The greatest thing before sliced bread, to reverse the cliche, was bread itself. The first cultivation of wild grains, that is, turned hunter-gatherers into farmers, beginning some 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. In the transition, people gained a more abundant and dependable source of food, including their daily bread, and changed the world forever.
Archaeologists and historians agree that the rise of agriculture, along with the domestication of animals for food and labor, produced the most important transformation in human culture since the last ice age -- perhaps since the control of fire.
Farming and herding led to the growth of large, settled human populations and increasing competition for productive lands, touching off organized warfare. Food surpluses freed people to specialize in crafts like textiles and supported a privileged elite in the first cities, growing numbers of bureaucrats and scribes, soldiers and kings.
Excavations at more than 50 sites over the last half-century have established the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East as the homeland of the first farmers.
This arc of land, broadly defined, extends from Israel through Lebanon and Syria, then through the plains and hills of Iraq and southern Turkey and all the way to the head of the Persian Gulf. Among its "founder crops" were wheat, barley, various legumes, grapes, melons, dates, pistachios and almonds. The region also produced the first domesticated sheep, goats, pigs and cattle.
But questions persist: Where in the Fertile Crescent were the first wheat and barley crops produced? What conditions favored this region? Why was the transition from hunting and foraging to farming so swift, occurring in only a few centuries?
New genetic studies suggest possible answers. They pinpoint the Karacadag Mountains, in southeast Turkey at the upper fringes of the Fertile Crescent, as the site where einkorn wheat was first domesticated from a wild species around 11,000 years ago.
Moreover, they reveal that cultivated einkorn plants, as botanists had suspected, are remarkably similar genetically and in appearance to their ancestral wild varieties, which seems to explain the relatively rapid transition to farming indicated by archaeological evidence.
A team of European scientists, led by Dr. Manfred Heun of the Agricultural University of Norway in As, reported these findings in the current issue of the journal Science. The researchers analyzed the DNA from 68 lines of cultivated einkorn wheat, Triticum monococcum monococcum, and from 261 wild einkorn lines, T.m. boeoticum, still growing in the Middle East and elsewhere.
In the study, the scientists identified a genetically distinct group of 11 varieties that was also most similar to cultivated einkorn. Because that wild group grows today near the Karacadag Mountains, in the vicinity of the modern city of Diyarbakir, and presumably was there in antiquity, the scientists concluded, this is "very probably the site of einkorn domestication."
Knowing the site for the domestication of such a primary crop, the scientists said, did not necessarily imply that the people living there at the time were the first farmers. "Nevertheless," they wrote, "it has been hypothesized that one single human group may have domesticated all primary crops of the region."
Archaeologists said that radiocarbon dating was not yet precise enough to establish whether einkorn or emmer wheat or barley was the first cereal to be domesticated. All three domestications occurred in the Fertile Crescent, probably within decades or a few centuries of each other. It was a hybrid of emmer and another species from the Caspian Sea area that produced the first bread wheat.
Dr. Bruce D. Smith, an archaeobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution and author of "The Emergence of Agriculture," published two years ago by the Scientific American Library, praised the research as another notable example of new technologies' being applied in trying to solve some of archaeology's most challenging problems. The einkorn findings, he said, made sense because they "fit pretty well with archaeological evidence."
Not far from the volcanic Karacadag Mountains and also to the south, across the border in northern Syria, archaeologists have exposed the ruins of prefarming settlements and early agricultural villages that appear to have existed only a few centuries apart in time. Sifting the soil turned up seeds of both wild and cultivated einkorn wheat. The ruins of Abu Hureyra, an especially revealing Syrian site on the upper Euphrates River, contained firm evidence of einkorn farming more than 10,000 years ago.
The European research team also pointed to this archaeological evidence as supporting its conclusion that the domestication of einkorn wheat began in the Karacadag area.
But some archaeologists may not readily accept the new findings. They have their own favorite areas where they think the first steps in plant domestication took place, and these happen to be to the west and south of the Turkish mountains.
Mud-brick ruins at the edge of an oasis in the Jordan River valley near Jericho have often been cited as from the world's first known farming village, occupied by an ancient people that archaeologists call the Natufians.
Dr. Frank Hole, a Yale University archaeologist who specializes in early agriculture, thinks the major center for early plant domestication was more likely in the corridor running north from the Dead Sea to Damascus.
Its Mediterranean-type climate, dry summers and mild but wet winters, which prevailed at the time of agricultural origins, would have favored the growth of annual plants like barley and both einkorn and emmer wheat. The Jericho site produced early evidence of barley cultivation.
Commenting on the new research, Hole said in an interview that "the location of domestication can't be determined by the present distribution of the wild plants." For example, einkorn does not grow wild today around Abu Hureyra, though excavations show that it must have more than 10,000 years ago. So it cannot be assumed, he said, that wild einkorn was growing in southeast Turkey at the time of domestication.
But Dr. Jared Diamond, a specialist in biogeography at the University of California at Los Angeles, disagreed, noting that the Karacadag Mountains supported "stands of wild einkorn so dense and extensive that they were being harvested by hunter-gatherers even before einkorn's domestication."
An experiment more than 25 years ago by Dr. Jack Harlan, an agronomist at the University of Illinois, demonstrated the likely importance of wild einkorn in the diets of post-ice age hunter-gatherers in the region and what might have encouraged them to domesticate it. Harvesting wild einkorn by hand in southeastern Turkey, Harlan showed that in only three weeks, a small family group could have gathered enough grain to sustain them for a full year.
In reaping the wild grain over a few decades, or at most three centuries, the hunter-gatherers unwittingly caused small but consequential changes in the plants. The new DNA analysis showed that an alteration of only a couple of genes could have transformed the wild einkorn into a cultivated crop.
In the wild, brittle stems hold the einkorn grains to the plant, making it easier for them to scatter naturally and reseed the fields. But natural mutations would have produced some semi-tough stalks that held the seeds more firmly in place.
People cutting the plants with sharp stone sickles would have selected the stalks more laden with grain, and these would be stored as next year's seed stock. Birds would be more apt to consume the dispersed grain from brittle stalks, leaving less of it to germinate.
As Diamond pointed out, repeated cycles of harvesting and reseeding wild einkorn stands "would have selected automatically for those mutations." Those changes included plumper, more nutritious grains in denser clusters that cling to the stem until ripe, instead of scattering before they can be harvested.
"These few, simple changes during einkorn's domestication," Diamond wrote in a separate article in Science, "contrast sharply with the drastic biological reorganization required for the domestication of Native Americans' leading cereal, maize, from its wild ancestor."
This difference alone, he said, "helps explain why densely populated agricultural societies arose so much earlier and developed so much more rapidly in the Crescent than in the New World."
It was several thousand more years before maize, or corn, would become a cultivated crop in central Mexico. There were no native wild wheats and barley in the Americas that might have led to an earlier introduction of agriculture there.
Such circumstances based on geographic location have often been critical in the timing and pace of cultural and economic development for diverse societies, as Diamond argued in "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies," published earlier this year by W.W. Norton.
Nothing in the new einkorn research seems to alter current thinking about the timing and climatic circumstances for agriculture's genesis in the Fertile Crescent.
With the end of the ice age 14,000 to 12,000 years ago, retreating glaciers left the world warmer and wetter than before. Greater rainfall in many temperate zones nourished a spread of vegetation, including many grasses like wild wheat and barley.
This attracted concentrations of grazing animals. Hunter-gatherers converged on the grasses and animals, in many cases abandoning their nomadic ways and settling down to village life. Such conditions were particularly favorable in the Middle East.
Then followed a brief return of colder, drier weather more than 11,000 years ago and lasting a few centuries. Dr. Ofer Bar-Yosef, an archaeologist at Harvard University, thinks the stresses of coping with the Younger Dryas, as the dry spell is called, contributed to the beginning of plant domestication.
With the sudden dearth of wild food sources, hunter-gatherers began storing grain for the lean times and learning to cultivate the fields for better yields. In any case, the earliest evidence for agriculture so far comes from the period immediately after the Younger Dryas.
In his book on early agriculture, Smith of the Smithsonian wrote, "Even in the absence of such an external pressure, gradual growth in their populations and expansion of their villages may have encouraged or necessitated a variety of economic changes, including experimenting with the cultivation of wild grasses."
Whatever the factors behind its origins, Diamond said, agriculture took a firm hold in the ancient Middle East because of the diversity of plants and animals suitable for domestication. The first farmers, he said in the journal article, quickly assembled "a balanced package of domesticates meeting all of humanity's basic needs: carbohydrate, protein, oil, milk, animal transport and traction, and vegetable and animal fiber for rope and clothing."
Eurasian geography probably favored the rapid spread of agriculture out of the Middle East and throughout much of the two continents. Referring to a thesis developed in his book, Diamond pointed out that the west-east axis of the Eurasian land mass, as well as of the Fertile Crescent, permitted crops, livestock and people "to expand at the same latitude without having to adapt to new day lengths, climates and diseases."
In contrast, the north-south orientations of the Americas, Africa and the Indian subcontinent probably slowed the diffusion of agricultural innovations. And that, Diamond contends, could account for the head start some societies had on others in the march of human history.
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