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Date palms of kibbutz Gesher, Jordan Valley.

Scientists discover the earliest known evidence of plant cultivation in the Levant

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It was in the Middle East that hunter-gatherers first started to switch to plant cultivation, thereby initiating the first movement towards organised agriculture. This is why the region is popularly known as “the Cradle of Civilization”, because it was from these first agricultural developments that the first farming communities began to appear, laying the foundations for the growth of larger ‘city-states’ such as Egypt and Sumer. A team of archaeologists, botanists and ecologists have now discovered the earliest known evidence of plant cultivation in the Levant – the region consisting of Israel, Syria, Lebanon and other countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The discoveries at the Ohalo II site on the shore of the Sea of Galilee reveal the development of cultivation practices 11,000 years earlier than previously accepted.

The Sea of Galilee. At its southern tip (right side) the Jordan River exits the lake and enters the Jordan Valley.

The Sea of Galilee. At its southern tip (right side) the Jordan River exits the lake and enters the Jordan Valley. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Ohalo II is the location of a 23,000 year old settlement which was once the camp of a community of hunter-gatherers. It is situated 9 kilometres (5.5 miles) south of Tiberias and was discovered in 1989 when the level of the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a lake also known as Lake Tiberias, fell. This enabled Prof. Dani Nadel from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology to excavate the site, a project that lasted for six consecutive seasons and resulted in the discovery of six brush hut dwellings, a human grave, remains of animal and plant foods, beads from the Mediterranean Sea and evidence of the manufacture and use of flint tools.

The scientists currently investigating Ohalo II are employed by Bar-Ilan University, Haifa University and Tel Aviv University in Israel and Harvard University in the US. Prof. Ehud Weiss of Bar-Ilan University’s Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology, who is also the lead researcher on the project, told Past Horizons that three inter-connected discoveries led the team to make their conclusions about the dating.

South end of the Sea of Galilee, near Tiberias. Image: Zachi Evenor

South end of the Sea of Galilee, near Tiberias. Image: Zachi Evenor (CC BY 3.0)

The first of these is the higher-than-usual presence of domestic wheat and barley at the site, as opposed to the wild form of these crops. Secondly, there was a high concentration of proto-weeds, plants that are known to grow in areas where crop cultivation has been or is being practiced. Finally, the team discovered blades used for cutting and harvesting cereal plants.

“The plant remains from the site were unusually well-preserved because of being charred and then covered by sediment and water which sealed them in low-oxygen conditions” Professor Weiss said. “Due to this, it was possible to recover an extensive amount of information on the site and its inhabitants – which made this a uniquely preserved site, and therefore one of the best archaeological examples worldwide of hunter-gatherers’ way of life. Here we see evidence of repeated sowing and harvesting of later domesticated cereals.”

The dwellings at Ohalo II contained around 150,000 plant remains, representing over 140 different plant species gathered by the residents of the settlement from the surrounding environment. These remains included edible cereals – such as wild emmer, wild barley, and wild oats – along with 13 species of “proto-weeds”. This shows that the two types of plant grew together and were therefore unintentionally gathered together.

The evidence from the site also includes a grinding slab set firmly on the floor of a brush hut. A stone tool was also found from which microscopic cereal starch granules were extracted and seeds were distributed around it. All this provides unequivocal evidence that cereal grains were processed into flour inside the hut.

Previous theories regarding the beginnings of plant cultivation by humans in the Middle East have suggested a date of around 12,000 BC, in the Late Holocene Period.

Neolithic grindstone for processing grain

Neolithic grindstone for processing grain ( Wikimedia Commons )

“We’re not trying to say cultivation and an agricultural way of life started in Ohalo and then continued to the Neolithic” added Professor Weiss. “You can’t say that. 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.”

Previous investigations at Ohalo II revealed evidence of occupation by hunter-gatherers belonging to the Kebaran Culture (18,000 to 12,500 BC), named after the Kebara Cave, south of Haifa. These were highly mobile people who used microlithic stone tools and who were the first in the area to gather wild cereals. It is thought they migrated to upland areas during the summer and occupied caves and rock shelters in the winter. The fact that the site was submerged by the Sea of Galilee is thought to be the main factor in the preservation of artefacts at the site. It is usually only accessible in years following severe droughts when the waters of the lake fall. 

The team investigating the site has now published their work in the journal Plos One (Open Access).

Featured image: Date palms of kibbutz Gesher, Jordan Valley. ( Wikimedia Commons )

By Robin Whitlock

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