Organic farming in Romania Organic farming in Romania Researchers found evidence that people began farming 23,000 years ago. (Photo: SebiTian/Shutterstock)

Farming just doubled in age

New research suggests farming began far earlier than previously thought.

Who said weeds were nothing but a nuisance?

It's thanks to these pesky plants that researchers have been able to determine that trial plant cultivation (farming) began far earlier than was once thought: 23,000 years ago as opposed to previous estimates that had it around 12,000 years.

The study, conducted by an international collaboration of researchers from Harvard University and three universities from Israel – Tel Aviv University, Bar-Ilan University and the University of Haifa – focused on the discovery of the first weed species at the site of the Ohalo II people's camp on the southwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Although weeds are considered a threat or nuisance in farming, their presence at the site revealed the earliest signs of small-scale farming.

"Because weeds thrive in cultivated fields and disturbed soils, a significant presence of weeds in archaeobotanical assemblages retrieved from Neolithic sites and settlements of later age is widely considered an indicator of systematic cultivation," the researchers wrote in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

The study focuses on the discovery of the first weed species at the Ohalo II site on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.The study focuses on the discovery of the first weed species at the Ohalo II site on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. (Photo: Ahmad A Atwah/Shutterstock)

The Ohalo II people were fisher hunter-gatherers and lived in the area roughly 23,000 years ago, where they established a sedentary human camp. The site, discovered in 1989, was unusually well-preserved, having been charred, covered by lake sediment and sealed in low-oxygen conditions – ideal for the preservation of plant material.

"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 Professor Marcelo Sternberg of the Department of Molecular Biology and Ecology of Plants at Tel Aviv University's Faculty of Life Sciences. "Those early ancestors were more clever and more skilled than we knew."

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