One of the biggest events in the history of humans was when we decided to eschew the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and settle on farms. This event could only have occurred after people domesticated crops such as wheat and barley, allowing their early civilization to develop and flourish.
It now seems, however, that the origin of this domestication process was much earlier than previously understood, potentially up to 10,000 years earlier than is generally accepted, in fact. By trawling through the genes of some of the most common domestic plants we use around the world today, including rice, wheat, and barley, researchers found evidence that people had been selecting and thus altering the plants up to 30,000 years ago.
“This study changes the nature of the debate about the origins of agriculture, showing that very long-term natural processes seem to lead to domestication – putting us on a par with the natural world, where we have species like ants that have domesticated fungi, for instance,” explained Professor Robin Allaby, who co-authored the paper published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
It is now well established that there were a few different centers of crop domestication, depending on what species is being looked at. People in China started cultivating rice, those in the Levant were harvesting wheat and barley, communities in New Guinea were planting sugarcane, while the potato was being domesticated in the Andes. While full domestication and cultivation is believed to have cropped up around 10,000 years ago, it is thought that the wild grains of these plants were being collected and eaten at least 20,000 years ago.
But this latest piece of research is suggesting that – for some species at least – this figure should be pushed back even further by another 10,000 years. By analyzing evolving gene frequencies of ancient plant remains uncovered by archaeologists, they have been able to see when a particular gene that is associated plants retaining their seeds, which is, in turn, thought to have been driven by humans selectively gathering these varieties.
It turns out that while for rice this gene appeared just before 13,000 years ago in China, for barley it was present at least 21,000 years ago and for wheat even further back, pitching up some 25,000 years ago. This, the authors argue, show that man was playing some role in the collection, selection, and evolution of plants that long ago.