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Planet Earth

13: Origins of Farming Unearthed

By Zach ZorichJanuary 2, 2005 6:00 AM

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Researchers have long believed the first farms sprang up 11,000 years ago, and civilization soon followed. Before then, humans were scattered nomads, too unstable to develop cities and cultures. It’s now clear, however, that people began gathering and processing plants millennia earlier. In June researchers announced they had discovered remains of wild grains, grinding equipment, and a stone oven at Ohalo II, a 23,000-year-old site on Israel’s Sea of Galilee.

The origins of farming have been hard to pin down because ancient plant remains are rarely preserved in the Middle East, says team member Ehud Weiss, a paleoethnobotanist at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. At Ohalo II, however, the team found traces of 143 kinds of wild plant seeds, including ancestors of wheat and barley.

The Ohalo people didn’t plant crops, and they probably didn’t gather wild plant seeds willingly, Weiss says. The region had undergone a long cooling trend, so game was scarce, and people had to find other food. They probably gathered grains in late summer and early fall, then ground them into flour and baked them. “These two finds are a breakthrough in human diet and technology,” Weiss says. “Grinding and baking would have dramatically improved their nutrition.”

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