Archaeologists in Israel have uncovered evidence of early cereal cultivation at a 23,000-year-old site in Galilee, effectively doubling the timespan humans are believed to have practiced farming.

Above: Wild-type (left) and domestic-type (right) scars in rachises of wild barley (Hordeum spontaneum) from Ohalo II.

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Prior to the new study, the available evidence pointed to the onset of agriculture around 12,000 years ago, in the Levant region of what is now the Middle East. But the discovery of so-called “proto-weeds” by an international team of archaeologists from Haifa University, Bar-Ilan University, Hebrew University, and Harvard, pushes back the origin of cultivation by an astounding 11,000 years. The details of the research can now be found at the open access science journal PLOS One.

An article from Haaretz summarizes the findings:

The conclusion...relies on three things found on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, when it was at a particularly low point. One is a higher than expected presence of domestic-type wheat and barley, rather than the wild sort. Two is a higher than expected presence of “proto-weeds” that annoy farmers by growing beautifully together with crop plants. The third is the discovery of sickles and other stone tools for cutting and harvesting cereal plants.

The sickles (pictured below) were equipped with wood and bone handles, and are among the oldest ever found.

The organic remnants and tools date back to the community at the Ohalo II site, the name given to a submerged, late Upper Paleolithic site located on the southwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. The area was occupied during the Last Glacial Maximum, around 18,000—21,000 years ago.

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The researchers uncovered 140 plant species and evidence of food preparation involving the grinding of wheat and barley.

“Among these, we identified 13 well-known current weeds mixed with numerous seeds of wild emmer, barley, and oat,” write the authors in the study. “This collection provides the earliest evidence of a human-disturbed environment—at least 11 millennia before the onset of agriculture—that provided the conditions for the development of ‘proto-weeds’, a prerequisite for weed evolution.” The authors add that “their presence indicates the earliest, small-scale attempt to cultivate wild cereals seen in the archaeological record.”

Early experiments in farming should not be conflated with the paradigmatic, civilizational transition to agrarianism; those are two distinct, but related, developments. Consequently, the researchers are not claiming that agrarian life started in Ohalo and then continued into the Neolithic era.

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You can’t say that,” noted Ehud Weiss of the Department of Land and Israel Studies in a Guardian article. “What you can say is that this was perhaps a trial cultivation from which we can understand how humans were always sophisticated, trying to push borders and make life better.”

Read more at Haaretz and The Guardian. And check out the entire study at PLOS One: “The Origin of Cultivation and Proto-Weeds, Long Before Neolithic Farming”.


Contact the author at george@io9.com and @dvorsky. Top image by A. Snir et al., 2015/PLOS