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25 June 2004
The seeds of farming

Stone Age people in Israel collected the seeds of wild grasses some 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a paper presented at the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A US-Israeli team has gathered evidence from a collection of 90,000 prehistoric plant remains from Ohalo, in the north of the country. The grasses include wild emmer wheat and barley, forerunners of modern varieties, raising the possibility that the first steps towards arable farming were taken 23,000 years ago.
     The Ohalo site was submerged in ancient times, creating a low-oxygen environment that preserved the charred Stone Age deposits. Recent excavations by Ehud Weiss of Harvard University and colleagues have revealed huts, camp fires, stone tools and a human burial. Other grasses from the site included huge amounts of small-grained varieties – brome, foxtail and alkali grass – indicating that grasses and cereals were the principal plant foods consumed by the inhabitants. However, the small-grained varieties were to disappear from the human diet some 13,000 years ago.
     Farming is generally considered to have begun when South-West Asian hunter-gatherers were put under pressure by population expansion and a consequent reduction in hunting territory. Hunters were forced to concentrate less on large animals and to broaden their diet by the inclusion of small mammals, birds, fish and small grass seeds; the last now regarded as the first step in the evolution of agriculture.
     The Ohalo excavations show that the diet in the Stone Age was much broader than previously thought. “We can say that such dietary breadth was never seen again in the Levant,” according to the Proceedings paper.

Source: BBC News (23 June 2004)

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