Re: [Ancientartifacts] Researchers find earliest known oven
- In a message dated 10/1/2004 6:06:09 AM Central Standard Time, laubstein@... writes:
Researchers find earliest known oven
New find in Israel shows that cereal production predates agricultural
societies by millennia
By Steve Bradt
Archaeologists have found strong evidence that wheat and barley were
refined into cereals 23,000 years ago, suggesting that humans were
processing grains long before hunter-gatherer societies developed
agriculture. The findings, including the identification of the
earliest known oven and hence the oldest evidence of baking, were
described in a recent issue of the journal Nature. "This is an
observation of key progress in human society, as the beginning of
baking was likely a major step forward in nutrition," says author
Ehud Weiss, a postdoctoral researcher in Harvard University's
Department of Anthropology and Peabody Museum. "Our work also
provides evidence that ancient people held important knowledge that
survives to this day. Ten thousand years before agriculture
developed, humans recognized the value of cereals."
Weiss and colleagues from the Smithsonian Institution and University
of Haifa found evidence of ancient cereal production at a site called
Ohalo II, located in present-day Israel and known from previous
research to be 23,000 years old. Within the remains of a hut at this
site, Weiss and his colleagues found 150 starch granules buried in
crevices in a footlong stone apparently used to grind grains.
Comprehensive studies of these starch molecules revealed that more
than half were from the family that includes barley and wheat. No
starches from roots or tubers were found lodged in the stone,
suggesting it was used only as a cereal-processing implement. Several
meters away, the archaeologists found a special alignment of burned
stones, similar to hearthlike ovens used by recent and modern nomads
and hunter-gatherers. This blackened area was covered with a mixture
of ashes and barley grains, suggesting that dough made from grain
flour was baked there.
The work by Weiss and colleagues provides some of the first empirical
data on old and important problems in Old World archaeology. It sheds
light on two issues central to the transition from foraging to food
production: when humans began to routinely exploit wild varieties of
wheat and barley and when they first developed technologies to pound
and grind the hard, fibrous seeds of these and other plants into
digestible foodstuffs. Weiss' co-authors on the Nature paper are
Dolores R. Piperno and Irene Holst of the Smithsonian Institution and
Dani Nadel of the University of Haifa.
Harvard researchers push human cereal use back 10,000 years
Findings on small grain grasses support theory of agriculture's rise
By Alvin Powell
Harvard News Office
A 23,000-year-old hunter-gatherers' camp submerged under the Sea of
Galilee for millennia has provided Harvard researchers with new
information about early human diets, showing that grains were staple
foods 10,000 years earlier than previously thought and shedding new
light on agriculture's roots.
The site, called Ohalo II, was discovered in 1989 after water levels
dropped dramatically as a result of severe drought coupled with
increased pumping for human use.
The site's remains were preserved under the lake's waters and
included plant materials, which unlike stone or bone are rarely
recovered from periods as long ago as 23,000 years.
The anaerobic underwater environment inhibited decomposition of the
plant remains, leaving a rare record of the Upper Paleolithic diet -
some 90,000 plant remains - for Harvard Postdoctoral Fellow in
Anthropology Ehud Weiss to read.
Along with Wilma Wetterstrom, associate in botany at the Harvard
University Herbaria, Anthropology Professor Ofer Bar Yosef, and a
colleague from the University of Haifa, Weiss found new insights into
human exploitation of plants and the origins of agriculture.
At Ohalo II, grass seeds were the principal plant food, augmented by
a wide variety of other wild foods, including acorns, almonds,
pistachios, olives, raspberries, figs, and grapes.
"The site shows us that the plant-human relationship that was part of
the beginnings of agriculture was not a short one," Weiss said. "It
was a long association."
A variety of animal remains was also found at the site, including
those of mammals, fish, birds, and mollusks; these remains are being
Among the 19,000 grass seeds found were a significant number of wild
wheat and barley seeds. While this pushes wild cereal use back much
earlier than previously known, Weiss said the discovery of
significant cereal use was not very surprising because these plants
are dominant foods found at later sites. Wild wheat and barley were
eventually domesticated and are among our major cereals today.
More remarkable was the vast quantity of seeds from small-grained
grasses, the first evidence that people had relied extensively on
this food source and an indication that the camp's occupants ate a
far more diverse array of grasses than previously thought.
"It was really a shotgun approach," Wetterstrom said. "They were
collecting as much as they could."
Not only were the Ohalo II people gathering a broad range of grains,
but they were also reaching out to foods with smaller returns for the
labor. The small-grained grasses, far tinier than the cereal, grew on
shorter plants that demanded more stooping and bending to harvest
than wild wheat and barley. Separating the grain from the husks was
an arduous chore for all the grasses, but the yield for the amount of
work was far less for the small-grained grasses because of their
These grass seeds were so tiny that, though there were far more of
them - 16,000 versus 2,600 cereal grains - the small-grained grasses
still made up just 35 percent of the grass seed volume.
That this labor-intensive food was present in significant quantity at
Ohalo II provides the first evidence that a prevailing theory about
the rise of agriculture, which has already been validated for
animals, may be true for plants as well, the researchers said.
"This is the first proof that the broad spectrum hypothesis applies
to plants as well as to animals," Wetterstrom said.
The theory holds that with changing climactic conditions and
increasing human population, the few primary foods of early hunter-
gatherers were no longer adequate to sustain them.
In response, Paleolithic people began hunting and gathering a much
broader range of foods, including what would be considered far less
desirable choices because of the labor involved in their capture
versus the amount of food they yielded.
Called by scientists the "broad spectrum revolution," this
development ultimately led to domestication of plants and animals and
the development of agriculture. Hunter-gatherers, casting their nets
farther for food, began using the plants and animals that they
eventually farmed and herded.
Though evidence of this dietary expansion has been found among animal
remains as far back as 50,000 years, until now there has been no
evidence that early humans broadened their plant diet as well, mainly
due to the scarcity of preserved plant remains.
"It is similar today to people who need to support their family and
get a second job, one that doesn't pay nearly as well as the first
but adds some income," Weiss said. "I think that is what these people
did, get a second job gathering small-grained grasses."
The Ohalo II site was occupied during the height of the last Ice Age,
called the Last Glacial Maximum. With a lot of fresh water frozen in
the glaciers, the climate at Ohalo II was much cooler and drier than
today, perhaps decreasing the abundance of natural foods and forcing
inhabitants to gather smaller grass seeds to augment other items in
Excavated from 1989 to 1991 and again from 1999 to 2001, the site
itself is a collection of the remains of several small huts,
fireplaces, a human grave, and stone tools spread across 2,000 square
meters. Among the tools found was a grinding stone in the remains of
one hut, with both small-grained grasses and larger cereal grains
found around it.
"Before Ohalo II, I didn't think we'd have such a window on hunter-
gatherers who lived in such an area," Weiss said. "This is part of
the reason we're in the research business, finding out things we
never thought possible."