Hunter-gatherer plant use in southwest Asia: The path to agriculture

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This paper focuses on plant use by the last hunter-gatherers in the Levant, from the
Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) to the first experiments with plant cultivation at the
beginning of the Holocene. This review of Epipaleolithic and Early Neolithic plant
use summarises available archaeobotanical and technological data. Information for
the Early Epipalaeolithic, especially from the site of Ohalo II, shows that, from the
LGM, humans had access to exceptionally rich plant-food staples that included smallgrained
grasses and wild barley (Hordeum spontaneum) and wild wheat (Triticum
dicoccoides). Grasses seem to have been the staple plant foods but other plants were
also present: wild pulses, acorns, almonds, pistachios, wild olives, fruits, and berries.
Grinding and pounding stone tools were in use at this time for processing plant
resources. During the Late Epipaleolithic (Natufian) period plant use intensified, as
can be seen in the site of Abu Hureyra. The seed assemblage from Abu Hureyra I
may have included more than 120 food types comprising possible staples such as the
grain of wild rye (Secale spp.) and wheat (Triticum spp.), feather grasses (Stipa and
Stipagrostis spp.), club-rush (Scirpus maritimus), Euphrates knotgrass (Polygonum
corrigioloides), small-seeded grasses, and wild shrubby chenopods (Atriplex spp. and
others). The presence in Natufian sites of tools with glossy edges that were used
for harvesting cereals, and the widespread nature of mortars suggest that cereals
were a more common food. During the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA), the first
experiments with cultivation of morphologically wild cereals, and also probably of
legumes, took place. This involved cereals such as wild emmer (T. dicoccoides), wild
einkorn (T. boeoticum), wild barley (Hordeum spontaneum) and wild oat (Avena
sterilis), and pulses such as rambling vetch (Vicia peregrina) and probably others.
Human manipulation of plant resources opened the path to domestication with the
first evidence found during the Early Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (EPPNB). However,
the exploitation of wild plants continued to be important for these societies, as is
suggested by the admixture of plant exploitation strategies during most of the PPN
period and the late establishment of crop ‘packages’ during the Late PPNB.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWild harvest : Plants in the hominin and pre-agrarian human worlds
EditorsKaren Hardy, Lucy Kubiak-Martens
Number of pages20
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxbow Books
Publication date2016
Article number5
ISBN (Print)ISBN 978-1-78570-123-8
ISBN (Electronic)ISBN 978-1-78570-124-5
Publication statusPublished - 2016
SeriesStudying scientific archaeology

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