The Seeds of Plant Domestication

Humans have been cultivating domesticated plants for food for thousands of years, but when and where did agriculture begin? According to archaeological findings scattered across much of the Middle East, ancient people actually developed plant domestication in several places at once.

A recent Science article by Riehl, et al. describes archaeological findings at a site called Chogha Golan, which was occupied from about 12,000 to 9,800 years ago. Located in the foothills of Iran’s Zagros Mountains, Chogha Golan is one of a number of contemporaneous sites throughout the “Fertile Crescent” region. Many of these sites show signs of plant cultivation emerging about 10,500 to 11,500 years ago.

Researchers at the Chogha Golan site studied the contents of successive layers of strata, including the remnants of ancient plants, to determine biological change over time. The plant remains buried at Chogha Golan clearly document the process of domestication, from collection of wild-growing seeds to the cultivation of morphologically distinct, domesticated grains.

Domestication – plant or animal – is a gradual process. According to the archaeological record, humans started out by gathering wild plants, like the seeds of wild barley, wheat, or lentils, for food. Over time, people began to practice plant “management” – not quite agriculture, but a step beyond simple gathering – while selecting for those plants that have the most advantageous characteristics. Over hundreds of years of selective cultivation of the plants with the biggest seeds, stronger resilience, or whatever other characteristic people preferred, these cultivated varieties became distinct from their wild counterparts.

Interestingly, the archaeological evidence shows different varieties of domesticated plants emerging at different sites. Groups of ancient people probably developed their own local crops, domesticated from various species of wild plants, which created a wide variety of distinct, locally-developed domesticated plants.

The domestication of plants was a harbinger of huge changes to come for ancient humans. Chogha Golan shows an excellent record of this development – and it looks like it was only one of several agricultural origin points.

References:

Riehl, Simone, Mohsen Zeidi, Nicholas J. Conard. “Emergence of Agriculture in the Foothills of the Zagros Mountains of Iran.” Science Vol. 341, Issue 6141, pp. 65-67. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/341/6141/65.

Willcox, George. “The Roots of Cultivation in Southwestern Asia.” Science Vol. 341, Issue 6141, pp. 39-40. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/341/6141/39.

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