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4 June 2006
Ancient fig clue to first farming

Ancient figs found in an archaeological site in the Jordan Valley may represent one of the earliest forms of agriculture, scientists report. The discovery of ancient carbonised figs suggests that fruit, rather than grains that are traditionally thought to have heralded agriculture, may yield the earliest evidence of purposeful planting. The carbonised fruits date between 11,200 and 11,400 years old. The US and Israeli researchers say the figs are a variety that could have only been grown with human intervention. The team, writing in the journal Science, says the find marks the point when humans turned from hunting and gathering to food cultivation.
     Nine small figs, measuring just 18mm (0.7in) across, along with 313 smaller fig fragments were discovered in a house in an early Neolithic village, called Gilgal I, in the Jordan Valley. The researchers from Harvard University in the US and Bar-Ilan University in Israel believe the figs are an early domestic crop rather than a wild breed. The find is all the more remarkable because the figs sat ignored for decades. They were collected in the 1970s and 1980s but were forgotten after the Israeli archaeologist who led the excavation died. Then the Israel Museum in Jerusalem invited Prof Ofer Bar-Yosef, a Harvard University archaeologist, to study the finds.
     After examining the figs, Prof Bar-Yosef and Prof Mordechai Kislev and Anat Hartmann of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan determined that it was a self-pollinating, or parthenocarpic, variety, like the kind we eat today. In nature, parthenocarpic fig trees appear now and again by a chance genetic mutation; but because they do not produce seeds, they cannot reproduce alone - they require a shoot to be removed and replanted.
     Ofer Bar-Yosef, an archaeologist from Harvard University, said: "Once the parthenocarpic mutation occurred, humans must have recognised that the resulting fruits do not produce new trees, and fig tree cultivation became a common practice. "In this intentional act of planting a specific variant of fig tree, we can see the beginnings of agriculture. This edible fig would not have survived if not for human intervention."
     The carbonised figs were not distorted, suggesting that they may have been dried for human consumption. Similar fig drupelets were found at a second site about a mile west of Gilgal. They have been found together with wild barley, wild oats and acorns. The team says this indicates these early Neolithic people mixed food cultivation with hunting and gathering. "This sort of find helps us to learn about human behaviour at the beginning of the Neolithic revolution," said Professor Bar-Yosef. "Before this, you had about 2.5 million years of hunters and gathers in various locations around the world. "But the Neolithic revolution was all about changing the relationship between humans and nature. Instead of just being consumers of whatever was growing in the wild, we started to plant and cultivate and corral animals, and so on."
   
Sources: BBC News, Telegraph (2 June 2006)

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