(photo credit: INGIMAGE PHOTOS)
Like all food crops, the fava bean has a wild ancestor.
Wild fava is presumed to be extinct, but researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot recently identified 14,000-year-old remains of seeds that offer important clues about the time and place in which the wild plant once grew.
Understanding the ecology of the wild plant’s environment, and their evolution in the course of domestication, is crucial to improving the biodiversity of the modern crop, according to the scientists who just published their findings in Scientific Reports.
Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto, head of the “Timing of Cultural Changes” track of the Max Planck-Weizmann Center for Integrative Archaeology and Anthropology, and Dr. Valentina Caracuta, a former postdoctoral fellow in Boaretto’s group who is currently a researcher at the University of Salento-Italy, had previously shown that the 10,200-year-old fava beans discovered in three archeological sites in Lower Galilee were the earliest fava beans ever domesticated.
The new finding – fava seeds from el-Wad, an archeological site on Haifa’s Mount Carmel, came from the earliest levels of an excavation carried out by Profs. Mina Evron and Daniel Kaufman and Dr. Reuven Yeshurun, all of the University of Haifa.
The people living at that time, the Natufians, were hunter-gathers, and thus the plants found at the site were ones that grew wild. Boaretto and Caracuta performed radiocarbon dating and micro-X-ray CT analysis on the preserved pieces of bean to pinpoint their age and identify them as the ancestors of the modern fava.
“Sometime between 11,000 and 14,000 years ago, people in this region domesticated fava – around the same time that others farther north were domesticating wheat and barley,” Boaretto said.
“Understanding how this plant was adapted to the habitat of the Carmel 14,000 years ago can help us understand how to create new modern varieties that will better be able to withstand pests and tolerate environmental stress,” she said.
Fava – also known as the faba or ful bean – is a nutritious source of protein, fiber, carbohydrates and minerals in the diets of many cultures around the world. In some places it is used for animal feed, and – as with all legumes – it fixes nitrogen in the soil.