Bar-Ilan University scientists have discovered evidence that humans domesticated plants 1,000 years earlier than had been previously thought. In an article published Wednesday in the prestigious journal Science, Prof. Mordechai Kislev, along with Anat Hartman and Ofer Bar-Yosef, report on the discovery of the oldest-known domesticated plants - figs - at Gilgal in the Jordan River valley.
The figs without fertile seeds found in Gilgal are the oldest domesticated plant ever found, evidence that Israel contributed significantly to the development - and perhaps even to the beginnings - of agriculture.
The article provides additional insight into the understanding of the Agricultural Revolution, they wrote, noting that humans apparently already knew how to plant choice trees at the beginning of the Neolithic period (which ended 7,500 years ago) and thus were able to increase their yield.
"As the agriculture of the domesticated fig expanded, branches were apparently transported to distant areas and were planted in order to obtain a yield of figs in the future, after several years. This was performed in addition to the sowing of wild grains - Tabor barley and wild oats. A large number of barley mutants is necessary in order to obtain good continuous yields, because in Israel's climate, several mutants are necessary due to the great differences in the amount and distribution of rain from year to year," they wrote.
Domestication of the fig, they wrote, seems to have been a separate phase, between the second stage (sowing wild cereals) and the third stage (sowing domesticated cereals). It was very easy to domesticate the fig, they wrote. "It is just planted, and yields are obtained after a few years."
Until recently, experts thought that the Agricultural Revolution - the transition from hunter-gathering to planned farming - occurred about 11,500 years ago, in the Near East. However, there has been disagreement on whether lentils and chickpeas were the first crops and whether they were first sown in southern Turkey, or if the first domesticated crop was barley planted in Israel. Now it appears that the fig came first.
The researchers found evidence of the sowing of wild cereals and planting of female wild figs 1,000 years earlier, during the final Natufian Period 12,500 years ago. The findings demand "new thinking about where agriculture began and about the pioneer plant, because the cereal and legume finds that were discovered to date in southern Turkey and Israel are not old enough, and agriculture of figs in Israel may have preceded agriculture in Turkey."
A century ago, in June 1906, Aaron Aaronsohn discovered wild wheat in a cranny in the vineyards of Rosh Pina in the Galilee. His discovery encouraged researchers to search Near Eastern archeological sites for botanical remains from prehistoric times and to conclude that the Agricultural Revolution took place in the region.
Bar-Ilan's botanical laboratory has researched the beginnings of agriculture in collaboration with the Faculty of Life Sciences, department of Land of Israel studies and archeology and Harvard University. They concluded that the carbonized figs discovered at Gilgal lacked fertile seeds because they had undergone a mutation. Such a mutation rarely occurs in wild fig trees, and without human assistance it of course disappears when the tree dies.