Galilee’s 10,000-year-old beans are a taste of Stone Age innovation
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Galilee’s 10,000-year-old beans are a taste of Stone Age innovation

Oldest known fava beans, found at archaeological sites in northern Israel, suggest deliberate cultivation of protein-rich crops in Neolithic era

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Excavations at Ahihud, in the Lower Galilee, where the oldest domesticated fava beans were found. (Yaron Bibas, Israel Antiquities Authority)
Excavations at Ahihud, in the Lower Galilee, where the oldest domesticated fava beans were found. (Yaron Bibas, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Next time you dip into some hummus with fava beans in the Galilee, be sure to thank its Neolithic inhabitants.

Researchers at the Weizmann Institute and the Israel Antiquities Authority recently discovered the oldest known domesticated fava beans — about 10,200 years old — in the Galilee, pointing to a Neolithic diet rich in protein-rich legumes.

The study, published in Nature in October, examined the remains of hundreds of fava beans found at Ahihud, Nahal Zippori and Yiftah’el, three Neolithic sites in the Lower Galilee. It determined that domestication of the fava bean, today a major food source worldwide, must have taken place as early as the 11th millennium BCE.

Fava beans remain a major element in cuisines worldwide, the Middle East no exception. Study authors Valentina Caracuta, Omry Barzilai, Hamudi Khalaily, Ianir Milevski, Yitzhak Paz, Jacob Vardi, Lior Regev, and Elisabetta Boaretto point out that the humble fava bean is “the third most important feed grain legume after soybean and pea.”

Stewed fava beans, known locally by the Arabic term ful, is a popular topping for hummus, the chickpea puree both Israelis and Palestinians are crazy about.

Hummus served with a side of hardboiled egg, fava beans and spicy s'hug (photo credit: Beth Steinberg)
Hummus served with a side of hardboiled egg, fava beans and spicy s’hug (photo credit: Beth Steinberg)

Moreover, the presence of a large quantity of seeds at the ancient sites points to agricultural planning and social cohesion. Storage of seeds selected for their thinner coats, allowing them to germinate quickly, reinforces the idea they were “used to ensure reliable harvesting, resulting in the build-up of characteristic domestication traits,” the writers said.

The uniformity in the size of the 469 seeds studied points to sophisticated organization and deliberation, by which the early farmers harvested the seeds once they matured. Smaller seeds were selected for their ability to cope with drier conditions, and cultivation of legumes into the 10th millennium before present was possible “due to the ability of the local farmers to select seeds able to germinate under dryer conditions,” the authors said.

The Ahihud site where the remains of hundreds of fava beans were found (Skyvie / Israel Antiquities Authority)
The Ahihud site where the remains of hundreds of fava beans were found (Skyvie / Israel Antiquities Authority)

In short, Neolithic Galileans were practicing the long process of plant domestication.

Domestication of grains began in the Fertile Crescent, of which modern Israel constitutes the western flank, around 12,000 years ago, long before the emergence of cultivated legumes such as fava beans. Discovery of great quantities of peas, fava beans, chickpeas and lentils at these Neolithic sites point to their prominence in the diet of early sedentary peoples in the Lower Galilee, and their importance in reducing the risk of famine.

“Identifying the first places where the domestication of species of plants, which today constitute an indivisible part of our diet, is of great importance for research,” the IAA quoted the researchers saying in a Hebrew statement. “Despite the dietary importance of grains to this day, apparently in the area we investigated — west of the Jordan River — they actually first domesticated legumes, which are right in flavor and protein.”

“Today it’s clear that the area of the modern Galilee was the principle producer of legumes in the prehistoric era,” they said.

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