New York: People who lived on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in present day Israel made the first attempt at agriculture around 23,000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought, new research shows.
Researchers earlier believed that farming started some 12,000 years ago in the Middle East. The new discovery was made at Ohalo II, a 23,000-year-old camp site of a community of hunter-gatherers that lived on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The site is located nine kilometre (km) south of the modern city of Tiberias and was discovered in 1989 when the level of the lake plummeted.
Excavations at Ohalo II exposed six brush hut dwellings, a human grave, copious and well-preserved remains of both animal and plant foods, beads from the Mediterranean Sea, as well as evidence of flint tool manufacture and use.
"The study represents the earliest example of small-scale cultivation found anywhere in the world," said the study's lead researcher Ehud Weiss, professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
"The plant remains from the site were unusually well-preserved because of being charred and then covered by sediment and water which sealed them in low-oxygen conditions," Weiss said.
"Due to this, it was possible to recover an extensive amount of information on the site and its inhabitants - which made this a uniquely preserved site, and therefore one of the best archaeological examples worldwide of hunter-gatherers' way of life," Weiss added.
"Here we see evidence of repeated sowing and harvesting of later domesticated cereals," Weiss said.
The findings were detailed in the journal Plos One.
In the Ohalo II dwellings was a particularly rich assemblage of some 150,000 plant remains, showing that the site's residents gathered over 140 different plant species from the surrounding environment.
Among these, Weiss's team identified edible cereals - such as wild emmer, wild barley, and wild oats.
A grinding slab set firmly on a brush hut floor, a stone tool from which microscopic cereal starch granules were extracted, as well as a unique distribution pattern of seeds around this tool, provided additional, unequivocal evidence that cereal grains were brought into the hut and processed into flour, the study said.
Another intriguing finding relates to a number of sickle blades - harvesting tools composed of sharp flint implements inserted in wood or bone handles - found at the site; these are among the oldest of their kind ever found.
"We found several sickle blades at Ohalo II, and the study under the microscope of the gloss along their cutting edge indicates that they were used for harvesting cereals just before their complete ripening," said one of the researchers Dani Nadel from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa in Israel.