Ancient weeds hint that farming may have its roots in Israel

A site at the Sea of Galilee shows evidence of plant cultivation and even bread making as much as 23,000 years ago

A display at Haifa University's Hecht Musuem shows what the Ohalo II site may have looked like (Dani Nadel/Haifa University)
A display at Haifa University's Hecht Musuem shows what the Ohalo II site may have looked like (Dani Nadel/Haifa University)

Farming as we know it may have been invented in northern Israel, an international team said.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University, Harvard University, Bar-Ilan University, and the University of Haifa have concluded that plant cultivation may have started in the Galilee some 23,000 years ago, 11,000 years earlier than previously supposed.

Previously, researchers had believed that farming originated far later, some 12,000 years ago, in the cradle of civilization – Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Syria) and in parts of Turkey and Iran.

The findings, published in the latest edition of the journal PLOS One, analyzes findings at Ohalo II, a 23,000-year-old campsite belonging to a community of hunter-gatherers who lived on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The site is located 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) south of the modern city of Tiberias, and was discovered in 1989 when the level of the lake plummeted due to a drought that plagued Israel during the late 1980s.

First excavated and dated by a team from Haifa University, the site consisted of six brush hut dwellings, a human grave, well-preserved remains of both animal and plant foods, beads from the Mediterranean Sea, and evidence of flint tool manufacture and use.

Prof. Dani Nadel of the University of Haifa’s Zinman Institute of Archaeology excavated the site for six years, concluding that it represents the earliest example of small-scale cultivation found anywhere in the world. He is a co-author of the current study as well.

“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,” said lead researcher Prof. Ehud Weiss of Bar-Ilan University’s Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology.

As a result, he said, “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.”

One important clue that led to the team’s conclusions, said Prof. Marcelo Sternberg of the Department of Molecular Biology and Ecology of Plants at TAU’s Faculty of Life Sciences, was the presence of weeds at the Ohalo II site. The findings at the site included some 150,000 plant remains, representing over 140 different plant species. Among these, the team identified edible cereals such as wild emmer, wild barley, and wild oats. These cereals were mixed with 13 species of “proto-weeds” – ancient ancestors of the current weeds known to flourish in cultivated, single-crop fields – indicating that they grew and were subsequently unintentionally gathered together.

According to the study, the weeds were a key finding because “since they thrive in cultivated fields and disturbed soils, a significant presence of weeds in archaeo-botanical assemblages retrieved from Neolithic sites and settlements of later age is widely considered an indicator of systematic cultivation.”

Some of the artifacts at the Ohalo II site (Dani Nadel/Haifa University)
Some of the artifacts at the Ohalo II site (Dani Nadel/Haifa University)

A grinding slab set firmly on a brush hut floor and a stone tool from which microscopic cereal starch granules were extracted, as well as a unique distribution pattern of seeds around this tool, provided additional evidence that cereal grains were brought into the hut and processed into flour. This flour was probably used to make dough, perhaps by baking it on an installation of flat stones, found just outside one of the shelters, the study said.

In addition, said Nadel, “we found several sickle blades at Ohalo II, and the study under the microscope of the gloss along their cutting edge indicates that they were used for harvesting cereals just before their complete ripening. Analysis showed the presence of silicon, transferred from the wheat and barley plants at the time of cutting. This is another indication that the presence of a high percentage of domestic-type cereals was not random, but rather is a sign of the long-term cultivation practices of the site’s residents.”

So does that mean that farming was invented in Israel? Perhaps not “farming,” said Weiss, but the skills needed to work the land.

Even prior to full-scale cultivation, humans clearly had some basic knowledge of agriculture and even more importantly, exhibited foresight and planning,” he said. “Although full-scale agriculture did not develop until much later, the attempt had already begun.”

“While full-scale agriculture did not develop until much later, our study shows that trial cultivation began far earlier than previously believed, and gives us reason to rethink our ancestors’ capabilities,” said Sternberg. “Those early ancestors were more clever and more skilled than we knew.”

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