Episode 11: Bright Ideas? Experiments with Plant Domestication

Last week we looked at the second, Holocene half of the Epipalaeolithic. We saw that people in many parts of the Near East seem to have been settling down a bit more, and were building more permanent houses to live in. These houses also have evidence for storage, which may well have been happening in earlier periods, but this is the first solid (and literally built in stone) evidence that we have for it. This week we are moving forward into the Neolithic, specifically into the Early or Pre-Pottery Neolithic, which runs in the Near East from about 9600 cal BCE (about 11,600 years ago) to between 7000 and about 6500 cal BCE, depending on where you are in the Near East.

The Pre-Pottery Neolithic saw a lot of changes in the way that people lived in the Near East. One of these, one of the most important ones and one of the earliest changes that we have evidence for, is the domestication of plants. We used to think of this as some ‘bright idea’ that was had by one group of people, or a few neighbouring groups of people. They experimented with domesticating plants, domesticated a whole package of plants, and then these spread out across the Near East and beyond.

We now know that this concept of a single origin of domestication, and also of a ‘package’ of domesticated plants, is wrong. People seem to have been experimenting with cultivating wild plants, and with starting to domesticate a range of plants, across the Near East starting in the first part of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A or PPNA, which runs from about 9600 cal BCE to about 8500 cal BCE or 8300 cal BCE, depending on where in the Near East you are) where people in the Levant and northern Mesopotamia as well as potentially in other regions started to cultivate wild plants closer to home. Beginning in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (or PPNB, which runs from about 8500 or 8300 cal BCE until the end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic) we start to see evidence of changes to plants consistent with domestication. These changes vary depending on the plant in question, but the most common signs that we have are an increase in the size of seeds and – in grains – changes to the outer casing of the seed where it attaches to the stalk.

The increase in the size of seeds, and the change in grains from mostly having the shattering-spikelet type of stalks to mostly having the non-shattering-spikelet type of stalks, was not a very fast change. It is not until about 7500 cal BCE that we start to see these larger, domesticated type of grains and pulses being the dominant type found on sites. The collection of wild plants, including the collection of wild grains and pulses of the same type that were being grown at the same site, also continued throughout the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. The amount of wild plants being collected varied, both through time as well as between different regions of the Near East. The big focus on grains and grain domestication seems to have been something mostly seen in the Levant, although early domestic grains also turn up in smaller or greater quantities in northern Mesopotamia, the Taurus mountains, the Zagros mountains and – after the start of the PPNB – in Anatolia.

The importance of pulses to the diets of people in PPNA and PPNB communities was also different in different regions as well as through time. Pulses were not completely ignored anywhere, but they do seem to have been a bigger part of the diet in the southern Levant. In the case of one pulse, the faba bean (Vicia faba), recent research suggests that it might have been domesticated in the southern Levant. This has been harder to pin down, as the wild ancestor of the faba bean isn’t around any more. However, the oldest examples that we have of the domesticated faba bean come from the southern Levant, from PPNB sites such as Ahihud, Nahal Zippori and Yiftahel. Recently, wild versions of the faba bean were found in excavations of the late Epipalaeolithic site of El-Wad Terrace, dating to about 14,000 years ago.

The location of the site of el-Wad terrace, where the Late Epipalaeolithic wild faba beans were found, as well as the locations of the southern Levantine PPNB sites where some of the oldest ever domestic faba beans were found. Image taken from Caracuta et al 2016.
Late Epipalaeolithic wild faba beans found at the site of el-Wad Terrace in the southern Levant. Image from Caracuta et al 2016

Episode Bibliography:

Abbo, S. and Gopher, A. 2020. Plant domestication in the Neolithic Near East: the humans-plants liaison. Quaternary Science Reviews 242: 106412.

Abbo, S., Peleg, Z., Lev-Yadun, S. and Gopher, A. 2021. Does the proportion of shattering vs. non-shattering cereal remains in archaeobotanical assemblages reflect Near Eastern Neolithic arable fields? Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 284: 104339.

Arranz-Otaegui, A., College, S., Ibañez, J.J. and Zapata, L. 2016. Crop husbandry activities and wild plant gathering, use and consumption at the EPPNB Tell Qarassa North (south Syria). Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 25: 629-65.

Asouti, E. and Fuller, D.Q. 2012. From foraging to farming in the southern Levant: the development of Epipalaeolithic and Pre-Pottery Neolithic plant management strategies. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 21: 149-162.

Asouti, E. and Fuller, D.Q. 2013. A contextual approach to the emergence of agriculture in southwest Asia: reconstructing Early Neolithic plant-food production. Current Anthropology 54(3): 299-345.

Belfer-Cohen, A. and Goring-Morris, N. 2010. The initial Neolithic in the Near East: why it is so difficult to deal with these PPNA… Mitekufat Haeven: Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society 40: 149-166.

Caracuta, V., Weinstein-Evron, M., Kaufman, D., Yeshrun, R., Silvent, J. and Boaretto, E. 2016. 14,000-year-old seeds indicate the Levantine origin of the lost progenitor of faba bean. Nature: Scientific Reports 6: 37399.

Edwards, P.C., Meadows, J., Sayej, G. and Westway, M. 2004. From the PPNA to the PPNB: new views from the southern Levant after excavations at Zahrat adh-Dhra’ 2 in Jordan. Paléorient 30(2): 21-60.

Fairbairn, A.S., Jenkins, E., Baird, D. and Jacobsen, G. 2014. 9th millennium plant subsistence in the central Anatolian highlands: new evidence from Pinarbaşi, Karaman Province, central Anatolia. Journal of Archaeological Science 41: 801-812.

Fuller, D.Q. 2007. Contrasting patterns in crop domestication and domestication rates: recent archaeobotanical insights from the Old World. Annals of Botany 100: 903-924.

Fuller, D.Q., Asouti, E. and Purugganan, M.D. 2012. Cultivation as slow evolutionary entanglement: comparative data on rate and sequence of domestication. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 21: 131-145.

Riehl, S., Benz, M., Conard, N.J., Darabi, H., Deckers, K., Nashli, H.F. and Zeidi-Kulehparcheh, M. 2012. Plant use in three Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites of the northern and eastern Fertile Crescent: a preliminary report. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 21: 95-106.

Weide, A., Riehl, S., Zeidi, M. and Conard, N.J. 2018. A systematic review of wild grass exploitation in relation to emerging cereal cultivation throughout the Epipalaeolithic and aceramic Neolithic of the Fertile Crescent. PLOS One 13(1): e0189811.

White, C.E. and Makarewicz, C.A. 2012. Harvesting practices and early Neolithic barley cultivation at el-Hemmeh, Jordan. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 21: 85-94.

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