The Wilson Quarterly

It took thousands of years for humans to transition from on-the-go foraging bands to settled farming villages. How did this change come about? Recent excavations at an archaeological site near the Dead Sea in Jordan have provided a clue: Humans living about 11,000 years ago grew and stored wild grains for more than a millennium before they began growing domesticated plants. The surpluses they salted away enabled humans to settle and to develop farming techniques and new crops.

Humans who lived even earlier had built and lived in semi-permanent settlements in the region, but none of the ruins from that period 15,000 to 12,800 years ago show direct evidence of food storage. Presumably, the inhabitants had multiple food sources that provided enough yield regardless of the season, without the need to build up stores for leaner times. A period of climate change nearly 13,000 years ago forced the villagers to abandon their settlements and return to a nomadic lifestyle.

When the climate stabilized about 11,500 years ago, people in the region began to invest more energy and resources in building more permanent dwellings. Two archaeologists, Ian Kuijt at the University of Notre Dame, and Bill Finlayson at the Council for British Research in the Levant, have found microscopic silica from the husks of wild barley stored inside sophisticated granaries from this period. They write that the granaries are from “the first time . . . people started to live in larger communities that were based, at least in part, upon systematic large-scale food storage of cultivated plants.”

Kuijt and Finlayson’s dig has so far revealed at least four granaries, all of which were circular and made of mud. Wood floors rested on stones, elevating the grain off the ground and thereby providing protection from rodents and moisture. The granaries are located outside of the residential structures on the site, indicating that the food stores were used and owned communally. Over the next 1,500 years, food storage moved inside people’s homes, indicating a shift to a system of property ownership by individuals or families—one more step on the path to the world we know today.

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The Source: "Evidence for Food Storage and Predomestication Granaries 11,000 Years Ago in the Jordan Valley" by Ian Kuijt and Bill Finlayson, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 7, 2009.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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