20120207-eikorn Triticum_monococcum0.jpg
eikorn Triticum
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.

Scientists have found genetic evidence that the world's four major grains---wheat, rice, corn and sorghum---evolved a common ancestor weed that grew 65 million years ago.

Cereals were being cultivated in what is now Syria. Lebanon, Israel and Palestine around 10,000 years ago in the 8th millenniums B.C. Barley was first grown in the Jordan valley about 10,000 years ago. The earliest levels of excavations at Jericho indicate that the people that lived there collected seeds of cereal grass from rocky crags flanking the valley and planted them in the fertile alluvial soil.


Categories with related articles in this website: First Villages, Early Agriculture and Bronze, Copper and Late Stone Age Humans (33 articles); Modern Humans 400,000-20,000 Years Ago (35 articles); Mesopotamian History and Religion (35 articles); Mesopotamian Culture and Life (38 articles)

Websites and Resources on Prehistory: Wikipedia article on Prehistory Wikipedia ; Early Humans ; Prehistoric Art ; Evolution of Modern Humans ; Iceman Photscan ; Otzi Official Site Websites and Resources of Early Agriculture and Domesticated Animals: Britannica; Wikipedia article History of Agriculture Wikipedia ; History of Food and Agriculture museum.agropolis; Wikipedia article Animal Domestication Wikipedia ; Cattle Domestication; Food Timeline, History of Food ; Food and History ;

Archaeology News and Resources: : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe 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 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 is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience : 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 explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Einkorn and Emmer Wheat: First Crops?

The first domesticated crop is believed to have been einkorn wheat, a kind of nourishing grass adapted from a wild species of grass native to the Karacadag mountains near Diyarbakir in southwestern Turkey first cultivated around 11,000 years ago. Scientists deduced this by examining the DNA of modern strains of einkorn wheat and found the were more similar to einkorn wheat grown in the Karacadag mountains than in other places. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 20, 1997]

Collecting seeds from wild grass is not an easy matter. If you pick the seeds before they are ripe they are too small and hard to eat. If you wait so long they fall from the stem and you have to pick them up one by one. With some grasses the period in which the seeds are feasible to collect is only a few days a year. If one wants to get a long term food supply it makes sense to collect as much as you can and take it back to your cave and store it.

Emmer wheat, rye and barley were cultivated around the same time, and is difficult to say which was cultivated first. Emmer wheat and another wheat strain from the Caspian Sea are thought to be the first bread wheats. Emmer wheat is a wild grass. It is thought to have been singled out because its seeds stay attached to the stem significantly longer than that of other grasses.

Barley, First Domesticated Wild Grass

barley field

It is said the Ancient Egyptians believed that one day Osiris, god of agriculture, made a decoction of barley that had germinated with the sacred waters of the Nile, and then distracted by other urgent affairs, left it out in the sun and forgot it. When he came back the mixture had fermented. He drank it, and thought it so good that he let mankind profit by it. This was said to be the origin of beer. According to “Egyptian Food and Drink,” by Hillery Wilson, there was no distinction in ancient Egypt between barley and wheat it is impossible to determine which was cultivated first; both were generally termed”corn”.

Barley was the first domesticated grain in the Near East, approximately the same time as einkorn and emmer wheat. Wild barley (H. vulgare ssp. spontaneum) ranges from North Africa and Crete in the west, to Tibet in the east. The earliest evidence of wild barley in an archaeological context comes from the Epipaleolithic at Ohalo II at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee. The remains were dated to about 8500 B.C. The earliest domesticated barley occurs at Aceramic Neolithic sites, in the Near East such as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B layers of Tell Abu Hureyra, in Syria. Barley has been grown in the Korean Peninsula since the Early Mumun Pottery Period (c. 1500–850 B.C.) along with other crops such as millet, wheat, and legumes. [Source: Wikipedia]

One of the earliest accounts of the distribution of barley can be found on a clay tablet from Mesopotamia, written in Cuneiform dating to 2350 B.C. It called for a ration of 30-40 pints for adults and 20 pints for children. In ancient Egypt, barley was made into bread and porridge and sprouted barley was used as a base for beer. Barley was also used as a feed crop for domestic animals and was employed as a type of currency to pay royal workers. Barley beer was one of the first fermented drinks developed by Neolithic people.

Genome of 6,000-year-old Barley Grains Sequenced

In 2016. Bar-Ilan University reported: “An international team of researchers has succeeded for the first time in sequencing the genome of Chalcolithic barley grains. This is the oldest plant genome to be reconstructed to date. The 6,000-year-old seeds were retrieved from Yoram Cave in the southern cliff of Masada fortress in the Judean Desert in Israel, close to the Dead Sea. Genetically, the prehistoric barley is very similar to present-day barley grown in the Southern Levant, supporting the existing hypothesis of barley domestication having occurred in the Upper Jordan Valley. [Source: Bar-Ilan University, July 18, 2016 /**\]

Barely fruit

“Members of the research team are from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Gatersleben, Germany; Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel; Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel; the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany; and the University of Haifa, Israel; The James Hutton Institute, UK; University of California, Santa Cruz, USA; University of Minnesota St. Paul, USA; University of Tübingen, Germany. /**\

“The analyzed grains, together with tens of thousands of other plant remains, were retrieved during a systematic archaeological excavation headed by Uri Davidovich, from the Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Nimrod Marom, from Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, Israel. The archaeobotanical analysis was led by Ehud Weiss, of Bar-Ilan University. The cave is very difficult to access and was used only for a short time by humans, some 6,000 years ago, probably as ephemeral refuge. /**\

“Most examination of archaeobotanical findings has been limited to the comparison of ancient and present-day specimens based on their morphology. Up to now, only prehistoric corn has been genetically reconstructed. In this research, the team succeeded in sequencing the complete genome of the 6,000-year-old barley grains. The results are now published in the online version of the journal Nature Genetics.” /**\

“These archaeological remains provided a unique opportunity for us to finally sequence a Chalcolithic plant genome. The genetic material has been well-preserved for several millennia due to the extreme dryness of the region,” explains Ehud Weiss, of Bar-Ilan University. In order to determine the age of the ancient seeds, the researchers split the grains and subjected half of them to radiocarbon dating while the other half was used to extract the ancient DNA. “For us, ancient DNA works like a time capsule that allows us to travel back in history and look into the domestication of crop plants at distinct time points in the past,” explains Johannes Krause, Director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena. The genome of Chalcolithic barley grains is the oldest plant genome to be reconstructed to date.” /**\

Domestication of Barley Completed Very Early

In 2016. Bar-Ilan University reported: “Wheat and barley were already grown 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, a sickle-shaped region stretching from present-day Iraq and Iran through Turkey and Syria into Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Up to this day, the wild forms of these two crops persist in the region and are among the major model species studied at the Institute of Evolution in the University of Haifa. “It was from there that grain farming originated and later spread to Europe, Asia and North Africa,” explains Tzion Fahima, of the University of Haifa. [Source: Bar-Ilan University, July 18, 2016 /**\]

““Our analyses show that the seeds cultivated 6,000 years ago greatly differ genetically from the wild forms we find today in the region. However, they show considerable genetic overlap with present-day domesticated lines from the region,” explains Nils Stein, who directed the comparison of the ancient genome with modern genomes at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK), Gatersleben, with the support of Robbie Waugh and colleagues at the James Hutton Institute, Dundee, Scotland, and Gary Muehlbauer, University of Minnesota, USA. “This demonstrates that the domestication of barley in the Fertile Crescent was already well advanced very early.” /**\

“The comparison of the ancient seeds with wild forms from the region and with so-called ‘landraces’ (i.e., local barley lines grown by farmers in the Near East) enabled to geographically suggest, according to Tzion Fahima and his colleagues at the University of Haifa and Israel’s Tel-Hai College, “the origin of the domestication of barley within the Upper Jordan Valley – a hypothesis that is also supported by two archaeological sites in the surrounding area where the hitherto earliest remains of barley cultivation have been found.

“Also the genetic overlap with present-day domesticated lines from the region is revealing to the researchers. “This similarity is an amazing finding considering to what extent the climate, but also the local flora and fauna, as well as the agricultural methods, have changed over this long period of time,” says Martin Mascher, from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research, the lead author of the study. The researchers therefore assume that conquerors and immigrants coming to the region did not bring their own crop seeds from their former homelands, but continued cultivating the locally adapted extant landraces. /**\

“Combining archaeology, archaeobotany, genetics and computational genomics in an interdisciplinary study has produced novel insights into the origins of our crop plants. “This is just the beginning of a new and exciting line of research,” predicts Verena Schuenemann, from Tuebingen University, the second lead author of the study. “DNA-analysis of archaeological remains of prehistoric plants will provide us with novel insights into the origin, domestication and spread of crop plants.”“

Wild Progenitor of Einkorn Wheat Found in Turkey

wild emmer wheat

Mark Rose wrote in Archaeology magazine: “The wild progenitor of einkorn wheat, one of the first crops to be domesticated (ca. 9000 B.C.), has been identified genetically in southeastern Turkey, according to a report in the journal Science. Manfred Heun of the Agricultural University of Norway, along with Norwegian, German, and Italian colleagues, examined the DNA of 68 lines of cultivated einkorn (Triticum monococcum monococcum), 194 lines of wild einkorn (T. m. boeoticum) from nine geographical regions within the Fertile Crescent, and nine lines of a weedy einkorn (T. m. aegilopoides) found in the Balkans. [Source: Mark Rose, Archaeology magazine, January/February 1998 ++]

“Cultivated einkorns proved closely related to one another and to weedy einkorn. Significantly, both cultivated and weedy varieties are closely related to wild einkorn found in one region, the Karacadag Mountains of southeastern Turkey. The wild einkorn from that area proved to be distinct from other wild types and may be the forebear of the domestic variety. ++

“Eleven of 19 lines of wild einkorn from the Karacadag Mountains are particularly close to cultivated einkorn but have clear wild characteristics, including a brittle stalk yielding a few small grains. In cultivated einkorn the stalk is tougher (which makes the grain easier to harvest), and the seeds are larger and more numerous. The weedy einkorn, closely related to both wild and cultivated types, appears to be an intermediate form with some characteristics of cultivation (the stem is somewhat tougher than in wild plants, the seeds are intermediate in weight, and there are comparable numbers of seeds as in cultivated plants). ++

“Wild or cultivated einkorn grains have been found at several early Neolithic sites in Turkey near the Karacadag Mountains, including Cafer Höyük, Cayönü, and Nevali Cori. Wild and cultivated seeds have also been found at Abu Hureya to the south in Syria.” ++

Wheat Genome Sequenced

In 2010, British scientists announced that they had decoded the genetic sequence of wheat — one of the world’s oldest and most important crops. Wheat is grown across more of the world’s farmland than any other cereal. One academic in the field called the discovery “a landmark.” “The wheat genome is the holy grail of plant genomes,” said Nick Talbot, a professor of biosciences at the University of Exeter who wasn’t involved in the research. “It’s going to really revolutionize how we breed it.” [Source: Raphael G. Satter, Associated Press, August 27, 2010 <+>]

Associated Press reported: “University of Liverpool scientist Neil Hall, whose team cracked the code, said the information could eventually help breeders of varieties of wheat better identify genetic variations responsible for disease resistance, drought tolerance and yield. Although the genetic sequence remains a rough draft, and additional strains of wheat need to be analyzed for the work to be useful, Hall predicted it wouldn’t take long for his work to make an impact in the field. “Hopefully the benefit of this work will come through in the next five years,” he said. <+>

“A genome is the full complement of an organism’s DNA, complex molecules which direct the formation and function of all living organisms. Sequencing an organism’s genome, gives unparalleled insight into how it is formed, develops and dies. Wheat is a relative latecomer to the world of genetic sequencing. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the date the human genome was laid bare. Other crops have had their genetic codes unscrambled within the past few years — rice in 2005, corn in 2009, and soybeans in 2010. <+>

“The reason for the delay in analyzing wheat’s genetic code, Hall said, was that the code is massive — far larger than corn or rice and five times the length of the one carried by humans. One reason for the outsize genome is that strains such as the Chinese spring wheat analyzed by Hall’s team carry six copies of the same gene (most creatures carry two.) Another is that wheat has a tangled ancestry, tracing its descent from three different species of wild grass. <+>

“But sequencing techniques have improved dramatically over the past decade. The process used in this case is called pyrosequencing, a technique which involves extracting DNA, suspending it in fluid, breaking it apart with bursts of gas and using chemical reactions and a high-resolution camera to infer its makeup. Hall said the machine used enabled his team to analyze a million strands of DNA at a time. The whole process took about a year to complete. <+>

“Although the code may yet see use by genetic engineers hoping to craft artificial strains of wheat, Hall was at pains to stress the conventional applications of his work. Until now, breeders seeking to combine the best traits of two strains of wheat would cross the pair, grow the hybrid crop and hope for the best. Although the process has been used by farmers since wheat was first cultivated 10,000 years ago, Talbot described it as laborious and inefficient. “Very often we were talking about 10-15 years of intensive breeding programs,” he said. “We’re talking now about doing things in less than five.” <+>

“Talbot noted that rice cultivation had already benefited from the publication of its genetic code — and led to the development of vitamin-enriched and drought-resistant strains. He said that his own field of specialty, the study of the destructive rice blast fungus, had been revolutionized as a result of having the genome sequence.” <+>

Wild Emmer Wheat Genome “Time Tunnel”

A global team of researchers has published the first-ever Wild Emmer wheat genome sequence in Science magazine. Wild Emmer wheat is the original form of nearly all the domesticated wheat in the world, including durum (pasta) and bread wheat. Wild emmer is too low-yielding to be of use to farmers today, but it contains many attractive characteristics that are being used by plant breeders to improve wheat. [Source:Tel Aviv University, July 10, 2017]

According to Tel Aviv University: “The study was led by Dr. Assaf Distelfeld of Tel Aviv University's School of Plant Sciences and Food Security and Institute for Cereal Crops Improvement, in collaboration with several dozen scientists from institutions around the world and an Israel-based company - NRGene, which developed the bioinformatics technology that accelerated the research.

Dr. Daniel Chamovitz, Dean of Tel Aviv University's Faculty of Life Sciences, said , "Our ability to generate the Wild Emmer wheat genome sequence so rapidly is a huge step forward in genomic research," said Dr. Curtis Pozniak from the University of Saskatchewan, a project team member and Chair of the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program. "Wheat accounts for almost 20% of the calories humans consume worldwide, so a strong focus on improving the yield and quality of wheat is essential for our future food supply."

"From a biological and historical viewpoint, we have created a 'time tunnel' we can use to examine wheat from before the origins of agriculture," said Dr. Distelfeld. "Our comparison to modern wheat has enabled us to identify the genes involved in domestication - the transition from wheat grown in the wild to modern day varieties. While the seeds of wild wheat readily fall off the plant and scatter, a change in two genes meant that in domesticated wheat, the seeds remained attached to the stalk; it is this trait that enabled humans to harvest wheat."


"This new resource allowed us to identify a number of other genes controlling main traits that were selected by early humans during wheat domestication and that served as foundation for developing modern wheat cultivars," said Dr. Eduard Akhunov of Kansas State University. "These genes provide an invaluable resource for empowering future breeding efforts. Wild Emmer is known as a source of novel variation that can help to improve the nutritional quality of grain as well as tolerance to diseases and water-limiting conditions."

"New genomic tools are already being implemented to identify novel genes for wheat production improvement under changing environment," explains Dr. Zvi Peleg of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. "While many modern wheat cultivars are susceptible to water stress, Wild Emmer has undergone a long evolutionary history under the drought-prone Mediterranean climate. Thus, utilization of the wild genes in wheat breeding programs promotes producing more yield for less water." "The wheat genome is much more complex than most of the other crops and has agenome four times the size of a human genome." said Dr. Gil Ronen, NRGene's CEO. "Still, the computational technology we developed has allowed us to quickly assemble the very large and complex genome found in Wild Emmer's 14 chromosomes to a standard never achieved before in genomic studies."

For the first time, the sequences of the 14 chromosomes of Wild Emmer wheat are collapsed into a refined order, thanks to additional technology that utilizes DNA and protein links. "It was originally tested in humans and recently demonstrated in barley, both of which have smaller genomes than Wild Emmer wheat," says Dr. Nils Stein, the Head of Genomics of Genetic Resources at Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research in Germany. "These innovative technologies have changed the game in assembling the large cereal genomes."

"This sequencing approach used for Wild Emmer wheat is unprecedented and has paved the way to sequence durum wheat (the domesticated form of Wild Emmer). Now we can better understand how humanity transformed this wild plant into a modern, high-yielding and high-quality crop," said Dr. Luigi Cattivelli, Head of the CREA Research Centre for Genomics and Bioinformatics (Italy) and coordinator of the International Durum Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium. "This Wild Emmer wheat sequencing and approach is an invaluable contribution to the entire wheat community to improve and better understand nutritional mechanisms," said Dr. Hikmet Budak, Montana Plant Science Endowed Chair at Montana State University. "We now have the tools to study crops directly and to make and apply our discoveries more efficiently than ever before," concluded Dr. Distelfeld.

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.”


sorghum field

The origin and early domestication of sorghum took place in Northeastern Africa. The earliest known record of sorghum comes from an archeological dig at Nabta Playa, near the Egyptian-Sudanese border, dated 8,000 B.C. Sorghum spread throughout Africa, and along the way, adapted to a wide range of environments from the highlands of Ethiopia to the semi-arid Sahel. [Source:]

According to the abstract for “Sorghum in the Economy of the Early Neolithic Nomadic Tribes at Nabta Playa, Southern Egypt” by Krystyna Wasylikowa and Jeff Dahlberg: “The 8000 years old early neolithic site E-75-6 at Nabta Playa, southern Egypt, yielded charred plant remains of over 120 taxa. Several species of edible plants were recovered, many of which are still gathered for food in the Sahara today. The in-site distribution of plant remains indicated the use of four different sets of plants by people living in various huts and pits, which may relate to the dominance of these plants in the local vegetation stands. The distribution of sorghum differed from that of the other edible plants, probably reflecting its special significance for the inhabitants of the site. The sorghum grains were morphologically wild, and could have been collected from natural stands, or irregularly cultivated with the décrue technique. This early cultivation did not lead to domestication, but provides early evidence for the human skill of cultivating such useful plants.

Nabta Playa was once a large internally drained basin in the Nubian Desert, located approximately 800 kilometers south of modern-day Cairo or about 100 kilometers west of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt. Archaeological findings may indicate human occupation in the region dating to at least somewhere around the 10th and 8th millennia B.C., when the Sahara was relatively green and received significant rain and the part of Nubian desert was occupied by a large lake. Fred Wendorf, the site's discoverer, and ethno-linguist Christopher Ehret have suggested that the people who occupied this region at that time were early pastoralists, or maybe practiced semi-pastoralism. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The people of that time consumed and stored wild sorghum, and used ceramics adorned by complicated painted patterns created perhaps by using combs made from fish bone and which belong to a general pottery tradition strongly associated with the southern parts of the sahara (e.g., of the Khartoum mesolithic and various contemporary sites in Chad) of that period. Analysis of human remains by Fred Wendorf and reported in "Holocene Settlement of the Egyptian Sahara", based on osteological data suggests a subsaharan origin for the site's inhabitants. +

By the 7th millennium B.C. exceedingly large and organized settlements were found in the region, relying on deep wells for sources of water. Huts were constructed in straight rows. Sustenance included fruit, legumes, millets, sorghum and tubers. Also in the late 7th millennium B.C. but a little later than the time referred to above, imported goats and sheep, apparently from Western Asia, appear. Many large hearths also appear. +

Cave Full of 100,000 Year Old Grain

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 *-*]

Owen Jarus wrote in Heritage Key, “Scientists have long believed that grains played little role in the Stone Age diet. This belief is fueled by the fact that it's difficult to process grain using the tools of the time. The cave that Mercader excavated had a layer that was used by people from 105,000 years ago to 42,000 years ago. In it there was a vast number of tools. Mercader took a sample of 70 from this assemblage. In particular he picked out the tools that could best be used to prepare Stone Age cereal. “These include cobble-sized core implements that have the right size and weight to be used as grinders of vegetable material: Cores and core scrapers make up more than one-third of the entire assemblage. Special pieces include a rhyolite grinder/core axe, a ground cobble, and a faceted quartz mortar," he said in his journal article. *-*

“Sure enough his work paid off, he recovered 2369 grains in all. “About 20 percent lack any starch residue (12 tools) but 80 percent have some," he said, adding, “the average number of grains on lithics is 270 times larger than that in the site's free-standing sediments." He found that most of the grain in question is an ancient variety of wild sorghum. A modern version of this wild plant grows nearby. *-*

“The conclusion: "Middle Stone Age groups routinely brought starchy plants to their cave sites and that starch granules got attached to and preserved on stone tools." The long stretch of time of these tools (60,000 years!) suggests that it wasn't some one-time event precipitated by a famine. It seems to be constant. But why just in this area? Why don't we have evidence on this all across the archaeological record?” *-*

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.” /::\

100,000-Year-Old Sorghum in African Cave: Did Humans Eat It?

Location of Ngalue

Based on evidence found in an African cave, the harvesting of wild grains — and maybe the cooking of them — may have begun more than 100,000 years ago.Brendan Borrell wrote in Nature: “Humans may have been baking bread 105,000 years ago, says a researcher who has discovered evidence of ground seeds from sorghum grass on stone tools in a Mozambique cave. “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 /::\]

“Most researchers think that humans in the Middle Stone Age — which began around 300,000 years ago and ended around 50,000 years ago — depended on foodstuffs such as underground tubers and meat. Grains require a complex preparation process of grinding and charring before they can be digested by humans. Mercader says that sorghum flours could have been used to make culinary preparations such as bread. The first confirmed use of grains in the human diet comes from charred barley and wheat from Israel dating to about 23,000 years ago, so the latest findings could push that date back another 80,000 years. /::\

“Other scientists, however, are sceptical. Archaeologist Lyn Wadley, an honorary professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, points out that starch grains are notoriously difficult to identify, varying not only among species but also between different parts of a plant. “Even if sorghum is truly present at the site,” she says, “there could be a reason for this presence other than eating of grains.” At the Sibudu cave in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, her group has found that grasses similar to sorghum were used for bedding and as tinder for fireplaces. /::\

“Loren Cordain, an exercise physiologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and an expert on the Palaeolithic diet, agrees that the evidence is too thin to support the consumption of grains as food. “I don’t think they’ve really built a strong case for the notion that cereal grains were exploited on a real basis and were part of the diet of our ancestors,” he says. “It’s fascinating and suggestive, but the logic doesn’t fall in place.” He points out that there is no anvil rock with which to grind the grains as discovered in Israel, for instance, nor is there evidence that humans were cooking the grains.”

“But Mercader believes early human grain consumption is possible even if he has not yet fully demonstrated it. “If you think about the complexity of modern human behaviour, I’m not sure the early use of grains is unexpected: it’s in line with other discoveries from the Middle Stone Age,” he says. Early modern humans first emerged around 150,000 to 200,000 years ago, and scientists working in South Africa have found that humans 72,000 years ago were using shell beads and ochre pigments, in addition to making stone tools with the help of fire.3 “I understand healthy scepticism goes a long way,” Mercader says, “but let us not overdo it.”“ /::\

Millet First Domesticated in China 10,000 Years Ago

Research analysis in “Earliest domestication of common millet (Panicum miliaceum) in East Asia extended to 10,000 years ago” concluded that “the earliest significant common millet cultivation system was established in the semiarid regions of China by 10,000 cal yr BP, and that the relatively dry condition in the early Holocene may have been favorable for the domestication of common millet over foxtail millet. Our study shows that common millet appeared as a staple crop in northern China ̃10,000 years ago, suggesting that common millet might have been domesticated independently in this area and later spread to Russia, India, the Middle East, and Europe. Nevertheless, like Mesopotamia, where the spread of wheat and barley to the fertile floodplains of the Lower Tigris and Euphrates was a key factor in the emergence of civilization, the spread of common millet to the more productive regions of the Yellow River and its tributaries provided the essential food surplus that later permitted the development of social complexity in the Chinese civilization." [Source: “Earliest domestication of common millet (Panicum miliaceum) in East Asia extended to 10,000 years ago” by Houyuan Lua, Jianping Zhanga, Kam-biu Liub, Naiqin Wua, Yumei Lic, Kunshu Zhoua, Maolin Yed, Tianyu Zhange, Haijiang Zhange, Xiaoyan Yangf, Licheng Shene, Deke Xua and Quan Lia. Edited by Dolores R. Piperno, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and National Museum of Natural History, Washington, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 17, 2009 ++]

The above study reported “the discovery of husk phytoliths and biomolecular components identifiable solely as common millet from newly excavated storage pits at the Neolithic Cishan site, China, dated to between ca. 10,300 and ca. 8,700 calibrated years before present (cal yr BP). After ca. 8,700 cal yr BP, the grain crops began to contain a small quantity of foxtail millet. Our research reveals that the common millet was the earliest dry farming crop in East Asia, which is probably attributed to its excellent resistance to drought." [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ++]

“Foxtail millet (Setaria italica) and common millet (or broomcorn millet; Panicum miliaceum) were among the world's most important and ancient domesticated crops. They were staple foods in the semiarid regions of East Asia (China, Japan, Russia, India, and Korea) and even in the entire Eurasian continent before the popularity of rice and wheat, and are still important foods in these regions today." ++

Cishan in Northern China: Home of the World's Oldest Millet


According to the paper “Earliest domestication of common millet (Panicum miliaceum) in East Asia extended to 10,000 years ago”: “Thirty years ago, the world's oldest millet remains, dating to ca. 8,200 calibrated years before present (cal yr BP), were discovered at the Early Neolithic site of Cishan, northern China. The site contained more than 50,000 kilograms of grain crops stored in the storage pits. Until now, the importance of these findings has been constrained by limited taxonomic identification with regard to whether they are from foxtail millet (S. italica) or common millet (P. miliaceum), because the early reported S. italica identifications are not all accepted. This article presents the phytoliths, biomolecular records, and new radiocarbon dating from newly excavated grain crop storage pits at the Cishan site. Large modern reference collections are used to compare and contrast microfossil morphology and biomolecular components in different millets and related grass species. The renewed investigations show that common millet agriculture arose independently in the semiarid regions of China by 10,000 cal yr BP. [Source: “Earliest domestication of common millet (Panicum miliaceum) in East Asia extended to 10,000 years ago” by Houyuan Lua, Jianping Zhanga, Kam-biu Liub, Naiqin Wua, Yumei Lic, Kunshu Zhoua, Maolin Yed, Tianyu Zhange, Haijiang Zhange, Xiaoyan Yangf, Licheng Shene, Deke Xua and Quan Lia. Edited by Dolores R. Piperno, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and National Museum of Natural History, Washington, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 17, 2009 ++]

The Cishan site (36̊34.511' N, 114̊06.720' E) is located near the junction between the Loess Plateau and the North China Plain at an elevation of 260–270 meters above sea level. The archaeological site, containing a total of 88 storage pits with significant quantities (about 109 cubic meters) of grain crop remains, was excavated from 1976 to 1978. Each storage pit included 0.3- to 2-meter-thick grain crops, which were well preserved and found in situ in the 3- to 5-meter-deep loess layer. All grain remains have been oxidized to ashes soon after they were exposed to air. Archaeological excavations also revealed the remains of houses and numerous millstones, stone shovels, grind rollers, potteries, rich faunal remains, and plant assemblages including charred fruits of walnut (Juglans regia), hazel (Corylus heterophylla), and hackberry (Celtis bungeana). Only 2 14C dates of charcoal from previously excavated H145 and H48 storage pits yielded uncalibrated ages of 7355 ± 100 yr BP and 7235 ± 105 yr BP, respectively. These remains represent the earliest evidence for the significant use of dry-farming crop plants in the human diet in East Asia. They also suggest that by this time agriculture had already been relatively well developed here. ++

Millet Types, Early Agriculture and China's Environment 10,000 Years Ago

According to the paper “Earliest domestication of common millet (Panicum miliaceum) in East Asia extended to 10,000 years ago”: According to archeobotanical research, the early charred grains of common millet occurred during the initial stages of various Early Neolithic sites, including Dadiwan (ca. 7.8–7.35 cal kyr BP) (21), Xinglonggou (ca. 8.0–7.5 cal kyr BP), and Yuezhuang (ca. 7.87 cal kyr BP) in North China, but foxtail millet was barely present during these stages. Lee et al. have speculated that the Early Neolithic predominance of broomcorn over foxtail millet at Xinglonggou and Yuezhuang ca. 6000 cal B.C. might be a regional phenomenon, implying that broomcorn millet might have been domesticated earlier than foxtail millet. [Source: “Earliest domestication of common millet (Panicum miliaceum) in East Asia extended to 10,000 years ago” by Houyuan Lua, Jianping Zhanga, Kam-biu Liub, Naiqin Wua, Yumei Lic, Kunshu Zhoua, Maolin Yed, Tianyu Zhange, Haijiang Zhange, Xiaoyan Yangf, Licheng Shene, Deke Xua and Quan Lia. Edited by Dolores R. Piperno, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and National Museum of Natural History, Washington, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 17, 2009 ++]

“Our analytical results of both phytoliths and biomolecular components have established that the earliest cereal remains stored in the Cishan Neolithic sites, during ca. 10,300–8,700 cal yr BP, are not foxtail millet, but only common millet. After 8,700 cal yr BP, the grain crops gradually contained 0.4–2.8 percent foxtail millet. Our study also suggests that common millet was used as a staple food significantly earlier than foxtail millet in northern China. It provides direct evidence to show that, by 10,000 cal yr BP, the early people in northern China had developed various methods of maintenance and multiplication of millet seeds for the next generation, and had known how to store crops of staple food in secure, dry places of storage pits during the Early Neolithic epoch. ++

“Common millet has the lowest water requirement among all grain crops; it is also a relatively short-season crop, and could grow well in poor soils. The geographical distribution of both foxtail millet and common millet in China shows that foxtail millet is more common in the semiwet eastern areas, and its optimal growth occurs at mean annual temperature (MAT) from 8 to 10 ̊C and mean annual precipitation (MAP) from 450 to 550 mm. However, common millet is more adapted to the drier interior areas, and its optimal growing conditions occur at MAT from 6 to 8 ̊C and MAP from 350 to 450 mm. The origin and dispersal of millet agriculture is a key problem closely related to the history of human impact on the environment and transformation of natural vegetation. ++

“Paleoenvironmental data from the Weinan section in the southern part of the Loess Plateau between the Cishan and Dadiwan sites are crucial for understanding the early stage of the forager–cultivator transition. The early Holocene was a period of significant environmental change marked by dry climate conditions as inferred from sediment texture, magnetic susceptibility, pollen, phytoliths, and mollusk assemblages. These proxy records show an environmental transition from cold–dry (ca. 11,000–8,700 cal yr BP) to warm–wet (ca. 8,700–5,500 cal yr BP) conditions. Many lacustrine and loess records from the Chinese Loess Plateau to Central Asia also support the scenario of a dry climate during the early Holocene. Under the drier climate conditions, soil development was slowed, and the soil developed on the underlying older and coarser loess of the glacial period was poor in nutrients. This raises the possibility that common millet was more significant than foxtail millet in the early stages of food production in North China because it was more adaptable than foxtail millet to the dry condition prevailing during the early Holocene. The common millet cultivation may involve complex selection by natural forces and human activities, although no clear evidence has been documented in this region for the transitions from gathering to cultivation and/or from a wild ancestor to domesticated common millet." ++

Millet: Carried by Herders from China to Europe

millet in Manchuria in 1936

In December 2015, the University of Cambridge reported: New research shows that millet “was carried across Eurasia by ancient shepherds and herders laying the foundation, in combination with the new crops they encountered, of ‘multi-crop’ agriculture and the rise of settled societies...Now a forgotten crop in the West, this hardy grain – familiar in the west today as birdseed – was ideal for ancient shepherds and herders, who carried it right across Eurasia, where it was mixed with crops such as wheat and barley. This gave rise to ‘multi-cropping’, which in turn sowed the seeds of complex urban societies, say archaeologists. [Source: University of Cambridge, December 14, 2015 *|*]

“A team from the UK, USA and China has traced the spread of the domesticated grain from North China and Inner Mongolia into Europe through a “hilly corridor” along the foothills of Eurasia.Millet favours uphill locations, doesn't require much water, and has a short growing season: it can be harvested 45 days after planting, compared with 100 days for rice, allowing a very mobile form of cultivation. Nomadic tribes were able to combine growing crops of millet with hunting and foraging as they travelled across the continent between 2500 and 1600 B.C.. Millet was eventually mixed with other crops in emerging populations to create ‘multi-crop’ diversity, which extended growing seasons and provided our ancient ancestors with food security. *|*

“The need to manage different crops in different locations, and the water resources required, depended upon elaborate social contracts and the rise of more settled, stratified communities and eventually complex ‘urban’ human societies. Researchers say we need to learn from the earliest farmers when thinking about feeding today's populations, and millet may have a role to play in protecting against modern crop failure and famine. “Today millet is in decline and attracts relatively little scientific attention, but it was once among the most expansive cereals in geographical terms. We have been able to follow millet moving in deep history, from where it originated in China and spread across Europe and India," said Professor Martin Jones from the University of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, who is presenting the research findings today at the Shanghai Archaeological Forum. “These findings have transformed our understanding of early agriculture and society. It has previously been assumed that early agriculture was focused in river valleys where there is plentiful access to water. However, millet remains show that the first agriculture was instead centred higher up on the foothills – allowing this first pathway for ‘exotic’ eastern grains to be carried west."*|*

“The researchers carried out radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis on charred millet grains recovered from archaeological sites across China and Inner Mongolia, as well as genetic analysis of modern millet varieties, to reveal the process of domestication that occurred over thousands of years in northern China and produced the ancestor of all broomcorn millet worldwide. “We can see that millet in northern China was one of the earliest centres of crop domestication, occurring over the same timescale as rice domestication in south China and barley and wheat in west China," explained Jones. “Domestication is hugely significant in the development of early agriculture – humans select plants with seeds that don't fall off naturally and can be harvested, so over several thousand years this creates plants that are dependent on farmers to reproduce," he said. “This also means that the genetic make-up of these crops changes in response to changes in their environment – in the case of millet, we can see that certain genes were ‘switched off’ as they were taken by farmers far from their place of origin." *|*

“As the network of farmers, shepherds and herders crystallised across the Eurasian corridor, they shared crops and cultivation techniques with other farmers, and this, Jones explains, is where the crucial idea of ‘multi-cropping’ emerged. “The first pioneer farmers wanted to farm upstream in order to have more control over their water source and be less dependent on seasonal weather variations or potential neighbours upstream," he said. “But when ‘exotic’ crops appear in addition to the staple crop of the region, then you start to get different crops growing in different areas and at different times of year. This is a huge advantage in terms of shoring up communities against possible crop failures and extending the growing season to produce more food or even surplus. *|*

“Towards the end of the second and first millennia B.C. larger human settlements, underpinned by multi-crop agriculture, began to develop. The earliest examples of text, such as the Sumerian clay tablets from Mesopotamia, and oracle bones from China, allude to multi-crop agriculture and seasonal rotation. Crop rotation, Jones says “introduces a more pressing need for cooperation, and the beginnings of a stratified society. With some people growing crops upstream and some farming downstream, you need a system of water management, and you can't have water management and seasonal crop rotation without an elaborate social contract."*|*

World's Oldest Rice

Carbonized rice grains found near the Yellow River and Yangtze River in China, dated between 10,500 and 12,000 years ago, are considered by some to be the world's oldest rice. In 2003, South Korean researchers said they had found 15,000-year-old burnt rice grains at a site in South Korea, claiming it was evidence of the world's oldest rice and challenging the idea that rice was first cultivated in China.

The Jiahu site in China yielded domesticated rice, dated to 7000 B.C. The rice was a kind of short-grained japonica rice. Scholars had previously thought the earliest domesticated rice belonged to the long-grain indica subspecies. Other early evidence of rice farming comes from a 7000-year-old archeological site near the lower Yangtze River village of Hemudu in Zheijiang Province. When the rice grains were found there they were white but exposure to air turned them black in a matter minutes. These grains can now be seen at a museum in Hemudu. Some 8,000-year-old rice grains have been discovered in Changsa in the Hunan Province.

According to an article called “The earliest rice domestication in China“: “The earliest rice remains (wild first and domesticated later) were found at Yuchanyan (Yuan 2002), Diaotonghuan (Zhao 1998), and Shangshan along the Yangze River, dating to 15 000-9000 cal BP ["calibrated years" before present using radiocarbon dating]. Jiahu [a famous Chinese Neolithic site] indicates habitual use of cultivated rice in northern regions by 9000 cal BP. [Source: “The earliest rice domestication in China“, Antiquity Vol 81 No 313 September 2007]

Stephen Chen wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Excavation sites along the Yantze River such as Hemudu in Yuyao, Zhejiang, provided the earliest evidence of the growing, storage and cooking of rice. Carbon dating shows rice was already the main staple in China more than 8,000 years ago. Some previous studies, such as one led by Professor Susan McCouch of Cornell University in 2007, suggested that rice was domesticated in the warm and humid plains at the southern foot of Himalayas. Dr Xie Fangming, a senior scientist researching hybrid rice at the International Rice Research Institute at Los Banos, in the Philippines, said, “Previous studies have accumulated solid evidence of rice's Himalayan origin. [Source: Stephen Chen, South China Morning Post, May 4, 2011 ^=^]

Zhao Zhijun wrote: “Rice remains from the Shangshan site, dated to ca. 10,000 cal. B.P., suggest the beginning of rice cultivation regardless of whether that rice was domesticated or not...The ongoing excavation, with floatation and water-sieving, at the Tianluoshan site, dated to 6,000 to 7,000 cal. B.P., suggests that rice farming, though important, was only part of a broader subsistence pattern of the Hemudu Culture, and rice domestication culminated after 6,500 B.P and the beginning of rice domestication remain unclear."

Shin-ichi Nakamura wrote: “Although older rice remains have been found in this area, it is safe to say that rice cultivation began during Kuahuqiao and Hemudu cultures. At the beginning, it was only a part of broad-spectrum production highly dependent on lacustrine resources, and it took another millennium to establish the ancient civilization (Liangzhu culture) based on rice cultivation. About the former half of the sixth millennium B.C. (Kuahuqiao culture) settlement area expanded to alluvial lowlands in the lower Yangtze region, and during the fifth millennium B.C. (Hemudu culture), adaptation to the wetland settings established. “

Great advancements in understanding rice both in genetics and archaeology have taken place in recent decades, with the publication of full draft genomes for indica and japonica rice and the spread of systematic flotation and increased recovery of archaeological spikelet bases and other rice remains at early sites in China, India and Southeast Asia.


Debate over Dating the World's ‘Oldest’ Rice Found

There has been some debate over the dating the world's oldest rice, with a lot revolving around whether one is talking about gathering ” wild rice” or the cultivation of domesticated rice. Often it is hard to tell the difference with rice remains that are thousands of years old. There is also a lot of controversy over the evidence used to back up claims of the world's oldest race. Ancient rice is genetically different from the modern food crop, which will allow researchers to trace its evolution.

In 2009, Current World Archaeology reported: “The precise date for the transition from wild to domesticated rice in China has been the subject of numerous studies in the last three years, with archaeologists in China favoring a date as early as 7000 B.C., while Dorian Fuller and colleagues from the Institute of Archaeology, University of London, have proposed a later date of around 4000 B.C., preceded by a long phase of pre'domestication foraging for wild rice, which, along with nuts, acorns and water-chestnuts, formed the staples of the Chinese pre-Neolithic diet. [Source: Current World Archaeology, June/July issue 2009 <|>]

“Both sides have now come together to investigate the rich and well-stratified body of plant remains from Tianluoshan, in Zhejing province, part of the local Hemudu Neolithic culture that goes back 7,000 years. Crucial to the joint project was the ability to distinguish wild grains from domesticated ones. Grain size is helpful but ambiguous, as this can vary even among wild croups depending on the environment and climate in which they are grown. Amore important trait for identifying rice domestication is that wild rice species disperse seeds freely at maturity, while cultivated rice grains do not. <|>

The “non-seed shattering” characteristic of cultivated rice makes it easier to harvest, but it means it has to be threshed," explains Professor Qin Ling, of Beijing University, a member of the research team. On this basis, researchers studying the plant remains separated the rice spikelets from Tianluoshan into three categories-wild, domestic, and immature-and measured the changing ratio of each over time. The results, published in Science magazine, pinpoint a 300-year period, from 6,900 to 6,600 years ago, when the process of rice domestication can be observed in action. <|>

“Over that time, rice rose steadily (from eight to 24 per cent) as a percentage of all the plant remains from the site, indicating that rice formed an increasingly important component of the diet. The proportion of non-shattering domesticated rice increased over the same period, from 27 to 39 per cent. Meanwhile wild types declined: at 4900 B.C. wild rice outnumbers domesticated, but by 4600 B.C. domesticated outnumbers wild. ‘ What we are seeing," says Dorian Fuller," is a point somewhere in the middle but towards the end of the domestication process, and a turning point when domesticated, non-shattering forms rise to dominance."<|>

“Also found in the assemblage in increasing amounts were the remains of annual grasses, sedges and other arable weeds typical of cultivated rice fields. As studies of cereal domestication in other parts of the world have shone, it is likely that rice domestication took place over a protracted period, alongside the continued harvesting of wild rice. ‘Domestication probably took place over at least a 2,000-year period’ says Dr Fuller," but we don't have a good handle on how much more, and just as obscure at present is the start of pre'domestication cultivation."” <|>

10,000 Year Old Rice Remains from Found in Shangshan, China

The remains of cultivated rice dated to 10,000 years ago were discovered at the Shangshan site — in Qunan Village, Huangzhai township, Pujiang County near Jinhua city in Zhejiang Province, 330 kilometers southwest of Shanghai. This one of the oldest examples of agriculture. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, <^>]

According to an article published in Nature Scientific Reports in June, 2016: “Rice husks contained in pottery matrices from the Shangshan site (ca. 10,000 BP) stimulated a heated debate on the origin of domesticated rice. The debate was triggered by a preliminary observation of grain length/width ratios hinting that the rice embedded in the Shangshan site pottery was an early domesticated type. Preserved organic matter, charred or otherwise preserved, has until now been rare at Shangshan culture sites, mainly appearing as inclusions in pottery matrices with few spikelet bases being evident. [Source: “Rice Domestication Revealed by Reduced Shattering of Archaeological rice from the Lower Yangtze valley” by Yunfei Zheng, Gary W. Crawford, Leping Jiang & Xugao Chen, Nature Scientific Reports, June 21, 2016 \*/]

“Plant remains dating to between 9000 and 8400?BP from a probable ditch structure at the Huxi site include the oldest rice (Oryza sativa) spikelet bases and associated plant remains recovered in China. The remains document an early stage of rice domestication and the ecological setting in which early cultivation was taking place. The rice spikelet bases from Huxi include wild (shattering), intermediate, and domesticated (non-shattering) forms. The relative frequency of intermediate and non-shattering spikelet bases indicates that selection for, at the very least, non-shattering rice was underway at Huxi. The rice also has characteristics of japonica rice (Oryza sativa subsp. japonica), helping to clarify the emergence of a significant lineage of the crop. Seeds, phytoliths and their context provide evidence of increasing anthropogenesis and cultivation during the occupation. Rice spikelet bases from Kuahuqiao (8000–7700?BP), Tianluoshan (7000–6500?BP), Majiabang (6300–6000?BP), and Liangzhu (5300–4300?BP) sites indicate that rice underwent continuing selection for reduced shattering and japonica rice characteristics, confirming a prolonged domestication process for rice." \*/

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in the Heritage of Japan website: “From 2001 to 2004, the Cultural Relics Archaeological Research Institute of Zhejiang and the Pujiang County Museum carried out two archaeological excavations that covered an area of more than 700 square meters on the Shangshan site. The excavations unearthed a series of coal ceramic samples which were mostly red coal pottery that were in small quantity, of loose quality, like low-fire types and in simple shapes and forms. A small amount of polished stone adzes and stone axes were also discovered, of which the stone mill and grinding stick had many unique features, reflecting the economic mode of life that is closely associated with the earliest culture of grain cultivation. <^>

“The Wenbo Academy of Beijing University carried out tests on the samples. They discovered several traces of cultivated rice on the surface of the coal pottery as well as in the earth around the pottery. The observations of the structures of these cultivated rice husks in the pottery pieces showed that the grains were shorter but wider than wild grains, and were cultivated rice that had been selected by human beings from the early civilization." <^>

Genetic Engineering By Rice Farmers 10,000 Years Ago

rice grains from the Tainluoshan site

A study published in 2011 found that prehistoric farmers appear to have harnessed that same gene when they first domesticated rice as early as 10,000 years ago. Michael Balter wrote in Science: “The history of rice farming is very complex, but the basic facts are well established. All of today’s domesticated rice belongs to the species Oryza sativa, which descends from the wild ancestor Oryza rufipogon. O. sativa has two major subspecies, japonica (short-grain rice grown mostly in Japan) and indica (long-grain rice grown mostly in India, Southeast Asia, and southern China). [Source: Michael Balter, June 7, 2011 ^||^]

“During the 1960s, plant breeders working in Asia greatly increased rice yields by selecting for mutations in a gene called semi-dwarf1 (SD1), which shrinks the length of the plant’s stem. Dwarf plants require less energy and nutrients, raising the number of rice grains that can be harvested, and they are also less vulnerable to being knocked over by storms, which can decimate rice fields. ^||^

“To see what role SD1 might have played during the early domestication of rice, a team led by plant geneticist Makoto Matsuoka of Nagoya University in Japan examined the evolutionary history of mutations in this gene that could be associated with shorter stem length. The enzyme produced by SD1 is known to control a biochemical pathway that promotes growth in the stems and leaves of the rice plant, so the team measured the effects of different SD1 mutations by introducing genes with those mutations into bacteria and seeing how much enzyme was produced. ^||^

“Matsuoka and his colleagues identified an ancient mutation called SD1-EQ that was closely associated with shorter stem length. And while this mutation was found in japonica and to a lesser extent in indica varieties, it did not appear in the wild ancestor O. rufipogon. This suggested that SD1-EQ might have been selected for during the domestication of rice. ^||^

“For further evidence, the team looked at the variability of genes that lie adjacent to SD1 in the genome, in 16 varieties of japonica, 15 varieties of indica, and 16 varieties of O. rufipogon. Usually, when genes have been favored by selection, neighboring genes show much less variation among different individuals. The team found that genetic diversity around the SD1 gene in japonica was only 2% of that in O. rufipogon—suggesting that a variant of SD1 in fact had been selected in ancient times. The SD1 region in indica, however, still had 75% of the diversity of the wild ancestor. ^||^

“In its report online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Matsuoka and his colleagues conclude that the stem-shortening mutation SD1-EQ arose during prehistoric times in japonica, when the plant was first being domesticated. They suggest that japonica and indica each evolved from O. rufipogon long before rice domestication began and then were independently domesticated in different regions. Later, the SD1-EQ mutation found its way into indica plants, perhaps through crossbreeding of the two subspecies. ^||^

“The findings fit well with the archaeological record of early rice production, particularly in northern China, says archaeobotanist Dorian Fuller of University College London. Wild rice, Fuller points out, is a plant that prefers large bodies of standing water. “It produces extremely tall, long [stems] in order to grow in deeper water.” But the earliest rice farmers cultivated the plants at the margins of wetlands, where the water was not as deep. In doing so, they might have unconsciously selected for shorter plants, Fuller says. ^||^

“Early farmers might have also consciously cultivated shorter plants, given their greater yield and ability to survive storms, adds Susan McCouch, a plant geneticist at Cornell University. This deliberate selection of dwarf plants, McCouch says, in effect led to genetic selection for the SD1-EQ gene by farmers who had no knowledge of modern genetics.” ^||^

8,000-Year-Old Rice Paddy, Maybe World's Oldest, Found Near Nanjing

In May 2016. Chinese archaeologists said they have found a paddy dating back more than 8,000 years — which could be the earliest wet rice farming site in the world, about 350 kilometers northwest of Shanghai. Xinhua reported: “The field, covering less than 100 square meters, was discovered at the neolithic ruins of Hanjing in Sihong county in East China's Jiangsu province in November 2015, according to a spokesman with the archeology institute of Nanjing Museum. [Source: Xinhua, May 6, 2016 /~/]

“At a seminar held in late April to discuss findings at the Hanjing ruins, more than 70 scholars from universities, archeology institutes and museums across the country concluded that the wet rice field was the oldest ever discovered. Researchers with the institute found that the paddy was divided into parts with different shapes, each covering less than 10 square meters. They also found carbonized rice that was confirmed to have grown more than 8,000 years ago based on carbon dating, as well as evidence that the soil was repeatedly planted with rice. /~/

“Lin Liugen, head of the institute, said Chinese people started to cultivate rice about 10,000 years ago and carbonized rice of the age has been found, but paddy remnants are quite rare. Lin said the findings would be significant for research on the origin of rice farming in China." /~/

Earliest Rice Fields Found at 7,700-Year-Old Swamp Site in Zhejiang

In 2007, James Owen wrote in National Geographic News, “Stone Age paddy fields tended by the world's earliest known rice farmers have been uncovered in a swamp in China, scientists say. The discovery shows rice growing began in the coastal wetlands of eastern China some 7,700 years ago, according to a new study. Evidence of prehistoric rice cultivation, including flood and fire control, was found by a team led by Cheng Zong of Britain's Durham University. [Source: James Owen, National Geographic News, September 26, 2007 <+>]

“The team's research, which sheds new light on humans’ critical transition from hunter-gathers to farmers, centers on the site of Kuahuqiao in Zhejiang province near present-day Hangzhou," about 175 kilometers southwest of Shanghai in the Lower Yangtze region. “The research follows previous excavations at the site that revealed a Stone Age community of wooden dwellings perched on stilts over the marshy wetlands. An 8,000-year-old dugout canoe, pottery made with wild rice as a bonding material, wood and bamboo tools, and the bones of dogs and pigs were also found." The team's findings are published in a late September issue of the journal Nature. <+>

“Zong's team analyzed the sediments of the ancient swamp for signs of rice paddies. The researchers found the land was deliberately managed for rice growing. Fire was used to clear scrub, while flood-prevention measures helped keep brackish water from getting into the fields, the study suggests. “The site provided us well-dated evidence for the earliest rice cultivation," Zong said. <+>

“Kuahuqiao supported rice farming until around 7,550 years ago, when rising sea levels suddenly deluged the area, Zong said. “Rice doesn't like saltwater," he said, noting that sea levels were rising at the time due to climate warming. “We think [saltwater levels] must have been managed. Otherwise you would see a gradual rise in the brackish water influence," he said. The water may have been held back by small earth dikes known as bunds, Zong said. The team also detected increased levels of animal and human dung on the rice fields. “Whether the dung was deliberately used as fertilizer, or whether it was just washed naturally into the paddy fields, it's very difficult to be certain," Zong said. Rice fragments found in the swamp belonged to wild strains, the team found. The discovery of unusually large rice pollen grains, however, may signal the beginnings of domesticated varieties, Zong said. <+>

Dorian Fuller of University College London, an expert on ancient rice, told National Geographic News, the inhabitants of Kuahuqiao would have been “forager-cultivators." “Rice cultivation isn't the only thing they do, and it's possibly not the main thing they do," he added. “People who were using a wide range of other resources, including acorns and water chestnuts, started to manipulate marshland environments where rice was wild." The study “provides the earliest known evidence of rice paddies, Fuller said, though other, less solid evidence points to rice farming elsewhere in China around the same period. <+>

Gary Crawford, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, said that the study is “an important contribution to understanding agricultural origins in the rice regions of East Asia."The study, he said, provides “a fascinating interpretation that rice cultivation was taking place in slightly brackish coastal wetlands that were regularly flooded." The study team says the move toward rice farming by the Kuahuqiao people was likely spurred by the onset of warmer, wetter conditions ideally suited to growing the cereal plant. The changing climate acted as a “critical environmental prompt to cultural change, permitting rice cultivation at this latitude," the team said. <+>

World's ‘Oldest’ Rice: 15,000-Year-Old Grains Found in Korea?

rice from the Hemudi site

In 2003, team form South Korea's Chungbuk National University announced that it had found burnt rice grains in the Paleolithic site of Sorori, South Korea, dated to around 15,000 B.C., claiming it was evidence of the world's oldest rice. The discovery challenges the accepted belief that rice was first cultivated in China.However, the evidence remains controversial in the academic community.

AFP reported: “South Korean archaeologists said they had found the world's oldest known domesticated rice, pushing back by thousands of years the recorded origins of Asia's staple food. Radioactive dating of the 59 burnt grains of rice found in central South Korea has pushed back the date for the earliest known cultivation of the plant to somewhere between 14,000 and 15,000 years ago, they said. “This discovery challenges the accepted view about where rice originated and how it evolved," said Professor Lee Yung-Jo of Chungbuk National University in Cheongju. [Source: AFP, October 22, 2003 \=\] \=\

Dr David Whitehouse of the BBC wrote: Lee and Woo Jong-yoon of Chungbuk National University in South Korea found the ancient grains during excavations in the village of Sorori in the Chungbuk Province... DNA analysis shows the early rice sample to be different from the modern intensively farmed varieties, thereby offering scientists the opportunity to study the evolution of one of the world's principal food sources. The region in central Korea where the grains were found is one of the most important sites for understanding the development of Stone Age man in Asia. [Source: Dr David Whitehouse, BBC, October 21, 2003]

Carbonized rice grains, which were found near the Yellow River and Yangtze River in China and were considered to be the world's oldest rice, were dated between 10,500 and 11,000 years ago. Lee told AFP: “It suggests that rice may have also evolved in areas which are far north from there." Sorori is located between 36 and 37 degrees of latitude north. According to Lee, the excavations were made between 1997 and 1998 and again in 2001. \=\

Some researchers refuted the claim about the about the 15,000-year-old rice found in Korea In “The emergence of rice agriculture in Korea: archaeobotanical perspectives” an article published in “Special Issue: The Archaeobotany of Asian Rice.", Sung-Mo Ahn, wrote: “Argument for the earliest evidence of domesticated rice at the Sorori site, 15,000 years ago, is invalid. The evidence for rice cultivation in the Neolithic (Chulmun) is still insufficient although rice remains have been reported from a few late Neolithic sites in central-western Korea which dated to about 3000 B.C.. The existence of rice agriculture in the Bronze Age (Early and Middle Mumun: c.1300?~?300 B.C.), on the other hand, is demonstrated by the high percentage and/or frequency of rice remains among crops recovered from various sites, as well as through the numerous findings of paddy fields.

“Rice appears to have been introduced from the Liaodong region, China, while so called ‘southern diffusion route’ that the beginning of rice cultivation was first stimulated by influences from Southeast Asia or South China is no more valid. Charred rice remains recovered from the Bronze Age dwellings consist of dehusked clean grains and weedy seeds are very rare among samples containing rice grains, which could be related with the harvesting and processing methods of rice."

First Corn

Most scientists believe that corn (maize) originated from teosinte a weedy wild grass still found in remote areas of Mexico that has inch-long "ears" and look more like wheat than corn. Some scientists believe it comes from criollo, a plant native to a remote region of Sierre Norte de Oaxaca in Mexico, or cornlike plant that has since become extinct. Primitive corncobs from these plants found in a Oaxaca cave were dated to 6,300 B.C. In 2001, based of DNA studies, scientists concluded that corn did in fact evolve from teosinte. It is believed that ancient people in southern Mexico and Central America began harvesting grains from wild teosinte about 10,000 years ago. Through selective breeding these plants developed large stalks and seeds and eventually these became the cobs we associate with corn today.

Jessica Boddy wrote in Science: ““The first glimpses of maize domestication came in the 1960s, when esteemed U.S. archaeologist Richard MacNeish excavated at caves in Mexico’s Tehuacán Valley, a center of early Mesoamerican agriculture. In the dry, dark environment there, he found tiny, well-preserved maize cobs dated to roughly 5300 years ago and harboring only 50 kernels each, compared with the 1000 on modern cobs.” [Source: Jessica Boddy, Science, November 21, 2016]

Most historians believe corn was domesticated in the Tehuacán Valley of Mexico or the the adjacent Balsas River Valley of south-central Mexico An influential 2002 study by Matsuoka et al. demonstrated that, rather than the multiple independent domestications model, all maize arose from a single domestication in southern Mexico about 9,000 years ago. The study also demonstrated that the oldest surviving maize types are those of the Mexican highlands. Later, maize spread from this region over the Americas along two major paths. This is consistent with a model based on the archaeological record suggesting that maize diversified in the highlands of Mexico before spreading to the lowlands. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Archaeologist Dolores Piperno said: “A large corpus of data indicates that it [maize] was dispersed into lower Central America by 7600 BP [5600 BC] and had moved into the inter-Andean valleys of Colombia between 7000 and 6000 BP [5000–4000 BC]. [Source: Dolores Piperno, “The Origins of Plant Cultivation and Domestication in the New World Tropics: Patterns, Process, and New Developments”]

Since then, even earlier dates have been published.According to a genetic study by Embrapa, corn cultivation was introduced in South America from Mexico, in two great waves: the first, more than 6000 years ago, spread through the Andes. Evidence of cultivation in Peru has been found dating to about 6700 years ago.The second wave, about 2000 years ago, through the lowlands of South America. +

Before domestication, maize plants grew only small, 25 millimetres (1 in) long corn cobs, and only one per plant. In Spielvogel's view, many centuries of artificial selection (rather than the current view that maize was exploited by interplanting with teosinte) by the indigenous people of the Americas resulted in the development of maize plants capable of growing several cobs per plant, which were usually several centimetres/inches long each. The Olmec and Maya cultivated maize in numerous varieties throughout Mesoamerica; they cooked, ground and processed it through nixtamalization. It was believed that beginning about 2500 BC, the crop spread through much of the Americas.

5000-Year-Old Cobs Show Corn Domestication

evolution of tesointe to corn

Jessica Boddy wrote in Science: “It wasn’t easy to make a meal of teosinte, a grass that was the ancient precursor to maize. Each cob was shorter than your little finger and harbored only about 12 kernels encased in rock-hard sheaths. But in a dramatic example of the power of domestication, beginning some 9000 years ago people in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest transformed teosinte into the many-kerneled maize that today feeds hundreds of millions around the world. Researchers had already identified a handful of genes involved in this transformation. Now, studies of ancient DNA by two independent research groups show what was happening to the plant’s genes mid-domestication, about 5000 years ago. The snapshot reveals exactly how the genetics changed over time as generations of people selected plants with their preferred traits. “These results sharpen the focus of what we know at this early period,” says Michael Blake, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, who was not involved in the work. “They have implications for understanding later developments in maize domestication and help us to see what people were selecting for at the time.” [Source: Jessica Boddy, Science, November 21, 2016 \++/]

“After the advent of modern sequencing tools, geneticist Jean Philippe Vielle-Calzada at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Irapuato, Mexico, and his colleagues wanted to find out which genes the ancient domesticators had unwittingly been selecting. But he worried that MacNeish’s specimens, now in museums, might have been damaged by handling or improper storage. So he and his team decided to go back to the caves in Tehuacán Valley. Macneish had died, but one of his former students, Angel Garcia Cook, served as guide. “He had all the maps, he knew where to dig,” Vielle-Calzada says. “He went back with us at 73 years old. When he went the first time he was 21.” \++/

“The team discovered several new specimens, dated to about 5000 years ago, from San Marcos cave. They applied shotgun sequencing to three cobs, extracting DNA and breaking it up into short fragments for sequencing. Computer software then reassembled these DNA snippets, eventually reconstructing more than 35% of the ancient maize genome. \++/

“Vielle-Calzada’s team identified eight genes influencing key traits, as they wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. The cobs carried the modern variants of tb1, which simplified the plant’s branching for easier harvest, and bt2, which helped boost the starch content and sweetness of the kernels. But the cobs had the teosinte variant of tga1, which encloses the kernels in those hard sheaths—a sign that domestication was only partial. \++/

“Meanwhile, archaeologist Nathan Wales of the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues discovered MacNeish’s original samples, stored for 60 years in a museum in Andover, Massachusetts. He and his colleagues shotgun sequenced the genome of a 5300-year-old cob called Tehuacan162. Wales’s team was able to sequence 21% of this cob’s genome. Their results confirmed and complemented those of Vielle-Calzada’s team. The museum cob also had modern variants of td1 and bt2, as reported in Current Biology last week. But Tehuacan162 also had a more modern variant of the gene tga1, which partly released kernels from their rigid shells, making them easier to eat. Wales’s team also found a teosinte gene not seen by the Mexican team: zagl1, which makes kernels fall from the cob very easily. That’s useful for wild plants spreading their seeds, but frustrating for humans trying to harvest them. These differences may reflect the fact that Tehuacan162 came from a different population of maize, and show that domestication was still in progress in the valley, the researchers say. \++/

“Vielle-Calzada was shocked at the teams’ similar results. “I’m really amazed to see how convergent the results are,” he says. “This is unusual in paleogenomics where it’s difficult to get good data from old DNA. This is encouraging.” Robert Hard, an archaeologist at the University of Texas in San Antonio, agrees: “It’s remarkable how these studies support each other,” he says. That’s a good sign that future sequencing can fill in more details, he says. “It’s really important that we recognize the significance of transformations in maize,” Blake says, adding that knowledge of how certain traits helped maize adapt to drought and disease in the past could help save it from disasters in the future.” \++/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Middle East spread map University of Chicago

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 ; 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

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