Scientists discover the earliest known evidence of plant cultivation in the Levant

Scientists discover the earliest known evidence of plant cultivation in the Levant

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It was in the Middle East that hunter-gatherers first started to switch to plant cultivation, thereby initiating the first movement towards organised agriculture. This is why the region is popularly known as “the Cradle of Civilization”, because it was from these first agricultural developments that the first farming communities began to appear, laying the foundations for the growth of larger ‘city-states’ such as Egypt and Sumer. A team of archaeologists, botanists and ecologists have now discovered the earliest known evidence of plant cultivation in the Levant – the region consisting of Israel, Syria, Lebanon and other countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The discoveries at the Ohalo II site on the shore of the Sea of Galilee reveal the development of cultivation practices 11,000 years earlier than previously accepted.

The Sea of Galilee. At its southern tip (right side) the Jordan River exits the lake and enters the Jordan Valley. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Ohalo II is the location of a 23,000 year old settlement which was once the camp of a community of hunter-gatherers. It is situated 9 kilometres (5.5 miles) south of Tiberias and was discovered in 1989 when the level of the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a lake also known as Lake Tiberias, fell. This enabled Prof. Dani Nadel from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology to excavate the site, a project that lasted for six consecutive seasons and resulted in the discovery of six brush hut dwellings, a human grave, remains of animal and plant foods, beads from the Mediterranean Sea and evidence of the manufacture and use of flint tools.

The scientists currently investigating Ohalo II are employed by Bar-Ilan University, Haifa University and Tel Aviv University in Israel and Harvard University in the US. Prof. Ehud Weiss of Bar-Ilan University’s Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology, who is also the lead researcher on the project, told Past Horizons that three inter-connected discoveries led the team to make their conclusions about the dating.

South end of the Sea of Galilee, near Tiberias. Image: Zachi Evenor (CC BY 3.0)

The first of these is the higher-than-usual presence of domestic wheat and barley at the site, as opposed to the wild form of these crops. Secondly, there was a high concentration of proto-weeds, plants that are known to grow in areas where crop cultivation has been or is being practiced. Finally, the team discovered blades used for cutting and harvesting cereal plants.

“The plant remains from the site were unusually well-preserved because of being charred and then covered by sediment and water which sealed them in low-oxygen conditions” Professor Weiss said. “Due to this, it was possible to recover an extensive amount of information on the site and its inhabitants – which made this a uniquely preserved site, and therefore one of the best archaeological examples worldwide of hunter-gatherers’ way of life. Here we see evidence of repeated sowing and harvesting of later domesticated cereals.”

The dwellings at Ohalo II contained around 150,000 plant remains, representing over 140 different plant species gathered by the residents of the settlement from the surrounding environment. These remains included edible cereals – such as wild emmer, wild barley, and wild oats – along with 13 species of “proto-weeds”. This shows that the two types of plant grew together and were therefore unintentionally gathered together.

The evidence from the site also includes a grinding slab set firmly on the floor of a brush hut. A stone tool was also found from which microscopic cereal starch granules were extracted and seeds were distributed around it. All this provides unequivocal evidence that cereal grains were processed into flour inside the hut.

Previous theories regarding the beginnings of plant cultivation by humans in the Middle East have suggested a date of around 12,000 BC, in the Late Holocene Period.

Neolithic grindstone for processing grain ( Wikimedia Commons )

“We’re not trying to say cultivation and an agricultural way of life started in Ohalo and then continued to the Neolithic” added Professor Weiss. “You can’t say that. What you can say is that this was perhaps a trial cultivation from which we can understand how humans were always sophisticated, trying to push borders and make life better.”

Previous investigations at Ohalo II revealed evidence of occupation by hunter-gatherers belonging to the Kebaran Culture (18,000 to 12,500 BC), named after the Kebara Cave, south of Haifa. These were highly mobile people who used microlithic stone tools and who were the first in the area to gather wild cereals. It is thought they migrated to upland areas during the summer and occupied caves and rock shelters in the winter. The fact that the site was submerged by the Sea of Galilee is thought to be the main factor in the preservation of artefacts at the site. It is usually only accessible in years following severe droughts when the waters of the lake fall.

The team investigating the site has now published their work in the journal Plos One (Open Access).

Featured image: Date palms of kibbutz Gesher, Jordan Valley. ( Wikimedia Commons )

By Robin Whitlock

Archaeologists find possible evidence of earliest human agriculture

Israeli archaeologists have uncovered dramatic evidence of what they believe are the earliest known attempts at agriculture, 11,000 years before the generally recognised advent of organised cultivation.

The study examined more than 150,000 examples of plant remains recovered from an unusually well preserved hunter-gatherer settlement on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel.

Previously, scientists had believed that organised agriculture in the Middle East, including animal husbandry and crop cultivation, had begun around 12,000 BC and later spread west through Europe.

The new research is based on excavations at a site known as Ohalo II, which was discovered in 1989 when the water level in the sea of Galilee dropped because of drought and excessive water extraction.

Occupied by a community of hunter-gatherers at the height of the last ice age 23,000 years ago, it revealed evidence of six brush huts with hearths as well as stone tools and animal and plant remains.

A series of fortuitous coincidences led to the site’s preservation. The huts had been built over shallow bowls dug by the occupants and later burned. On top of that a deposit of sandy silt had accumulated before the rising lake had left it under 4 metres of water.

The study looked for evidence of early types of invasive weeds – or “proto-weeds” – that flourished in conditions created by human cultivation.

According to the researchers, the community at Ohalo II was already exploiting the precursors to domesticated plant types that would become a staple in early agriculture, including emmer wheat, barley, pea, lentil, almond, fig, grape and olive.

Significantly, however, they discovered the presence of two types of weeds in current crop fields: corn cleavers and darnel.

Microscopic examination of the edges of stone blades from the site also found material that may have been transferred during the cutting and harvesting of cereal plants.

Prof Ehud Weiss, head of the archaeological botany lab at the Department of Land of Israel Studies, told the Guardian: “We know what happened ecologically: that these wild plants, some time in history, became weeds. Why? The simple answer is that because humans changed the environment and created new ecological niches, that made it more comfortable for species that would become weeds, meaning they only have to compete with one species.”

According to Weiss, the mixture of “proto-weeds” and grains that would become domesticated mirrors plant findings from later agricultural communities.

The site also revealed evidence of rudimentary breadmaking from starch granules found on scorched stones, and that the community may have been largely sedentary, with evidence of consumption of birds throughout the year, including migrating species.

“This botanical find is really opening new windows to the past,” Weiss said. “You have to remember Ohalo is a unique preservation. Between Ohalo and the beginning of the Neolithic we have a blank. And when the early Neolithic arrives people start [agriculture again] from scratch.

“We’re not trying to say cultivation and an agricultural way of life started in Ohalo and then continued to the Neolithic. You can’t say that. What you can say is that this was perhaps a trial cultivation from which we can understand how humans were always sophisticated, trying to push borders and make life better.”

This article was amended on 12 July 2016 to remove an incorrect reference to the late Holocene period.

Farming May Have Started Way Earlier Than Scientists Thought

Scientists have long thought that our prehistoric ancestors didn't start raising crops until some 12,000 years ago. But a new study suggests that the age of agriculture might have dawned much earlier.

"From what our current research reveals, the first indication for the earliest cultivation is 23,000 years ago on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in Israel," Dr. Ehud Weiss, professor of palaeoethnobotany at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and the lead author of the study, told The Huffington Post in an email. "This is one of the most amazing finds a researcher can dream on. No one had previously imagined humans had started cultivating in such an early date."

For the study, the researchers analyzed a 23,000-year-old hunter-gatherer campsite, which was discovered in 1989 at the archaeological site Ohalo II near the Sea of Galilee. They examined about 150,000 plant specimens at the site and noticed evidence not only of domestic-type wheat and barley, but also of weeds known to flourish in the fields of domesticated crops.

"The plant remains from the site were unusually well-preserved because of being charred and then covered by sediment and water which sealed them in low-oxygen conditions," Weiss said in a written statement. "Due to this, it was possible to recover an extensive amount of information on the site and its inhabitants."

The site also yielded flint tools that might have been used for harvesting cereal plants.

Given the findings, the researchers concluded that the campsite is probably the earliest known example of small-scale farming.

"While full-scale agriculture did not develop until much later, our study shows that trial cultivation began far earlier than previously believed, and gives us reason to rethink our ancestors' capabilities," Dr. Marcelo Sternberg, an ecologist at Tel Aviv University and a co-author of the study, said in a separate statement. "Those early ancestors were more clever and more skilled than we knew."

The study was published online in the journal Plos One on July 22.

How exactly did agriculture and even animal domestication change the course of human history? Check out the "Talk Nerdy To Me" episode below:

The First Opium War

In the 1700s, the British empire conquered a major poppy-growing region of India and, rather than quash the production of opium, began to smuggle opium from India into China through the East India Company.

Great Britain used the profits from the lucrative opium trade to buy and export tea, silk, porcelain and other Chinese luxury goods back to Europe. As a result of this trade, opium addiction in China rose steeply. The Qing Dynasty, attempting to curb the havoc caused by widespread opium addiction, outlawed opium importation and cultivation.

Two armed conflicts, called the Opium Wars, followed China’s attempts to suppress opium use within its borders, and British efforts to keep opium trafficking routes open. In each case, the Chinese lost, and European powers gained commercial privileges and land concessions from China.

During the First Opium War (1839-1842), the British government resorted to “gunboat diplomacy” to force the Chinese government to keep the ports in Shanghai, Canton and elsewhere open to trade. China ceded Hong Kong to the British in the Treaty of Nanking following the First Opium War.


The search for concrete evidence for the first appearance of weeds some 12,000 years ago, when intentional systematic cultivation was initiated in the Levant, needs to rely on the prehistoric archaeobotanical plant assemblages [1–3]. The archaeological record demonstrates that pre-Neolithic human societies were hunter-gatherers for millennia when a radical development took place throughout Eurasia at the onset of the Holocene, 11,700/500 cal BP. Over the course of the next several millennia, foraging societies across the Fertile Crescent began cultivating as well as herding, tending goats, sheep, pigs, and cattle [2,4]. Eventually the development of the initial agricultural system saw the ‘Domestication Syndrome’ of both plants and animals. The establishment of long-term, agricultural-based permanent villages resulted in a population increase which later caused human expansions westward and eastward [5].

Research of the Paleolithic period has already demonstrated that humans caused significant modifications to their immediate environments long before the Neolithic revolution. This process that has intrigued scholars since the early 1950’s [6], and is currently referred as ‘niche construction’ [7–10]. Humans set fire to vegetation, hunted and trapped preferred species of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish, cut down trees for buildings and producing numerous objects, and created dump areas in and around their camps. Later, with the onset of successful intentional cultivation, hunter-gatherers cleared fields near their habitations for planting. The intensive disturbance of these environments led to the proliferation of synanthropic plants. These plant species, both annuals and perennials, exhibit functional and adaptive traits that enable them to withstand the disturbed habitats and increase their biological fitness in natural plant communities altered by natural or anthropogenic forces [3]. Owing to their rapid water uptake (particularly in water-limited habitats), high growth rates, dispersal capabilities, and ability to thrive in areas with altered soil nutrient resources, synanthropic species (later termed weeds) frequently invade newly formed habitats [11,12]. They were able to rapidly established extensive populations, especially with the expansion of farming by invading cultivated fields and causing reduced crop yields.

Although modern agronomists and archaeologists generally refer to weeds as plants present in field crops, this term needs to be carefully defined as its use is manifold in both research domains. Here, weeds are defined as plants that disrupt or alter the functioning and composition of natural ecosystems and human-altered environments. In most cases in the Near East and Europe, they negatively impact human activities and as such are undesirable. “Proto-weeds” are defined as the first wild plants that entered and thrived in early human-affected habitats, which subsequently led to the evolution of weeds [13].

Because weeds thrive in cultivated fields and disturbed soils [14], a significant presence of weeds in archaeobotanical assemblages retrieved from Neolithic sites and settlements of later age is widely considered an indicator of systematic cultivation [15–20]. Generally, weeds are useful ecological markers only if they are identified to the species level. Undoubtedly, in genera which include several species, each species could have an entirely different ecological signature and could not serve as a proxy for agricultural activity [21]. The unique anaerobic conditions that prevailed at Ohalo II enabled the high level of preservation of the samples, allowing the identification to the species level.

Until now, the geographic origin of some current Southwest Asian weeds was unknown. In this paper we present archaeobotanical evidence indicating that some of these species were initially present in human-affected environments as local wild plants during the Terminal Pleistocene. Later, with the establishment of systematic farming, they evolved into weeds or functioned as weeds without further evolution. We term the first stage of this human-plant interaction as “the proto-weed stage”.

Traces of 13,000-Year-Old Beer Found in Israel

Since it was first discovered in 1956, Raqefet Cave, an archaeological site located near Haifa, Israel, has provided vital insight into an ancient group known as the Natufians. The remains of 30 individuals were unearthed there, along with animal bones, tools and plant impressions, indicating that the Natufians buried their dead on beds of flowers. Now, as Amanda Borschel-Dan reports for the Times of Israel, scientists have discovered that the Natufians also brewed beer at Raqefet Cave, possibly marking the earliest-known production of the alcoholic beverage.

Related Content

The Natufians were a semi-sedentary, foraging people that lived in the Levant between the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. It is believed that the Natufians served as a vital transitional link between hunter-gatherers and the earliest farming communities in the Near East. Hoping to learn more about this important group, a team of researchers led by Li Liu, an archeologist at Stanford, recently set out to discover what the Natufians ate.

The researchers weren’t specifically looking for traces of ancient beer, but that’s what they found when they analyzed three 13,000-year-old stone mortars from Raqefet. The vessels contained starch residues and phytolith, microscopic plant particles that are “typical in the transformation of wheat and barley to booze,” according to a Stanford University statement.

Liu notes in the statement that the discovery “accounts for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world.” Beer-making is typically associated with later agricultural societies previously, the earliest known evidence came from northern China, some 5,000 years after the Natufians were brewing up beverages at Raqefet Cave.

Researchers analyzed trace amounts of ancient starches extracted from artifacts in the Raqefet Cave to concoct their own version of the Natufian brew. (Li Liu)

Writing in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the researchers reveal that use-wear and residue analysis suggest two of the mortars were used to store cereals, and one was used to pound, cook and brew beer. According to the study authors, the Natufians’ production relied on species from seven different plant families—including wheat, oats, barley, legumes and bast fibers like flax—and likely involved three distinct phases. First, grains were malted by germinating them in water, draining and drying them. Then, the malt was mashed, mixed with water and heated for up to four hours. Finally, the mush was fermented with yeast and allowed to sit for one or more days.

To confirm that this was how the process went, the researchers made their own Natufian-style beer in a lab and compared the starch granules to ones found on the ancient vessels. Their brew “showed a clear similarity to what the Natufians concocted,” according to the Stanford statement.

The Natufians’ beer would have been very different to the frothy stuff we drink today. It was, for one thing, probably quite low in alcohol content. And ancient beer wasn’t clear it looked more like thin porridge or gruel, notes Jiajing Wang, a doctoral student at Stanford’s Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and a co-author of the new paper.

The team’s analysis is significant for several reasons. For one, the presence of beer-making equipment at Raqefet Cave, a burial site, indicates that alcoholic beverages likely played an important ritual function in Natufian culture. And, as the study authors note, the new findings may lend credence to the “highly controversial” theory that ancient peoples’ thirst for beer—and not only their taste for bread—drove them to domesticate cereal grains. The beer residues from Raqefet may in fact predate remains of bread found in northeastern Jordan, which was baked by the Natufians between 14,600 and 11,600 years ago.

And finally, the Natufians’ beer-making skills show that relatively sophisticated food production was taking place even before humans had transitioned to a fully agricultural lifestyle.

“The Natufian remains in Raqefet Cave never stop surprising us," Dani Nadel, study co-author and archaeologist at the University of Haifa, says in a statement. “[W]ith the production of beer, the Raqefet Cave remains provide a very vivid and colorful picture of Natufian lifeways, their technological capabilities and inventions."

Oldest Evidence of Winemaking Discovered at 8,000-Year-Old Village

Contrary to stereotypes, Stone Age people had a taste for finer things.

On a small rise less than 20 miles south of Tbilisi, Georgia, a clutch of round, mud-brick houses rises from a green, fertile river valley. The mound is called Gadachrili Gora, and the Stone Age farmers who lived here 8,000 years ago were grape lovers: Their rough pottery is decorated with bunches of the fruit, and analysis of pollen from the site suggests the wooded hillsides nearby were once decked with grapevines.

In a paper published today in the journal PNAS, an international team of archaeologists has conclusively shown what all those grapes were for. The people living at Gadachrili Gora and a nearby village were the world’s earliest known vintners—producing wine on a large scale as early as 6,000 B.C., a time when prehistoric humans were still reliant on stone and bone tools.

Winemaking has deep roots in the nation of Georgia, where a vintner pours a traditional white wine from a cup inscribed with the names of his forebears.

Excavating the overlapping circular houses at the site, the team found broken pottery, including the rounded bases of large jars, embedded in the floors of the village houses. More samples were found at Shulaveri Gora, another Stone Age village site a mile or so from Gadachrili that was partially excavated in the 1960s. (See “Ghost of the Vine” for more about the search for the roots of winemaking.)

When the samples were analyzed by University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Patrick McGovern, he found tartaric acid, a chemical “fingerprint” that shows wine residues were present in fragments of pottery from both sites.

Combined with the grape decorations on the outside of the jars, ample grape pollen in the site’s fine soil, and radiocarbon dates from 5,800 B.C. to 6,000 B.C., the chemical analysis indicates the people at Gadachrili Gora were the world’s earliest winemakers. (Tipplers at a Chinese site called Jiahu were making fermented beverages from a mixture of grains and wild fruit a thousand years earlier.)

Because they didn’t find many grape seeds or stems preserved in the village’s soil, archaeologists think the wine was made in the nearby hills, close to where the grapes were grown.

“They were pressing it in cooler environments, fermenting it, and then pouring it into smaller jugs and transporting it to the villages when it was ready to drink,” says University of Toronto archaeologist Stephen Batiuk, who co-directed the joint expedition alongside archaeologist Mindia Jalabdze of the Georgian National Museum.

In later periods, winemakers used pine resin or herbs to prevent wine from spoiling or cover up unpleasant tastes, the same way modern wine producers use sulfites. McGovern’s chemical analysis didn’t find any such residues, suggesting that these were early winemaking experiments – and that the wine was a seasonal drink, produced and consumed before it had a chance to turn vinegary. “They don’t seem to have put tree resin with it, making it the first pure wine,” McGovern says. “Maybe they hadn’t yet discovered that tree resins were helpful.”

The evidence adds a new wrinkle to our understanding of the Neolithic, a pivotal period when humans were first learning to farm, settling down and domesticating crops and animals. The gradual process, known as the Neolithic Revolution, began around 10,000 B.C. in Anatolia, a few hundred miles west of Gadachrili.

It’s increasingly clear that it didn’t take long for people to turn their thoughts to alcohol: Just a few thousand years after the first wild grasses were domesticated, the people at Gadachrili had not only learned the art of fermentation but were apparently improving, breeding, and harvesting vitis vinifera, the European grape. “They’re working out horticultural methods, how you transplant it, how you produce it,” McGovern says. “It shows just how inventive the human species is.”

Scientists Discover Oldest Known Dinosaur

A restoration of Nyasasaurus in its Middle Triassic habitat, based on the known bones and comparisons to closely related forms. Art by Mark Witton.

For the past twenty years, Eoraptor has represented the beginning of the Age of Dinosaurs. This controversial little creature–found in the roughly 231-million-year-old rock of Argentina–has often been cited as the earliest known dinosaur. But Eoraptor has either just been stripped of that title, or soon will be. A newly-described fossil found decades ago in Tanzania extends the dawn of the dinosaurs more than 10 million years further back in time.

Named Nyasasaurus parringtoni, the roughly 243-million-year-old fossils represent either the oldest known dinosaur or the closest known relative to the earliest dinosaurs. The find was announced by University of Washington paleontologist Sterling Nesbitt and colleagues in Biology Letters, and I wrote a short news item about the discovery for Nature News. The paper presents a significant find that is also a tribute to the work of Alan Charig–who studied and named the animal, but never formally published a description–but it isn’t just that. The recognition of Nyasasaurus right near the base of the dinosaur family tree adds to a growing body of evidence that the ancestors of dinosaurs proliferated in the wake of a catastrophic mass extinction.

In March of 2010, Nesbitt and a team of collaborators named a leggy, long-necked creature from the same Triassic rock unit in Tanzania they named Asilisaurus kongwe. This creature was a dinosauriform–a member of the group from which the first true dinosaurs emerged–and, even better, appeared to to be the closest known relative to the Dinosauria as a whole. The find hinted that the dinosaur lineage had probably split off from a common ancestor by this time, meaning that the most archaic dinosaurs may have already existed by 243 million years ago. Roughly 249-million-year-old footprints of dinosauriforms found among Poland’s Holy Cross Mountains, described by different researchers later the same year, added evidence that the dinosauriforms were diversifying right from the beginning of the Triassic–not long after the catastrophe that decimated life on earth at the end of the Permian, around 252 million years ago.

Nyasasaurus is another step closer to the first true dinosaurs, and is just as old as Asilisaurus. To find an animal with such distinctive, dinosaur-like traits in the Middle Triassic indicates that dinosaurs already existed, or their ancestral stem was already established. Either way, Eoraptor and kin from South America can no longer be considered as the first dinosaurs, but rather a later radiation of forms. Even though our knowledge of Nyasasaurus is only fragmentary–the dinosaur is represented by a right humerus and a collection of vertebrae from two specimens–the dinosauriform nonetheless marks an additional 12 million years of dinosaur time that paleontologists are only just starting to explore.

Whether or not we ever achieve a more complete view of Nyasasaurus depends on the luck and the caprices of the fossil record. In the new paper, Nesbitt and coauthors point out that the rare, fragmentary nature of the remains found so far reflects that dinosauriforms–and early dinosaurs–were marginal parts of the ecosystems they inhabited. Dinosaurs did not dominate from the very start. They were  relatively meek, small animals that lived in a world ruled by archosaurs more closely related to crocodiles. It was only in the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic, when their archosaurian competition was diminished, that dinosaurs became dominant. That means the earliest dinosaurs and their ancestors are few and far between in the Triassic record.

Still, when I asked Nesbitt what Nyasasaurus might have looked like, he cited other dinosauriforms and early dinosaurs as templates to constrain our expectations. Nyasasaurus may have looked quite like Asilisaurus–a leggy animal with an elongated neck–although Nyasasaurus may have been bipedal. Future finds will test this idea, but the fact remains that paleontologists are closing in on what the very first dinosaurs were like. As paleontologists uncover more early dinosaurs and dinosauriforms, the dividing line between the two disappears–scientists are starting to smooth out the evolutionary transition between the first dinosaurs and their ancestors. What role Nyasasaurus played in that transformation isn’t yet clear, but the creature is a signal that over 10 million years more of uncharted dinosaur history remains in the rock.

Nesbitt, S., Sidor, C., Irmis, R., Angielczyk, K., Smith, R., Tsuji, L. 2010. Ecologically distinct dinosaurian sister group shows early diversification of Ornithodira. Nature 464, 7285: 95󈟎. doi:10.1038/nature08718


Domestication is the process of adapting wild plants and animals for human use. Domestic species are raised for food, work, clothing, medicine, and many other uses. Domesticated plants and animals must be raised and cared for by humans. Domesticated species are not wild.

Plant Domestication

People first domesticated plants about 10,000 years ago, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia (which includes the modern countries of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria). People collected and planted the seeds of wild plants. They made sure the plants had as much water as they needed to grow, and planted them in areas with the right amount of sun. Weeks or months later, when the plants blossomed, people harvested the food crops.

The first domesticated plants in Mesopotamia were wheat, barley, lentils, and types of peas. People in other parts of the world, including eastern Asia, parts of Africa, and parts of North and South America, also domesticated plants. Other plants that were cultivated by early civilizations included rice (in Asia) and potatoes (in South America).

Plants have not only been domesticated for food. Cotton plants were domesticated for fiber, which is used in cloth. Some flowers, such as tulips, were domesticated for ornamental, or decorative, reasons.

Animal Domestication

About the same time they domesticated plants, people in Mesopotamia began to tame animals for meat, milk, and hides. Hides, or the skins of animals, were used for clothing, storage, and to build tent shelters.

Goats were probably the first animals to be domesticated, followed closely by sheep. In Southeast Asia, chickens also were domesticated about 10,000 years ago. Later, people began domesticating larger animals, such as oxen or horses, for plowing and transportation. These are known as beasts of burden.

Domesticating animals can be difficult work. The easiest animals to domesticate are herbivores that graze on vegetation, because they are easiest to feed: They do not need humans to kill other animals to feed them, or to grow special crops. Cows, for instance, are easily domesticated. Herbivores that eat grains are more difficult to domesticate than herbivores that graze because grains are valuable and also need to be domesticated. Chickens are herbivores that eat seeds and grain.

Some animals domesticated for one purpose no longer serve that purpose. Some dogs were domesticated to assist people in hunting, for instance. There are hundreds of domestic dog species today. Many of them are still excellent hunters, but most are pets.

Throughout history, people have bred domesticated animals to promote certain traits. Domestic animals are chosen for their ability to breed in captivity and for their calm temperament. Their ability to resist disease and survive in difficult climates is also valuable.

Over time, these traits make domestic animals different from their wild ancestors. Dogs were probably domesticated from gray wolves. Today, dogs are a distinct species from gray wolves.

Domesticated animals can look very different from their wild ancestors. For example, early wild chickens weighed about two pounds. But over thousands of years of domestication, they have been bred to be larger. Larger chickens yield more meat. Today, domestic chickens weigh as much as 17 pounds. Wild chickens only hatched a small number of eggs once a year, while domestic chickens commonly lay 200 or more eggs each year.

Effects on Humans

Domesticating plants marked a major turning point for humans: the beginning of an agricultural way of life and more permanent civilizations. Humans no longer had to wander to hunt animals and gather plants for their food supplies.

Agriculture&mdashthe cultivating of domestic plants&mdashallowed fewer people to provide more food. The stability that came with regular, predictable food production led to increased population density. People were able to do more than hunt for each day&rsquos food&mdashthey could travel, trade, and communicate. The world's first villages and cities were built near fields of domesticated plants.

Plant domestication also led to advances in tool production. The earliest farming tools were hand tools made from stone. People later developed metal farming tools, and eventually used plows pulled by domesticated animals to work fields.

Dogs and Wolves
Though today's dogs were likely domesticated from gray wolves, they are now a distinct species. Dogs' scientific name is canis lupus familiaris, while the scientific name for gray wolves is canis lupus.

Wild Horses
The process of domestication continues. Cowboys and other horse experts train horses. Sometimes, this is called "breaking" a horse. Training a horse to allow a saddle and rider requires an enormous amount of physical work, training, and patience. Horses that are born on ranches or in stables still need to be trained, although training a young horse is easier than domesticating a horse caught in the wild.


During the last two decades, new archaeological projects which systematically integrate a variety of plant recovery techniques, along with palaeoecology, palaeoclimate, soil science and floristic inventories, have started to transform our understanding of plant exploitation, cultivation and domestication in tropical South America. Archaeobotanical studies are providing a far greater appreciation of the role of plants in the diets of early colonists. Since ∼13ka, these diets relied mainly on palm, tree fruits, and underground tubers, along with terrestrial and riverine faunal resources. Recent evidence indicates two areas of precocious plant cultivation and domestication: the sub-Andean montane forest of NW South America and the shrub savannahs and seasonal forests of SW Amazonia. In the latter area, thousands of anthropic keystone structures represented by forest islands show a significant human footprint in Amazonia from the start of the Holocene. While radiocarbon date databases show a decline in population during the middle Holocene, important developments happened during this epoch, including the domestication of cacao, the adoption of maize and the spread of manioc across the basin. The late Holocene witnessed the domestication of rice and the development of agricultural landscapes characterised by raised fields and Amazonian Dark Earths (ADEs). Our multi-proxy analysis of 23 late Holocene ADEs and two lakes from southern Amazonia provides the first direct evidence of field polyculture agriculture including the cultivation of maize, manioc, sweet potato, squash, arrowroot and leren within closed-canopy forest, as well as enrichment with palms, limited clearing for crop cultivation, and low-severity fire management. Collectively, the evidence shows that during the late Holocene Amazonian farmers engaged in intensive agriculture marked by the cultivation of both annual and perennial crops relying on organic amendments requiring soil preparation and maintenance. Our study has broader implications for sustainable Amazonian futures.

Earliest beginnings

The domestication of plants and animals caused changes in their form the presence or absence of such changes indicates whether a given organism was wild or a domesticate. On the basis of such evidence, one of the oldest transitions from hunting and gathering to agriculture has been identified as dating to between 14,500 and 12,000 bp in Southwest Asia. It was experienced by groups known as Epipaleolithic peoples, who survived from the end of the Paleolithic Period into early postglacial times and used smaller stone tools (microblades) than their predecessors. The Natufians, an Epipaleolithic culture located in the Levant, possessed stone sickles and intensively collected many plants, such as wild barley (Hordeum spontaneum). In the eastern Fertile Crescent, Epipaleolithic people who had been dependent on hunting gazelles (Gazella species) and wild goats and sheep began to raise goats and sheep, but not gazelles, as livestock. By 12,000–11,000 bp , and possibly earlier, domesticated forms of some plants had been developed in the region, and by 10,000 bp domesticated animals were appearing. Elsewhere in the Old World the archaeological record for the earliest agriculture is not as well known at this time, but by 8500–8000 bp millet (Setaria italica and Panicum miliaceum) and rice (Oryza sativa) were being domesticated in East Asia.

In the Americas, squash (Cucurbita pepo and C. moschata) existed in domesticated form in southern Mexico and northern Peru by about 10,000–9000 bp . By 5000–3000 bp the aboriginal peoples of eastern North America and what would become the southwestern United States were turning to agriculture. In sum, plant and animal domestication, and therefore agriculture, were undertaken in a variety of places, each independent of the others.

The dog appears to have been the earliest domesticated animal, as it is found in archaeological sites around the world by the end of the last glacial period. Genetic evidence indicates that a very small number of females—as few as three—were ancestral to 95 percent of all domesticated dogs. The species’ greatest genetic diversity is in China, which indicates that the history of dogs is probably longer there than elsewhere. The earliest dogs found in the Americas are all descendants of the Chinese group, suggesting that they accompanied the first people to reach the New World, an event that occurred at least 13,000 years ago (see Native American: Prehistory). People reached Beringia, the temporary land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, as long as 40,000 years ago, suggesting that dogs may have been domesticated even earlier.

Although the exact timing of dog domestication has not been definitively determined, it is clear that the dog was domesticated from the wolf. How and why this happened is not well understood, but the earliest dogs may have assisted humans with hunting and finding food. Studies have demonstrated that dogs as young as nine months of age are better at reading human social behaviour and communication than wolves or even chimpanzees. This characteristic appears to be inherited and would have established a very close bond between dogs and humans.


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