Agriculture May Have Started 11,000 Years Earlier Than We Thought

The technology that allowed us to build cities and develop specialized vocations may have first started 23,000 years ago in present day Israel—some 11,000 years earlier than expected—but then mysteriously disappeared from later settlements.

Archaeologists found evidence of farming—including sickles, grinding stones, domesticated seeds, and, yes, weeds—in a sedentary camp that was flooded by the Sea of Galilee until the 1980s when drought and water pumping shrank the lake’s footprint. The 150,000 seeds found at the site represent 140 plant species, including wild oat, barley, and emmer wheat along with 13 weed species that are common today. The find not only illustrates humanity’s initial forays into farming, but it also provides the earliest evidence that weeds evolved alongside human ecological disturbances like farms and settlement clearings.

wild barley
Archaeologists found wild barley seeds buried at the site.

Mysteriously, the lessons learned from those early trials either were forgotten or were a failure. The study’s authors point out that neither sickles nor similar seeds have been found at settlements dating to just after the Sea of Galilee site, which is known as Ohalo II.

The settlement was composed of a number of huts covered with tree branches, leaves, and grasses. Archaeologists also found a variety of flint and ground stone tools, several hearths, beads, animal remains, and an adult male gravesite. They suspect Ohalo II was occupied year round based on the remains of various migratory birds, which are known to visit the area during different times of year.

The seeds that made up much of the settlers’ diets are surprisingly familiar. Here’s Ainit Snir and colleagues, writing in their paper published in PLoS One:

Some of the plants are the progenitors of domesticated crop species such as emmer wheat, barley, pea, lentil, almond, fig, grape, and olive. Thus, about 11,000 years before what had been generally accepted as the onset of agriculture, people’s diets relied heavily on the same variety of plants that would eventually become domesticated.

While Snir and coauthors think that Ohalo II’s fields were simply early trials and that plants weren’t fully domesticated until 11,000 years later, they do suspect that future discoveries could flesh out long, trial-and-error development of agriculture.