Was fig first fruit of man's agricultural endeavours ?
THE DAWN of agriculture may have come with the domestication of fig trees near Jericho some 11,400 years ago, archaeologists report today.
The discovery of ancient carbonised figs suggests that fruit, rather than grains that are traditionally thought to have heralded agriculture, may yield the earliest evidence of purposeful planting.
The figs date back roughly 1,000 years before wheat, barley and legumes were domesticated in the region, making the fruit trees the oldest known domesticated crop, a team reports today in the journal Science.
Nine small figs and 313 fig fragments were found at Gilgal I, a village in the Lower Jordan Valley , eight miles north of ancient Jericho, known to have been inhabited for some 200 years before being abandoned roughly 11,200 years ago.
"This is the oldest evidence for deliberate planting of a food-producing plant, as opposed to just gathering food in the wild," says Prof Peter Bellwood of the Australian National University in Canberra .
The find is all the more remarkable because the figs sat ignored for decades. They were collected in the 1970s and 1980s but were forgotten after the Israeli archaeologist who led the excavation died.
Then the Israel Museum in Jerusalem invited Prof Ofer Bar-Yosef, a Harvard University archaeologist, to study the finds. Today Prof Bar-Yosef and Prof Mordechai Kislev and Anat Hartmann of Bar-Gan University in Ramat-Gan announce how the figs have a remarkable story to tell about the history of mankind.
"Eleven thousand years ago there was a critical switch in the human mind - from exploiting the earth as it to actively changing the environment to suit our needs," says Prof Bar-Yosef.
"People decided to intervene in nature and supply their own food rather than relying on what was provided by the gods. This shift to a sedentary lifestyle grounded in the growing of wild crops such as barley and wheat marked a dramatic change from 2.5 million years of human history as mobile hunter-gatherers."
The carbonised figs were not distorted, suggesting that they may have been dried for human consumption. Similar fig drupelets were found at a second site about a mile west of Gilgal.
The scientists compared the ancient figs with modern wild and domesticated variants, and determined that they were a mutant, selectively propagated by local people.
In this variety of fig, known as parthenocarpic, the fruit develops without insect pollination and is prevented from falling off the tree, allowing it to ripen.
However, because such figs do not produce seeds, they are a reproductive dead end, unless humans interfere by planting, shoots from the parthenocarpic trees.
"Once the parthenocarpic mutation occurred, humans must have recognised that the resulting fruits do not produce new trees and fig tree cultivation became a common practice," Prof Bar-Yosef says. "In this intentional act of planting a specific variant of fig tree, we can see the beginnings of agriculture. This edible fig would not have survived if not for human intervention."
The mutation responsible for this parthenocarpic variety arises on some fig trees, but relatively infrequently. The abundance of the fig remains therefore implies that humans recognised these rare trees and propagated them by planting branches. Ease of planting may explain why figs were domesticated some five millennia before other fruit trees, such as the grape, olive and date.
Prof Bar-Yosef says: "The reported Gilgal figs, stored together with other staples such as wild barley, wild oat and acorns, indicate that the subsistence strategy of these early Neolithic farmers was a mixed exploitation of wild plants and initial fig domestication."