The Origin of Cultivation and Proto-Weeds, Long Before Neolithic Farming

PLoS One. 2015 Jul 22;10(7):e0131422. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0131422. eCollection 2015.

Abstract

Weeds are currently present in a wide range of ecosystems worldwide. Although the beginning of their evolution is largely unknown, researchers assumed that they developed in tandem with cultivation since the appearance of agricultural habitats some 12,000 years ago. These rapidly-evolving plants invaded the human disturbed areas and thrived in the new habitat. Here we present unprecedented new findings of the presence of "proto-weeds" and small-scale trial cultivation in Ohalo II, a 23,000-year-old hunter-gatherers' sedentary camp on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Israel. We examined the plant remains retrieved from the site (ca. 150,000 specimens), placing particular emphasis on the search for evidence of plant cultivation by Ohalo II people and the presence of weed species. The archaeobotanically-rich plant assemblage demonstrates extensive human gathering of over 140 plant species and food preparation by grinding wild wheat and barley. Among these, we identified 13 well-known current weeds mixed with numerous seeds of wild emmer, barley, and oat. This collection provides the earliest evidence of a human-disturbed environment-at least 11 millennia before the onset of agriculture-that provided the conditions for the development of "proto-weeds", a prerequisite for weed evolution. Finally, we suggest that their presence indicates the earliest, small-scale attempt to cultivate wild cereals seen in the archaeological record.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Crop Production / history*
  • History, Ancient
  • Hordeum*
  • Humans
  • Israel
  • Plant Weeds*
  • Triticum*

Grant support

This work was supported by an Individual Research Grant, Israel Science Foundation (http://www.isf.org.il/), grant No. 711/08 for EW. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.