Plant Cuttings

If ’10 000 BC’ is the answer, the question is…?

This article focuses on the possible advent of human agriculture occurring 23,000 years BP.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

‘When was agriculture “invented”?’ Although the development of agriculture is arguably the most transformative event in the history of humankind, it is probably impossible to pinpoint its advent to a particular place or date, but 10 000(–9000) years BC in the region of the Middle East known as the Fertile Crescent is the consensus from practically all sources that one might care to consult.

Nice and tidy as that would be, as with all things it is open to challenge as new information comes to light (that is the nature of science, after all…). And so it is that Anita Sir et al. have unearthed evidence that the origins of agriculture go back as far as 23 000 BP (Before Present), i.e. to approx. 21 000 BCE (Before Common Era)/BC. However, rather than focus on the cultivated crops such as cereals themselves, the team concentrated on the weeds that accompanied human attempts at crop cultivation.

Using the notion that weed species are assumed to have developed alongside the cultivated crops, Snir et al. present evidence of the presence of ‘proto-weed’ species – weedy taxa that subsequently developed into weeds and which therefore represent the first stage of this all-important human–plant interaction – on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Israel). The site shows evidence of small-scale trial cultivation at a 23 000-year-old hunter-gatherers’ sedentary camp.

Accompanying the adoption of agricultural practices, more settled societies are envisaged to have developed from the more nomadic and ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle, so this discovery represents an important early stage along the path to so-called civilisation. Interestingly, and despite all the benefits that are supposed to have resulted from its adoption, not all groups of humankind were eager to convert to farming and accept an agricultural existence. Solange Rigaud et al. present evidence that northern European cultures were actually resistant – at least initially – to the spread of farming from its origin in the cradle of civilization.

[Although us humans have nothing on the humble ants, which have likely been farming for 50 million years! -Ed.]