Ohalo II ‘proto-weeds’ indicate attempts to cultivate wild cereals 23,000 years ago

Evidence of low-level food production at Epipaleolithic site

Ohalo II is a well-studied sedentary hunter-gatherer settlement on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Associated with the Kebaran culture, the site dates to the Early Epipaleolithic period and was occupied around 23,000 years ago. The partially-excavated site is believed to cover an area of around 2,000 sq. m. (21,500 sq. ft.), and excavations have revealed the remains of six huts. Faunal remains suggest that the Ohalo II people hunted gazelle and deer, trapped hare and birds, and caught fish. From preserved botanical remains, no fewer than 142 different plant species have been identified, including emmer wheat, barley, brome and other small-grained grasses, acorns, almonds, pistachios, olives, legumes, raspberries, figs and grapes. These were collected from a range of habitats, including the nearby Mount Tabor.

In a newly-published report, archaeologists report the identification of 13 plant species now classified as weeds, mixed with large quantities of wild cereal seeds, including emmer, barley and oats. The presence of such species among cereals is considered to be one of the key archaeological indications of food production – in this case some 11,000 years before the onset of full-blown agriculture in the region.

That the Ohalo II people were harvesting wild cereal stands is supported by a study of glossed flint blades found at the site. The pattern of use-wear ‘sickle gloss’ polish observed on the sharp edges of these blades is consistent with their use to harvest wild cereals before they fully ripen and scatter their grain. Such a practice known from the later Natufian culture, but has not previously been documented for the Kebaran.  The blade also bears traces of hafting on the opposite side to the cutting edge, indicating that it was possibly a part of a sickle. Again, such tools are very rare in a pre-Natufian context.

However, the report suggests that these techniques were not carried on in later times, and they evidently represent a failed attempt at low-level food production. Sickle-harvesting did not come into widespread use until the Early Natufian around 8,000 years later, or 15,000 years before the present.

Reference:
Snir, A. et al., The Origin of Cultivation and Proto-Weeds, Long Before Neolithic Farming. PLoS One 10 (7), e0131422 (2015).

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