Early farmers crop up in Jordan

In the Middle East, around 10,300 to 9,300 years ago, a crucial but still poorly understood social transition occurred—small nomadic groups set down roots to form large farming villages.

An ancient site discovered in southern Jordan dates to that pivotal period and promises to yield new clues to the origins of agriculture, according to a report in the August-October Current Anthropology.

An archaeological team led by Steven Mithen of the University of Reading in England has excavated three small trenches at the site, known as Wadi Faynan 16. Even this preliminary effort has yielded a large and diverse array of stone tools, butchered animal bones, and exotic items, such as marine shells and polished bone and stone objects.

The small amount of charred plant remains found so far “suggest that a wide range of plant foods and environments had been exploited,” Mithen and his coworkers say. Fragments of charcoal at the site come from juniper, oak, willow, fig, acacia, and other trees. These trees grew in areas that ranged from dense forest to relatively open hills. Seeds of wild legumes and wild fruits also turned up, as well as a single grain of barley that’s too poorly preserved to determine whether it’s wild or domestic.

Radiocarbon dates for five charcoal samples place Wadi Faynan 16 at between 9,890 and 9,400 years old.

“Much remains to be done in exploring [the Jordanian site], but every new discovery from this time period is important,” comments archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University.

“It’s clear that early farmers were both hunters and cultivators.” Evidence gathered by Bar-Yosef and others at a handful of more extensively explored Middle Eastern sites indicates that Wadi Faynan 16 lies within a region of early barley cultivation.

Inhabitants of areas to the north raised other wild cereals, such as einkorn and emmer wheat, instead of barley, Bar-Yosef says. The onset of farming fostered population growth and, in turn, huge social changes, Bar-Yosef asserts. He estimates that the largest early farming settlements held as many as 400 people.

People for the first time could seek marriage partners in their own village rather than having to work out mating arrangements with geographically separate groups, he notes.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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