Israeli Researchers Trying to Force a Major Rethink of Prehistoric Agriculture in Area

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A farmer harvesting wheat near Modi'in, 2013.
A farmer harvesting wheat near Modi'in, 2013.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Every archaeologist and historian knows that all the revolutions that humanity has experienced, including the invention of printing, the Industrial Revolution and the digital revolution, pale in comparison to the agricultural revolution. It was the domestication of food production that propelled human beings from subsisting as nomadic small groups of hunter-gatherers to the founders of permanent villages, cities, countries and empires. It was this revolution that created elites, technologies, tools, specializations and politics, essentially reshaping the face of the earth.

At the center of this revolution was the domestication of crops and animals and a shift from hunting animals and gathering plants to an agricultural economy. A new book by a pair of Israeli researchers, archaeologist Avi Gopher of Tel Aviv University and agronomist Shahal Abbo of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, challenges the scientific consensus over the domestication of wild plants. Contrary to prevailing views, they contend that the process of domestication was very rapid, well-planned and organized, and that it took place in a single location, with several plant species. “It was a process, not a traffic accident,” Gopher adds wryly.

“Plant Domestication and the Origins of Agriculture in the Near East” (Hebrew, Resling) is a book of popular science, but it is based on many scientific publications and proposes a theory that is not accepted by researchers of the prehistoric period. Abbo acknowledges that his and Gopher’s views are held by fewer than 10 percent of researchers but notes that Israeli Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dan Shechtman also held what were considered dissenting views earlier in his career.

The accepted theory regarding the domestication of plants is that it came about almost naturally and by chance, when wild plants thrived near areas of habitation, particularly in piles of waste rich in organic substances. Those same people, the theory goes, noticed the plants growing in the garbage and began to cultivate them for their own use. The process of domestication, the majority of scientists believe, was very long, occurring over thousands of years of trial and error until the plants assumed the genetic characteristics that suited humans and became domesticated.

Gopher and Abbo say this theory has holes that scientists ignore, such as the fact that the first food crops to be domesticated — wheat, barley, chickpeas and lentils — don’t thrive in waste piles. The accepted theory is that wild plants were collected and grown over a long period until they assumed the characteristics that suited human use. Gopher and Abbo say that while that may have been the case for cereals, when it comes to legumes, such as lentils, the process is much more complex. Only 10 percent of wild lentil seeds sprout each year, Gopher notes, meaning that if you planted and cultivated the seeds, at the end of the season you would end up with virtually nothing.

This required that human beings select those seeds that had mutated and had a higher rate of sprouting. “To suggest that over years, human beings planted and harvested without receiving any benefit so that in the future they would be successful in domestication is not a rational thought,” he adds.

Gopher and Abbo’s comments may sound rather radical to most of those working in the field, but the pair are convinced that the agricultural revolution was a rapid process of a few decades or centuries.

Rational step

During that time, Gopher and Abbo say, groups of people in the Neolithic period, about 10,500 years ago, in what is today southern Turkey or northern Syria, managed to domesticate six species of plants (two kinds of wheat, as well as barley, lentils, chickpeas and flax) almost at one time, and shifting from a hunter-gatherer economy to an agricultural one.

The researchers came to the conclusion that the people behind this process were skilled and carried out the process in a rational and planned manner that didn’t leave a lot to chance. They had to identify plants growing naturally with the characteristics that they needed, for example, lentils most of the seeds of which sprout every year, or ears of grain that don’t disintegrate, and then they had to grow them. The prehistoric people also had to find the strains that provided the best nutrition and combine them with fish and legumes.

“We’re talking about people who lived in the field, whose knowledge of animals and plants was simply amazing,” says Gopher. He and Abbo claim the revolutionary process had to take place in southeast Turkey or northern Syria because it was only in this region that the precursors of the plants that were domesticated existed. The most problematic case is wild chickpeas, which grew in a rather limited area. And with the exception of barley, the lineage of all of the plants can be traced to southeast Turkey.

The two researchers actually go one step further in challenging accepted wisdom. Most scientists believe the agricultural revolution, permanent habitation and changes in human lifestyles brought about changes in beliefs, such as the establishment of developed ritual, political structures and the like, but Gopher and Abbo claim it was the reverse, that the change in outlook preceded economic change and actually brought it about. Finds discovered over recent decades support this thesis. Among them was the discovery of a huge ritual site, Gobekli Tepe, in southern Turkey. To the amazement of scientists, it has been dated to before the agricultural revolution. It therefore had to have been built by hunter-gatherers.

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