May 17, 2011

Origin of Neolithic crops

There is a new and quite interesting paper the reviews the domestication of the key Neolithic crops:

Worth a good read but I'll mention here the most relevant conclusions:


Wheat close-up
Einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum) is native as wild from Anatolia or the Zagros area, most probably it was domesticated in modern Kurdistan (aka SE Turkey), in Çayönü or Cafer Höyük. Frome there it spread, along with PPNB to Syria and Palestine.

Emmer and Durum wheat (Triticum turgidum) is native from the Levant and the Zagros but not Anatolia peninsula. It was also domesticated (most probably) in the early PPNB of Kurdistan (Çayönü), spreading soon after the Damascus basin of Syria, where the Emmer variant may have been selected for (Tell Aswad). Cypriot evidence is declared unconvincing by the authors but not totally rejected.

Barley (Hordeum vulgare) is a sturdier cereal even if also less valued than wheat. In its wild form it has a similar principal distribution as T. turgidum (Levant and Zagros but not Anatolia), although it also scatters through the Iranian plateau. The earliest clear domesticated variants are from Syria (Tell Aswad) and Cyprus, but soon also expanded to Southern Kurdistan (Jarmo), Iraq (Ali Kosh) and Palestine (Jericho).


Bitter vecht (Vicia ervilia): it is not really studied in this paper. It has an ample wild origin area and was maybe domesticated in Anatolia or Levant.

Lentil (Lens culinaris): the wild variant is scattered through much of West Asia but it is relatively rare with preference for stony and disturbed soils. It appears along with early cereals in wild form but the first clearly domesticated case is from Yiftah’el, North Palestine (aka Israel), within a middle PPNB context.

Pea (Pisum sativum): there are two wild forms, one scattered through the Mediterranean and the other more specific of West Asia. This one (P. humile) is the one proposed here to be the main ancestor of cultivated peas (but with weak support). The earliest finds are from Syria, Kurdistan and Palestine but the first large amounts are from Southern Anatolia: Çatalhöyük and Erbaba. The discerning of wild and domesticated type is no easy in this case but the available evidence seems to support Çatalhöyük or nearby areas for the domestication of this pulse in the middle or late PPNB.

Potaje de garbanzos y collejas5
Chickpea soup Castilian style
Chickpea (Cicer arietinum): ever wanted to know what Cicero means? It mens chickpea indeed. Anecdotes apart, the wild chickpea is almost exclusive of the Northern Kurdistan (SE Turkey). Naturally the first consumption findings are also from that area (Çayönü, Tell Abu Hureyra, Aşıklı Höyük - all from early PPNB). It is however impossible to tell from sure if theyw were already domesticated of wild. Contemporary remains from Jerciho however must be domesticated (as the wild form is not found in the region).

Other early crops:

Flax flowers
Flax flowers
Flax (Linum usitatissimum): flax can be used for fibers (surely at the origin of textile crafts) and for oil. Wild flax is widespread across the Mediterranean basin and even as far North as South England or Crimea.

Genetic data indicates that the first agricultural use of flax was not fiber but oil, even if flax fibers were already used before Neolithic (30 Ka. ago in Georgia). The earliest finds come from Çanönü and Tell Aswad. However the earliest reasonably safe case of a domesticated variant is from Jericho, just a few centuries later. Some time later (9th millennium BP) the first known fiber clothes are known (Nahal Hemar cave, Palestine), however this kind of evidence is highly subject to climatic conditions (extreme dryness here).

Discussion notes:

PPNA people did not make pottery but stone vessels (source)
It is interesting that no evidence of early domestication is found for PPNA. Does this suggest that this culture of Palestine and Syria was maybe not Neolithic after all? The main attribute of this culture of the Levant is their granaries but what did they store in them if all the crops were domesticated further North or in a later date? Only barley and maybe peas are from the Levant first according to this paper but from PPNB dates anyhow. So, are we missing something or were PPNA "farmers" actually mere large-scale semisedentary gatherers, i.e. Mesolithic instead of truly Neolithic? Your call.
On the other hand it is also interesting that nearly all early domesticates seem to be from the area of Kurdistan, which in my understanding, illuminates the mystery of Göbekli Tepe, which looks like the spiritual center of early Neolithic or at least the consolidated Neolithic of PPNB (notice that while the early village is from PPNA, the enclosure is from PPNB dates).

Göbekli Tepe - I always see a plow here - call me crazy if you wish

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