People in Saharan Africa started cultivating and storing wild cereals 10,000 years ago, suggests a new study published in Nature Plants. Scientists say it could be a lesson in future food security if global warming makes it necessary to find alternative food crops.
More than 200,000 seeds were discovered in small circular concentrations in an ancient rock shelter named Takarkori. Located in southwestern Libya, it’s now a desert, but during the Holocene, it was part of the “green Sahara” where wild cereals grew.
A previous theory suggested that ants, who are capable of moving seeds, were actually responsible for their relocation. Entomologists in forensics and archaeology analyzed a large number of samples now stored at the University of Modena & Reggio Emilia, demonstrating that insects weren’t responsible, instead showing that hunter-gatherers developed an early form of agriculture by harvesting and storing seeds.
The researchers also found evidence of woven-root baskets that could have been used to gather seeds. A chemical analysis of pottery from the site shows cereal soup and cheeses were being made.
The seeds discovered are modern “weeds,” but the authors say they could have been an important food for societies in the past, and could be a lesson for food sustainability in the future.
"The same behavior that allowed these plants to survive in a changing environment in a remote past makes them some of the most likely possible candidates as staple resources in a coming future of global warming. They continue to be successfully exploited and cultivated in Africa today and are attracting the interest of scientists searching for new food resources," said the authors in a statement.
In a suburban garden, weeds are annoyingly stubborn beasts that can survive some of the hardest conditions and choke out other more domesticated plants. But that stubbornness is exactly what some scientists are studying in the hope of making food crops more resilient to intensifying global conditions.
With the Earth expected to pass the 2°C (3.6°F) threshold for dangerous global warming by 2050, some experts say biological and physical changes happening on Earth due to climate change will transform the way we produce food by reducing the amount of food grown, the places in which these crops are cultivated, and a loss of nutritional value from increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide.
What was a small food cache stashed away 10,000 years ago could help be a clue in how scientists might establish food security for the additional 2.4 billion people coming to the dinner table by 2050.
“Reconnecting past practices with modern farming strategies can help us to seek out the best resources for the future,” the authors conclude in the study.