Early farmers took time to tame wheat

Domesticated varieties of wheat emerged gradually in the prehistoric Near East over a roughly 3,000-year span, a new investigation suggests.

CULTIVATED FINDS. Microscopic analysis of wheat grains such as these from a 6,500-year-old Syrian site revealed clues to plant domestication in prehistoric times. Willcox/CNRS

Ken-ichi Tanno of the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Kyoto, Japan, and George Willcox of the National Center for Scientific Research in Berrias, France, examined 804 wheat-ear remnants recovered at four ancient villages in southeastern Turkey and northern Syria.

Wild and domesticated ears of wheat shatter at maturity in distinctive ways, so microscopic study can distinguish the two forms.

No signs of domesticated wheat appeared at the oldest Near Eastern site, which was initially inhabited about 10,200 years ago, Tanno and Willcox report in the March 31 Science. A 9,250-year-old village yielded a small amount of the cultivated cereal. Progressively larger amounts of domesticated wheat turned up at two younger sites, one dating to 7,500 years ago and the other to 6,500 years ago.

The researchers suspect that as wheat domestication slowly expanded, some Near Eastern farmers nevertheless continued to tend and harvest wild wheat.

Bruce Bower

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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