wheat wheat Early humans farmed various plants, eventually breeding into better food. (Photo: Suprun Vitaly/Shutterstock)

Scientists discover 6,000-year-old grain that started origins of farming

Barley found preserved in cave is oldest plant ever genetically sequenced.

Do you ever look around and wonder how on earth you're sitting in a human-designed world? Why you sleep in a house, walk on pavement, shop at stores and go on Facebook rather than, say, forage in the woods? The answer has a lot to do with one tiny grain.

Researchers from Israel and Germany just discovered the oldest plant ever genetically sequenced to date: 6,000-year-old barley.

Getting the grain was an adventure on its own. The researchers had to climb down the sheer cliff face of the Yoram Cave, a cave close to Israel's Dead Sea that managed to preserve the grain for thousands of years.

barleyBarley is used to make flour, bread, beer, whiskey and vodka. (Photo: Diyana Dimitrova/Shutterstock)

The scientists cut the seeds in half. They ground up one half for genetic sequencing and carbon-dated the other half. They then genetically compared the barley to other grains and created a family tree for the plant, learning that barley domestication began in Israel thousands of years ago.

“For us, ancient DNA works like a time capsule that allows us to travel back in history and look into the domestication of crop plants at distinct time points in the past,” said German scientist Johannes Krause, who was in charge of sequencing the grain.

Barley's particularly important because scientists think it was one of the first farmed food sources that caused ancient humans to switch from hunting and gathering to farming. After domesticating plants around 10,000 years ago, humans could farm extra food. This caused a population increase, which meant people had to keep farming even more to keep everyone fed, encouraging them to stay in one place and set up permanent villages.

The extra food also meant that some people could spend their time doing something other than farming: writing, organizing things, collecting taxes ... You can see where this is going. Humans started building towns and cities, and the rest is literally history.

Books, telephones, cars, antibiotics, electricity and cheeseburgers would probably not have happened without these early grains. You can also thank barley for beer, especially if you're into barley hops.

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