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Ancient Figs Push Back Origin of Plant Cultivation

Science  02 Jun 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5778, pp. 1292a
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5778.1292a

Scientists seeking to date the origins of agriculture have been following the trail of wheat, barley, and other grains at archaeological sites in the Near East for decades. They recently concluded that cultivation of annual cereal crops started about 10,500 years ago (Science, 31 March, p. 1886). But a new study suggests that fruit rather than grains may yield the earliest evidence of purposeful planting.

On page 1372, a team of Israeli researchers reports the discovery of domesticated figs stored in an ancient house in the Lower Jordan Valley. They painstakingly show that the carbonized figs were a cultivated variety that differed from wild figs. Based on radiocarbon dating of the village, this cultivation occurred about 11,400 years ago, Mordechai E. Kislev, an archaeobotanist at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel, and his colleagues conclude. That pushes back the age of the first known cultivated plant by about 1000 years and also indicates that humans must have been experimenting with agriculture on a small scale hundreds of years before that. “This is the oldest evidence for deliberate planting of a food-producing plant, as opposed to just gathering food in the wild,” says archaeologist Peter Bellwood of the Australian National University in Canberra.

Fruitful find.

Mordechai Kislev studies figs for clues about the origins of agriculture. This ancient fig (inset), wrapped in gold for imaging, was cultivated 11,400 years ago.

CREDITS: ANAT HARTMANN; (INSET) JONATHAN REIF

This evidence sat ignored for several decades. Nine dried figs and hundreds of fig drupelets—the pulpy sections of a fruit—were collected in the 1970s and 1980s during an excavation of a pristine house in the Neolithic village of Gilgal in the Lower Jordan Valley, about 12 kilometers north of Jericho. After the Israeli archaeologist who led the excavation died, the figs were forgotten until the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, invited Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef and others to study the finds from the excavation. The figs were sent to Kislev, who eventually analyzed them with a graduate student, Anat Hartmann. They realized that the figs were a sterile but soft and edible variety that required human selection and planting to grow.

Kislev says humans must have been cultivating figs for hundreds of years, because it would have taken centuries for the wild fruit to have evolved the genetic and morphological changes that resulted in the variety of figs found at Gilgal. This gradual domestication of figs is similar to the speed with which wild cereals were domesticated; cereals crops, first cultivated in southern Turkey and northern Syria 11,500 years ago, are thought to have taken about 1000 years to domesticate from wild grains in the area. Kislev is now asking archaeologists to search for figs in even older excavations to pinpoint when the cultivation of the fruit began.

The purposeful planting of figs shows that settlers in the Jordan Valley were auditioning a variety of foods to see what they could grow, says archaeologist Bruce Smith of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The development of early agriculture, he notes, was a slow process that took place on a small scale in different areas, through trial and error with different plants. It would take another 2000 years before humans were such adept farmers that half of their calories came from crops. The discovery of dried cultivated figs, however, makes it clear that 11,000 years ago, more than meat, cereals, and wild nuts and berries were on the menu. “Humans cannot live on steak alone,” says Bar-Yosef. “They wanted condiments and all kinds of things that tasted good.”

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