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Figs may have been humanity's first crop: Study

Dried-up figs found in what is modern day Israel may have been the first cultivated crop more than 11,000 years ago.

india Updated: Jun 03, 2006 19:30 IST

Dried-up figs found in what is modern day Israel may have been the first cultivated crop more than 11,000 years ago, researchers said on Friday.

Their discovery pushes back the earliest estimates of when agriculture began by 1,000 years.

And it suggests that, centuries before they figured out how to plant barley and other crops, people knew how to propagate fruit trees for sweet treats, said researchers Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Mordechai Kislev and Anat Hartmann of Israel's Bar-Ilan University.

 The first crop on earth

"Eleven thousand years ago, there was a critical switch in the human mind -- from exploiting the earth as it is to actively changing the environment to suit our needs," Bar-Yosef, a professor of anthropology, said in a statement.

"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."

People were known to have cultivated figs for thousands of years but this finding surprised even experts.

"It is generally accepted that the fig tree was domesticated in the Near East some 6,500 years ago," Bar-Yosef's team wrote in their report, published in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

"Here we report the discovery of nine carbonised fig fruits stored in Gilgal I, an early Neolithic village, located in the Lower Jordan Valley, which dates to 11,400 to 11,200 years ago."

Examination of the figs showed they were a variety that produces a large, sweet fruit, as opposed to the wild type, the researchers said.

In this variety, known as parthenocarpic figs, the fruit develops without insect pollination and is prevented from falling off the tree, which allows it to become soft, sweet, and edible.

But because such figs do not produce seeds, they cannot reproduce unless people propagate them, perhaps by planting shoots or branches.

Fig trees will grow this way.

"Dried figs similar in size and structure imported from Iran are found today in the markets of London," the scientists said.

The carbonized figs were not distorted, which, the researchers said, suggested they may have been dried for human consumption.

"Once the parthenocarpic mutation occurred, humans must have recognized that the resulting fruits do not produce new trees, and fig tree cultivation became a common practice," Bar-Yosef said.

"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."

At the same site researchers found foods that must have been gathered, such as acorns and wild oats.