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Last Updated: Friday, 2 June 2006, 00:45 GMT 01:45 UK
Ancient fig clue to first farming
By Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC News

Fig (Jonathan Reif)
The figs are extremely well preserved
Ancient figs found in an archaeological site in the Jordan Valley may represent one of the earliest forms of agriculture, scientists report.

The carbonised fruits date between 11,200 and 11,400 years old.

The US and Israeli researchers say the figs are a variety that could have only been grown with human intervention.

The team, writing in the journal Science, says the find marks the point when humans turned from hunting and gathering to food cultivation.

Random mutations

Nine small figs, measuring just 18mm (0.7in) across, along with 313 smaller fig fragments were discovered in a house in an early Neolithic village, called Gilgal I, in the Jordan Valley.

The researchers from Harvard University in the US and Bar-Ilan University in Israel believe the figs are an early domestic crop rather than a wild breed.

Figs (Jonathan Reif)
The ancient fig (left) is smaller than these varieties of modern fig
After examining the figs, they determined that it was a self-pollinating, or parthenocarpic, variety, like the kind we eat today.

In nature, parthenocarpic fig trees appear now and again by a chance genetic mutation; but because they do not produce seeds, they cannot reproduce alone - they require a shoot to be removed and replanted.

Ofer Bar-Yosef, an archaeologist from Harvard University and an author on the Science paper, said: "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.

"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."

Neolithic 'revolution'

The figs were well preserved and found together with wild barley, wild oats and acorns. The team says this indicates these early Neolithic people mixed food cultivation with hunting and gathering.

"This sort of find helps us to learn about human behaviour at the beginning of the Neolithic revolution," said Professor Bar-Yosef.

"Before this, you had about 2.5 million years of hunters and gathers in various locations around the world.

"But the Neolithic revolution was all about changing the relationship between humans and nature. Instead of just being consumers of whatever was growing in the wild, we started to plant and cultivate and corral animals, and so on."

The researchers say the carbonised figs pre-date the cultivation of other domesticated staples such as wheat, barley and legumes. They believe the fruit may mark the first known example of agriculture.

But other carbonised finds, such as domesticated rice found in Korea thought to date from about 15,000 years ago, have made defining the exact origins of agriculture complicated.

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