita-like bread dated to 12.500 B.C. has been attributed to Natufians. This bread is made of wild cereal seeds and papyrus cousin tubers, ground into flour. [Source: Wikipedia +]


Natufian mortars and grinding stones

Charles C. Mann wrote in National Geographic, "Although the Natufians lived in permanent settlements of up to several hundred people, they were foragers, not farmers, hunting gazelles and gathering wild rye, barley, and wheat. "It was a big sign that our ideas needed to be revised," says Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef. Natufian villages ran into hard times around 10,800 B.C., when regional temperatures abruptly fell some 12̊F, part of a mini ice age that lasted 1,200 years and created much drier conditions across the Fertile Crescent. With animal habitat and grain patches shrinking, a number of villages suddenly became too populous for the local food supply. Many people once again became wandering foragers, searching the landscape for remaining food sources. [Source: Charles C. Mann, National Geographic, June 2011]

Some settlements tried to adjust to the more arid conditions. The village of Abu Hureyra, in what is now northern Syria, seemingly tried to cultivate local stands of rye, perhaps replanting them. After examining rye grains from the site, Gordon Hillman of University College London and Andrew Moore of the Rochester Institute of Technology argued in 2000 that some were bigger than their wild equivalents---a possible sign of domestication, because cultivation inevitably increases qualities, such as fruit and seed size, that people find valuable. Bar-Yosef and some other researchers came to believe that nearby sites like Mureybet and Tell Qaramel also had had agriculture.

If these archaeologists were correct, these protovillages provided a new explanation of how complex society began. Childe thought that agriculture came first, that it was the innovation that allowed humans to seize the opportunity of a rich new environment to extend their dominion over the natural world...The Natufian sites in the Levant suggested instead that settlement came first and that farming arose later, as a product of crisis. Confronted with a drying, cooling environment and growing populations, humans in the remaining fecund areas thought, as Bar-Yosef puts it, "If we move, these other folks will exploit our resources. The best way for us to survive is to settle down and exploit our own area." Agriculture followed.

The idea that the Neolithic Revolution was driven by climate change resonated during the 1990s, a time when people were increasingly worried about the effects of modern global warming. It was promoted in countless articles and books and ultimately enshrined in Wikipedia. Yet critics charged that the evidence was weak, not least because Abu Hureyra, Mureybet, and many other sites in northern Syria had been flooded by dams before they could be fully excavated. "You had an entire theory on the origins of human culture essentially based on a half a dozen unusually plump seeds," ancient-grain specialist George Willcox of the National Center for Scientific Research, in France, says. "Isn't it more likely that these grains were puffed during charring or that somebody at Abu Hureyra found some unusual-looking wild rye?"

Cave Full of 100,000-Year-Old Sorghum-Like Grasses


Location of Ngalue Cave

Professor Julio Mercader, of the University of Calgary, has found evidence in a Mozambique cave that Homo Sapiens were eating wild grains as early as 100,000 years ago. The discovery is reported in the journal Science. It's being touted as the “earliest direct evidence of humans using pre-domesticated cereals anywhere in the world," in a university press release. [Source: Owen Jarus, Heritage Key, December 18, 2009 -]

Brendan Borrell wrote in Nature: “Mercader first discovered the Ngalue cave, in the sparsely populated Niassa province of Mozambique, with the help of locals in 2005. After a drive to the end of a road at an old mine site, he and his team then had to hike for 45 minutes to reach the cave’s mouth. In 2007, the team made this trip every day as they excavated in a dark chamber 20 metres from the cave entrance, identifying animal bones along with more than 500 quartz artefacts.” [Source: Brendan Borrell, Nature, December 17, 2009 /::]

“Mercader says that he has always taken precautions not to wash or touch the excavated tools to ensure that he leaves pollens, starches and other microfossils intact. After examining 70 stone tools, including scrapers and grinders, he found that 80 percent contained traces of starch granules, mainly from wild Sorghum species. Some of the grains appeared damaged, but none had been cooked. “These data imply that early Homo sapiens from southern Africa consumed not just underground plant staples, but above-ground resources too,” he writes in this week’s issue of Science.” “Whether they were eating it or not, we cannot be sure, but I cannot see how sorghum gets into the cave unless humans bring it in,” says study author Julio Mercader, an archaeologist at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. Today, seeds from domesticated sorghum grass are used as flour for porridge, as a fermentation substrate for beer and as a dye for clothing. [Source: Brendan Borrell, Nature, December 17, 2009 /::]

In 2009, the University of Calgary reported: Mercader recovered dozens of stone tools from a deep cave in Mozambique showing that wild sorghum, the ancestor of the chief cereal consumed today in sub-Saharan Africa for flours, breads, porridges and alcoholic beverages, was in Homo sapiens’ pantry along with the African wine palm, the false banana, pigeon peas, wild oranges and the African “potato.” This is the earliest direct evidence of humans using pre-domesticated cereals anywhere in the world. Mercader’s findings are published in the December 18 issue of the research journal Science. [Source: University of Calgary, December 18, 2009]

23,000-Year-Old Plant Cultivation Site in Galilee


puccinei, a charred grain found at Ohalo II

The earliest-known example of plant cultivation in the Near East is 11,000 years before earliest-known agriculture. Bar-Ilan University reported: “The Middle East is called the “Cradle of Civilization” because it is where our hunter-gatherer ancestors first established sedentary farming communities. Recently, the traditional dating of humans’ first agricultural attempt was shaken up by the discovery of the earliest-known example of plant cultivation in the Levant, 11,000 years earlier than previously accepted. [Source: Bar-Ilan University, July 22, 2015 \~/]

The team of archaeologists, botanists, and ecologists from Bar-Ilan University, Haifa University, Tel Aviv University, and Harvard University published their work in the scientific journal Plos One on July 22, 2015. The team’s conclusions rest on three inter-connected findings, says the study’s lead researcher, Prof. Ehud Weiss of Bar-Ilan University’s Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology. First is the higher-than-usual presence at the site of domestic-type, rather than wild-type, wheat and barley dispersal units. Second, the researchers noted a high concentration of proto-weeds – plants of the type known to flourish in fields planted with domesticated crops. Finally, analysis of the tools found at the site revealed blades used for cutting and harvesting cereal plants. \~/


triticum, another charred grain found at Ohalo II

“The researchers’ discovery was made at Ohalo II, a 23,000-year-old camp site of a community of hunter-gatherers that lived on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Israel. The site is located 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) south of the modern city of Tiberias, and was discovered in 1989 when the level of the lake plummeted. The site was then excavated for six seasons by Prof. Dani Nadel from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology, the University of Haifa. Excavations at Ohalo II exposed six brush hut dwellings, a human grave, copious and well-preserved remains of both animal and plant foods, beads from the Mediterranean Sea, as well as evidence of flint tool manufacture and use. \~/

“According to Weiss, the study represents the earliest example of small-scale cultivation found anywhere in the world. “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,” Weiss explains. “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 archaeological examples worldwide of hunter-gatherers’ way of life. Here we see evidence of repeated sowing and harvesting of later domesticated cereals.”“\~/

Flour and Tools at the 23,000-Year-Old Galilee Site

Bar-Ilan University reported: “In the Ohalo II dwellings was a particularly rich assemblage of some 150,000 plant remains, showing that the site’s residents gathered over 140 different plant species from the surrounding environment. Among these, Weiss’s team identified edible cereals – such as wild emmer, wild barley, and wild oats. These cereals were mixed with 13 species of “proto-weeds” – ancient ancestors of the current weeds known to flourish in cultivated, single-crop fields – indicating that they grew and were subsequently unintentionally gathered together. [Source: Bar-Ilan University, July 22, 2015 \~/]

“A grinding slab set firmly on a brush hut floor, a stone tool from which microscopic cereal starch granules were extracted, as well as a unique distribution pattern of seeds around this tool, provided additional, unequivocal evidence that cereal grains were brought into the hut and processed into flour. This flour was probably used to make dough, maybe by baking it on an installation of flat stones, found just outside one of the shelters. \~/ “Examination of the cereals found at the site shows an unusual percentage of domesticated-type, rather than wild-type, ear morphology. As Weiss explains, this change in the plant population is characteristic of a genetic mutation triggered when wild-type plants are sown repeatedly in cultivated fields. “The ears of cereals like wheat and barley – in their wild form – are built from separate units that break off and are easily dispersed, allowing the seeds to reach the ground, germinate, and grow into a new plant without any human intervention,” he says. “When humans cultivate these grains over a number of successive seasons, however, a change occurs. They develop a rough scar that locks the seed dispersal units together. Such plants cannot sow themselves. This is the hallmark of domesticated, rather than wild-type plants.” \~/

“As part of Snir’s thesis, Weiss and Snir undertook field tests around Israel, establishing that stands of wild-type barley are characterized by a low level of this rough-scar appearance – about 10% of the total population. The study of Ohalo II’s plant remains, however, revealed a greatly-increased incidence of 36% mutated domestic-type disarticulation units – proving that planned cereal sowing and harvesting in this ancient community had been underway for years. \~/


Ohalo II excavation map


“Another intriguing finding relates to a number of sickle blades – harvesting tools composed of sharp flint implements inserted in wood or bone handles – found at the site; these are among the oldest of their kind ever found. “We found several sickle blades at Ohalo II, and the study under the microscope of the gloss along their cutting edge indicates that they were used for harvesting cereals just before their complete ripening,” says Prof. Dani Nadel. “Analysis showed the presence of silicon, transferred from the wheat and barley plants at the time of cutting. This is another indication that the presence of a high percentage of domestic-type cereals was not random, but rather is a sign of the long-term cultivation practices of the site’s residents.” [Source: Bar-Ilan University, July 22, 2015 \~/]

“When studying the plants found at Ohalo II, the researchers were surprised to find a large number of plants similar to weeds previously seen only 11,000 years later than Ohalo II, at the traditional date for the beginning of agriculture. Does this indicate that agriculture indeed began much earlier than historians, archaeologists and botanists have traditionally believed? Weiss says that the isolated example on the shores of the Sea of Galilee is an insufficient basis for such a claim. “From what we see at Ohalo II, it is clear that cultivation occurred at this surprisingly early point in time, but we have no evidence that it continued in the region,” Weiss says. “This is why we term our findings to be evidence of trial cultivation only. Moreover, since weeds are defined by botanists as plants that developed in response to human agriculture, we call the plants that share characteristics with weeds ‘proto-weeds’.” \~/

“Prof. Marcelo Sternberg, a co-author of the paper who is an ecologist at the Department of Molecular Biology and Ecology of Plants at Tel Aviv University, claims that the findings are exceptional. “We are witnessing the earliest trial of cultivation combined with land-use changes that led to the appearance of the earliest weeds. The findings are a clear indication of early human disturbance of the natural ecosystem.” \~/

“Weiss agrees, adding that the current study provides reason to rethink our ancestors’ abilities. “Even prior to full-scale cultivation, humans clearly had some basic knowledge of agriculture and even more importantly, exhibited foresight and planning,” Weiss says. “The current research results from this site, situated in the cradle of ancient civilizations, show our ancestors were cleverer and more skilled than we had assumed. Although full-scale agriculture did not develop until much later, the attempt had already begun.” \~/

“Paper co-author Prof. Ofer Bar-Yosef, a prehistorian from Harvard University’s Department of Anthropology, notes that “the history of the evolution of technology is littered with new inventions that were either not accepted by their society or simply failed. An historical example is Leonardo da Vinci, who, in his notebooks, designed several flying machines during the early 15th century. Even though da Vinci was on the right track, we had to wait until the 19th century before the Wright brothers got their first plane off the ground.”“



Transition from Foraging to Farming: 20,000 to 10,000 Years Ago

According to the University of Cambridge: “The moment when the hunter-gatherers laid down their spears and began farming around 11,000 years ago is often interpreted as one of the most rapid and significant transitions in human history – the ‘Neolithic Revolution’. By producing and storing food, Homo sapiens both mastered the natural world and took the first significant steps towards thousands of years of runaway technological development. The advent of specialist craftsmen, an increase in fertility and the construction of permanent architecture are just some of the profound changes that followed. [Source: University of Cambridge, March 23, 2012 /=]

Of course, the transition to agriculture was far from rapid. The period around 14,500 years ago has been regarded as the point at which the first indications appear of cultural change associated with agriculture: the exploitation of wild grains and the construction of stone buildings. Farming is believed to have begun in what is known as the Fertile Crescent in the Levant region, which stretches from northern Egypt through Israel and Jordan to the shores of the Persian Gulf, and then occurred independently in other regions of the world at different times from 11,000 years ago. \=/

Recent evidence, however, has suggested that the first stirrings of the revolution began even earlier, perhaps as far back as 19,000 years ago. Stimulating this reinterpretation of human prehistory are discoveries by the Epipalaeolithic Foragers in Azraq Project (EFAP), a group of archaeologists and bioarchaeologists working in the Jordanian desert comprising University of Cambridge’s Dr. Jay Stock, Dr. Lisa Maher (University of California, Berkeley) and Dr. Tobias Richter (University of Copenhagen). \=/

Over the past four years, their research has uncovered dramatic evidence of changes in the behaviour of hunter-gatherers that casts new light on agriculture’s origins, as Dr. Stock described: “Our work suggests that these hunter-gatherer communities were starting to congregate in large numbers in specific places, build architecture and show more-complex ritual and symbolic burial practices – signs of a greater attachment to a location and a changing pattern of social complexity that imply they were on the trajectory toward agriculture.” \=/



“Working at the fringes of the Fertile Crescent, at sites in the Azraq Basin and the marshlands of Jordan, the EFAP team is excavating the archaeological remains of the hunter-gatherers who occupied the region. Such sites have been under studied, said Dr Stock: “Because these early hunter-gatherers have been perceived as building only transient camp sites, they have been largely disregarded in explanations of the development of agriculture. Instead, excavations have focused on the later ‘Natufian’ period, beginning around 14,500 years ago, since this period more clearly shows cultural precursors of the transition to agriculture.” [Source: University of Cambridge, March 23, 2012 /=]

Today, the Azraq Basin is a 12,000 sq kilometers area of dusty, wind-blown desert, and a very challenging place to work. Temperatures can soar to 45°C, requiring the researchers to start field work at 5 am and finish by midday when the heat and winds become too strong to allow work to continue. But when the first humans were leaving Africa, the open grasslands and lush marshlands of the Fertile Crescent teemed with gazelle, antelope and plant life. Given this region is situated at the crossroads between Africa and the rest of the world, it is perhaps unsurprising that it should be the site of regional agricultural innovation. /=\

The team’s discoveries extend many aspects of the behavioural complexity associated with the Neolithic to about 10,000 years earlier, pushing back the true roots of the transition to agriculture. “On evolutionary timescales, the transition to agriculture can undoubtedly be regarded in revolutionary terms,” said Dr Stock. “But, we can now see this as a culturally dynamic process that began much earlier than previously thought.” This picture would not have come together through the excavation of one site alone,” he added. “The burial complexity of Uyun-al-Hammam and Ayn Qasiyya, together with the architecture and size of the settlement at Kharaneh IV, collectively offer glimpses of a protracted period in which humans worked through the cultural and biological changes that needed to happen before village life and the systematic exploitation of grain could emerge.” /=\

Development of Agriculture in Anatolia, 10,000 Years Ago

Archaeological evidence from the 10,000-year-old site of Boncuklu in Turkey indicates that Neolithic people there developed farming on their own, not from migrants, and communities nearby in Pinarbasi preferred to stick with hunting and gathering according to a paper published in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in March 2018. [Source: Ruth Schuster, Haaretz.com, March 21, 2018]

Ruth Schuster wrote in Haaretz.com, Until now farming had been assumed to have spread through migration, explains the paper But evidently there were villages that rejected the newfangled sow-and-grow techniques. Villagers in Boncuklu and similar communities in central Anatolia began farming some 10,000 years ago by adopting crops from areas to their south and east, Prof. Douglas Baird of the University of Liverpool said.

At Boncuklu, the researchers found stone tools different from the Levantine style. They also found burned seeds and remains of wheat chaff – and they found weeds known to have plagued early farming sites. The abundance of the opportunistic pests suggests they flourished as the ancients cultivated their crops. Similar evidence of proto-weeds was used in Israel to demonstrate early cultivation as much as 23,000 years ago near the Kinneret – the Sea of Galilee.


Boncuklu Hoyul, where some scientists say the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture took place


The Anatolian plateau folk seem also to have begun adopting the sheep and more commonly, the goat, the archaeologists deduced from analysis of bones. This seems to be closer to when livestock were domesticated – though each species was evidently domesticated at somewhat different times in different places. The evidence that farming wasn’t brought to central Anatolia by migrants but developed among the indigenous population relies on analysis of stone tools and DNA, Baird explains. Boncuklu is just one of several central Anatolian sites that have undergone archaeological exploration and analysis. All had the same indigenous material culture, especially stone tools, and were clearly part of a local tradition extending back 5,000 years earlier, Baird says.

This central Anatolian material culture is not at all like that of the early farming communities in northern Syria or southeast Turkey. Also, if farmers had migrated to the plateau and colonized it, their remains likely would have turned up in the future. “Since we are largely talking settled village communities, you would expect to see their sites in the archaeological record, exactly as we do see with the colonization of Cyprus in the early Neolithic,” Baird says. “In addition, the ancient DNA evidence now clearly shows that there is a distinctive local gene pool in the early Neolithic at places like Boncuklu, different from the genetics of Levantine Neolithic populations.”

Farming know-how may have come with prehistoric “trading” – the exchange of materials, artifacts and even possibly people. Trading brides seems to have been not rare, from antiquity to this day. “We have evidence, for example, of obsidian moving from central Anatolia to the Levant being exchanged between communities, and Mediterranean seashells used as beads coming from the south coast of Turkey onto the Anatolian plateau,” Baird says. “We are potentially talking about something akin to trade but without the mercantile/commercial associations of the term. Exchange may have been as much about building social relationships as it was about acquiring materials.” Still, we can’t even guess how close the communities from which agriculture spread to central Anatolia may have been; our knowledge of early prehistoric sites in these areas is scanty, Baird says.

One unexpected deduction is that the people of central Anatolia seem to have found this lifestyle convenient. “Unexpectedly, this low-level food production persisted for at least five centuries. Archaeologists usually consider these kinds of food-production systems to be short-lived and transitional, but our research suggests a stable and persistent use of crops and herd animals as a minor part of the economy for a long time. This does not fit existing theory,” says Andrew Fairbairn, the project’s co-director and an associate professor at the University of Queensland.

Boncuklu Höyük, Where Hunting and Gathering Ended?

Boncuklu Höyük, not far from Çatalhöyük, in central Turkey is one of world’s oldest villages. A team of Australian archaeologists headed by Dr Andrew Fairbairn from the University of Queensland think it may hold vital clues to a key transformation in human history: the end of the nomadic lifestyle. Daniel Miller wrote in abc.net.au: “Boncuklu Höyük, is one of the earliest village sites found from the period when hunter-gatherer societies began to leave their nomadic lifestyle and take up farming. Villagers lived in oval-shaped, mud brick houses and hunted, farmed and traded with other local communities on an area of wetlands which is now a dusty plain near the city of Konya. “It’s come to be one of the key transformations in human history because, basically, the development of our civilisations is routed in a lot of these social and economic transformations that happened around about this time,” Dr Fairbairn told ABC News Online. [Source: Daniel Miller, abc.net.au, July 18,2012]

“He says the site is one of the earliest found just outside the key Fertile Crescent area of eastern Turkey, Syria and Jordan where it is thought farming first originated. The site is expected to help archaeologists understand how humans adapted to a sedentary lifestyle and how it spread across Europe. “This farming lifestyle then spreads around the world – it goes across Europe and it goes across Asia,” Dr Fairbairn said. “And so where Boncuklu is is that sort of first area where you have this spread of this new lifestyle. “We’ve been very interested to find out whether it was, as it’s always been suspected, due to farming people moving from this area of origin, the Fertile Crescent … or whether it was due to the people who already lived there, lay hunter-gatherer societies, actually starting to develop and take up new crops and new ways of life. “So Boncuklu is one of those very rare sites that allows us to investigate that time period.”



Rejection of Agriculture in Anatolia, 10,000 Years Ago.

Ruth Schuster wrote in Haaretz.com, Just 30 kilometers from Boncuklu lay the contemporary prehistoric hamlet of Pinarbasi, which Baird excavated in 2003 and 2004. The Pinarbasis would have none of this farming frippery, it seems. Evidence suggests these communities resisted the adoption of farming and maintained a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, showing the spread of agriculture beyond the Fertile Crescent was neither uniform nor inevitable,” the team wrote. “They must have known about it but decided not to adopt it,” Baird says. [Source: Ruth Schuster, Haaretz.com, March 21, 2018]

That may not have been a good choice. Boncuklu seems to have survived at least 500 years after Pinarbasi, Baird adds – and its people may be with us to this very day. “We think that at least elements of the Boncuklu community continued to exist in the region, contributing population to the large site at Catalhoyuk, which is only 10 kilometers away, that follows on immediately after Boncuklu is abandoned,” he says. “People at Catalhoyuk have a lot of domestic and ritual practices very similar to those we see at Boncuklu.”

How many people are we talking about, anyway? Boncuklu and Pinarbasi each probably had between 50 to 150 people at any one time, though obviously it would have varied, Baird notes. And one group seems to have survived, while one may not have. In other words, while the desultory farming taking place in early Boncuklu was not a major economic activity, it was a local development and may have had enormous consequences for posterity.

The research was conducted by an international team led by Baird and Fairburn with Assistant Professor Gokhan Mustafaoglu and included researchers from Bournemouth University, University College London, the University of Reading, Cornell University, Middle Eastern Technical University Ankara, Trakya University, Bulent Ecevit University Zonguldak, Peking University and Harvard University, as well as the universities of Liverpool and Queensland.

Grains Domesticated in Syria Before Mesopotamia and Anatolia?

Based on plant remains found at a site in Syria it appears grains were domesticated in Syria long before they appeared in Iraq or Iran and even before they were domesticated in Anatolia (Turkey), the purported birthplace of agriculture. Léa Surugue wrote in the International Business Times: “Ancient plant remains suggest that the domestication of cereals, which led to the beginning of agriculture, appeared at different times in the Levant and in the eastern Fertile Crescent. Some countries, such as ancient-days Turkey, Iran and Iraq, saw Neolithic populations exploiting legumes, fruits and nuts long before they cultivated cereals. [Source: Léa Surugue, International Business Times, December 5, 2016 ||*||]

“Past studies have highlighted two main hypotheses to describe and explain the beginnings of plant domestication. In the 1990s, the belief was that domesticated plants had first appeared in Turkey, and that this was a rapid process that spread to the neighbouring regions in a short space of time.In contrast, the recent dominant theory is that cereal domestication was a protracted process that developed all over the Middle East from 11,600 to 10,700 years ago. However, it remained unclear whether domestication happened at the same time in the different countries or if there was regional diversity. ||*||

“In the new research, published in PNAS, researchers have tried to answer this question. They have shown that the cultivation of cereals during the Neolithic was only common in the southern-central Levant – such as in southern Syria. It took more time to arrive in other regions of the eastern Fertile Crescent – such as Iraq, Iran and southern Turkey.||*||

“The researchers started working at the archaeological Neolithic site of Tell Qarassa North in southern Syria. There, plant remains suggest that by 10,700 years ago cereals such as barley were being cultivated in important proportions. The study presents it as one of the earliest sites in the Middle East with evidence of morphologically domesticated wheat and barley. But when the scientists from the University of the Basque Country and the University of Copenhagen looked at the evidence from sites located in the eastern Fertile Crescent, they found no evidence of similar practices at this time.

Mesopotamian Agriculture

People on the Tigres and Euphrates learned how to domesticate plants and animals about 10,000 years ago. The world's first wheat, oats, barely and lentils evolved from wild plants found in Iraq. Mesopotamia was ideally suited for agriculture. It was flat and treeless. There was lots of sun and no killing frosts and plenty of water from two mighty rivers that flooded every spring, depositing nutrient-rich silt on the already fertile soil. Major crops included barley, dates, wheat, lentils, peas, beans, olives, pomegranates, grapes, vegetables. Pistachios were grown in royal gardens in Babylonia.

On Mesopotamian agriculture ., Morris Jastrow said: “The population was largely agricultural, but as the cities grew in size, naturally, industrial pursuits and commercial activity increased. Testimony to brisk trading in fields and field products, in houses and woven stuffs, in cattle and slaves is furnished by the large number of business documents of all periods from the earliest to the latest, embracing such a variety of subjects as loans, rents of fields and houses, contracts for work, hire of workmen and slaves, and barter and exchange of all kinds. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Ohalo II pictures and tables, Bar-Ilan University

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 March 2022


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