Species Shifting Their Range Due to Climate Change May Have Enabled the “Playing Around With Resources” That Invented Farming

(p. D6) In the 1990s, archaeologists largely concluded that farming in the Fertile Crescent began in Jordan and Israel, a region known as the southern Levant. “The model was that everything started there, and then everything spread out from there, including maybe the people,” said Melinda A. Zeder, a senior research scientist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

But in recent years, Dr. Zeder and other archaeologists have overturned that consensus. Their research suggests that people were inventing farming at several sites in the Fertile Crescent at roughly the same time. In the Zagros Mountains of Iran, for example, Dr. Zeder and her colleagues have found evidence of the gradual domestication of wild goats over many centuries around 10,000 years ago.

People may have been cultivating plants earlier than believed, too.

In the 1980s, Dani Nadel, then at Hebrew University, and his colleagues excavated a 23,000-year-old site on the shores of the Sea of Galilee known as Ohalo II. It consisted of half a dozen brush huts. Last year, Dr. Nadel co-authored a study showing that one of the huts contained 150,000 charred seeds and fruits, including many types, such as almonds, grapes and olives, that would later become crops. A stone blade found at Ohalo II seemed to have been used as a sickle to harvest cereals. A stone slab was used to grind the seeds. It seems clear the inhabitants were cultivating wild plants long before farming was thought to have begun.

“We got fixated on the very few things we just happened to see preserved in the archaeological record, and we got this false impression that this was an abrupt change,” Dr. Zeder said. “Now we really understand there was this long period where they’re playing around with resources.”

Many scientists have suggested that humans turned to agriculture under duress. Perhaps the climate of the Near East grew harsh, or perhaps the hunter-gatherer population outstripped the supply of wild foods.

But “playing around with resources” is not the sort of thing people do in times of desperation. Instead, Dr. Zeder argues, agriculture came about as climatic changes shifted the ranges of some wild species of plants and animals into the Near East.

Many different groups began experimenting with ways of producing extra food, which eventually enabled them to start a new way of life: settling down in more stable social groups.

For the full story see:

Carl Zimmer. “The First Farmers.” The New York Times (Tuesday, October 18, 2016 [sic]): D1 & D6.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 17, 2016 [sic], and has the title “How the First Farmers Changed History.”)

The 2015 study co-authored by Dani Nadel and mentioned above is:

Snir, Ainit, Dani Nadel, Iris Groman-Yaroslavski, Yoel Melamed, Marcelo Sternberg, Ofer Bar-Yosef, and Ehud Weiss. “The Origin of Cultivation and Proto-Weeds, Long before Neolithic Farming.” PLOS ONE 10, no. 7 (July 22, 2015): e0131422.

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