Scientists working in the flooded ruins of an ancient fishing camp in Israel have found evidence that the village's residents collected wild grain, pounded it into flour and possibly baked bread at least 10,000 years before the advent of cultivated crops.
Researchers found traces of barley and perhaps other grains in the seams of a grinding stone unearthed at Ohalo II, a settlement that stood on the southwest shore of the Sea of Galilee 22,000 years ago. The discovery is the oldest evidence yet found of humans processing cereal grains.
The research adds a new twist to the still-mysterious story of how agriculture evolved, showing that humans began collecting and preparing cereals perhaps thousands of years before they contemplated growing it themselves.
"We identified barley starch and maybe wheat," said Dolores R. Piperno, a Smithsonian Institution archaeobotanist who led the research team. "Barley is the first crop to show up among cereals, and this shows that people were focusing on it even 10,000 years earlier."
The team found the stone in the ruins of one of six huts at Ohalo II, and also found a paved circle of ash-covered stones that may have served as a makeshift oven. The research was reported in today's edition of the journal Nature.
"There were any number of hearths, but only one area lined with stones," Piperno said. Even today, she noted, many cultures make ovens by lighting a fire on top of stones in an enclosed space, then shoveling the embers away before sliding bread or other food onto the hot surface.
Ohalo II is a unique site, apparently frozen in time when it was inundated by floodwaters. A prolonged drought caused the ancient settlement to reemerge in 1989 and again 10 years later. Piperno said it is currently submerged in about 10 feet of water.
Archaeologists began excavating in 1989. The site had apparently been burned before the flooding, which helped preserve many artifacts from insects and vermin, and sudden submergence prevented bacteria from consuming the remains.
The result was a treasure trove. Researchers found flints, fish and animal bones, fruit remains and fragments from hundreds of species of plants and animals. Ohalo II is gaining a reputation as perhaps the best-preserved site of its time anywhere. In many respects it is a Stone Age version of Pompeii, which was buried in 79 A.D. by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
"The finds at Ohalo II are spectacular," acknowledged archaeobotanist Naomi F. Miller of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, but their very uniqueness "makes the site hard to evaluate, because we have nothing to compare."
Agriculture -- practiced by settled peoples cultivating crops -- began to appear between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago in disparate cultures in the Middle East, the Far East and Mesoamerica, for reasons as yet unknown.
The Ohalo II settlers identified and collected edible plants but did not attempt to grow them in any systematic way. The variety of foods found at Ohalo II nevertheless suggests a substantial level of sophistication among the foragers.
"It's one of the most unusual groups of material ever found," said Patrick E. McGovern, a senior research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. He said researchers have even identified grape residues at Ohalo II, suggesting bread making may have been possible.
"Grapes have a lot of yeast on the skin, enough to start to ferment," McGovern said. By adding some yeast to barley dough and putting it in an oven, the ancient homemaker could have made leavened bread.
Or perhaps wine or some other fermented beverage. "It's not impossible," McGovern said, but it is impossible to check. One of the chief drawbacks in researching Stone Age eating habits is that there is no pottery. "They probably had [fermented beverages] in leather bags or something, but those are gone," he said. "We have no vessels and no residues."
Besides the milled grain, Piperno's team also saw considerable evidence of charred or parched grains at the site, especially smaller seeds, suggesting that the ancient residents may have gathered cereal to make gruel.
"The preservation is remarkable. It's not often you find something like this," Piperno said of the site.