Agriculture is believed to have dawned around 12,000 years ago, in the Levant or southern Turkey. Now remains of a 23,000-year-old camp, including flint sickle blades and extraordinarily preserved botanical remains, found on the shore of the Sea of Galilee throws back the start of cereal cultivation by thousands of years.
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Analysis of the sheen on the flint blades, and of the seeds proves that the Paleolithic inhabitants of the site called "Ohalo II" lived a chiefly hunting-gathering-fishing lifestyle, but were indeed growing wheat and barley.
Remains of food grains had been found previously at the site, as had a grinding stone. Now the tools to harvest the grains have been found.
So cereal growing clearly goes back at least 23,000 years, but Prof. Dani Nadel of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa declines to state that "agriculture" does.
Asked for the distinction, he explains, "Most people feel that agriculture is much more complex, that it is central to the economy, that everybody was geared into it. Here we have evidence for small-scale auxiliary cereal growing."
The Ohalo inhabitants clearly collected a lot from nature, both plants and animals, he elaborates. "These grains they grew would have augmented their hunter-gatherer diet, which consisted mainly of fish from the lake, animals they hunted or scavenged, birds,especially water fowl, and plants," says Nadel. "Cereal cultivation was just one of many strategies they had. Their eggs were not all in one basket. They would have tried all sorts of things."
Cutting grasses with stone sickles
The prehistoric camp was discovered by archaeologists when the water level in the Sea of Galilee fell to a low point in modern times, thanks to drought and over-exploitation of the lake and rivers feeding it by Israel and Syria.
Immersion in the lakewater and protection by silt preserved the oldest-known remains of brush huts and grass bedding known in the world (discovered in 1989), wooden tools (eight, of uncertain use, reported in 2005), food remains, and beads made of shells from the Mediterranean Sea.
The excavators also found a lot of stone tools, including sickle blades that were used to harvest grain. It is the carbon-14 dating of the charred grains and plant remains that led to the date of around 23,000 years.
The five sickle blades found at Ohalo II have a sheen created by their use to cut grasses, and from the hands holding them, says Dr. Iris Groman-Yaroslavski of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. Use-wear analysis of the veneer indicates that while they were used, they were not used much, she explains: That supports the thesis that cultivated, harvested grain was a supplement to their main diet of hunted and gathered foods and fish.
We do know though that their cultivation of grain was not a one-off event.
While the morphology of the grains hardly changed, a high percentage of the dispersal units composing the grain ears were well beyond the standards of wild cereal stands. There were also numerous species, and large numbers, of what would come to be called typical pest weeds in cereal fields, explain Bar-Ilan University botany archaeologists Ehud Weiss and Ainit Snir.
Oldest known brush huts in the world
In 1999, Nadel and the botanist Ella Werker published a paper on the discovery of brush huts at Ohalo II. Ultimately the remains of six such huts were found at the site, with hearths outside. (The proximity of brush huts and control of fire probably explains why the huts burned down, evidently more than once.)
Architectural perishable remains from the Upper Paleolithic (45,000 to 20,000 B.C.E.) are beyond rare, and are usually identified by concentrations of bones, tools and waste, and sometimes the remains of hearths. At Ohalo II, the archaeologists found the remains of the huts, the fireplaces, a shallow grave with the complete body of a disabled man, who had to have been cared for, and what seems to be a garbage dump.
The huts had burned down before the camp was submerged, but their charred remains remain. Reconstruction based on the identified botanical remains, ethnographic precedent and horse sense shows hut-building hasn't changed in 23,000 years.
They were not small – one was oval in shape and almost 15 feet long; some were kidney-shaped. The base of the hut floors were some 20 to 40 centimeters below ground level: analysis of the charred wall remains shows they were made of grasses and branches, including salt cedar, oak and willow.
The archaeologists found no evidence of post-holes in or near the huts. They seem to have been constructed by sticking long branches into holes in the ground, a technique still used by hut-builders today.
Lastly on the huts, perhaps brooms hadn't been invented yet. Their floors were littered with bones, mainly of fish and gazelle but of birds too, ground stone tools and fragments, and thousands of flint flakes, blades and well-shaped tools, indicating that knapping happened there.
Happily, among the litter on the floor were remains of seeds and fruits – and in one case a large basalt stone that had been used to grind wild grasses, based on starch-grain analysis and the seeds found around it. Among other things, the ancients around the Sea of Galilee were eating pre-domesticated barley, wheat, goat grass, and oats, among others.
So did cereal cultivation begin at least 23,000 years ago, not more recently as thought? Was the Galilee aswarm with early -farmers? We cannot know, but we can say that hunter-gatherers living on the shores of the Sea of Galilee occupied their camp on a year-round basis, and cultivated cereals.