Neolithic crops in Fertile Crescent weren’t just cereals

Modern-day harvesting of wild barley in southern Syria. (Credit: Juan José Ibañez)

Research with charred plant remains suggests people in southwest Asia grew a greater variety of plants during a period called the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A than previously thought.

In regions such as Turkey, Iran and Iraq, legumes, fruits, and nuts dominated the diet, whereas cereals were the preferred types of plants in Jordan, Syria, Palestine and Israel, report the researchers.

Recent studies have suggested that people were growing undomesticated plant species, a precursor to agriculture, across southwest Asia around 11,600 to 10,700 years ago. The new study documents regional diversity in the types of plants being grown during this period.

Tell Quarassa
Tell Qarassa North (southern Syria, early Pre-Pottery Neolithic B,) is one of the earliest sites in southwest Asia with evidence of morphologically domesticated wheat and barley. (Credit: Juan José Ibañez)

“We have studied [charred plant remains] from Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites in southwest Asia dated to approximately 11,600 to 10,700 years ago, and we can conclude that the importance we have hitherto attributed to cereals such as wheat and barley needs to be re-evaluated as other plants such as legumes—e.g. lentils, beans, and peas—also played a crucial role during this time period, particularly in the eastern Fertile Crescent, e.g. Iran and Iraq, and southeast Turkey,” says postdoctoral researcher and archaeobotanist Amaia Arranz-Otaegui of the Centre for the Study of Early Agricultural Societies at the University of Copenhagen.

Cereal crops hit hard by extreme weather

Not only did Neolithic communities from various regions across southwest Asia exploit a different range of plants—and did thus not rely exclusively on cereals—but the evidence also suggests that the different plant exploitation strategies could have contributed to important chronological dissimilarities during the emergence of morphologically domesticated species.

“Our results indicate that in the southern Levant (e.g. modern-day Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and southern Syria), cereals were predominant during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and domesticated cereals, which eventually became the cornerstones of agriculture, appeared around 10,700-10,200 years ago,” explains Arranz-Otaegui.

“But in the eastern Fertile Crescent, where cereals were not commonly exploited during the PPNA, domesticated cereals appear around 400-1000 years later. We know that plant domestication was a process that occurred in multiple regions and involved several plant species, so it is likely that in those regions where cereal exploitation was not common practice, similar management processes involving plants such as legumes could have existed.”

Arranz Otaegui conducted the study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with colleagues from Spain and England when she was still employed at the University of the Basque Country.

Source: University of Copenhagen