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Oldest evidence for processing of wild cereals: starch grains from barley, wheat, on grinding stone

When the water level in the Sea of Galilee dropped in 1989, archaeologists rushed to excavate Ohalo II, an ancient human settlement. On the floor of one hut they found a large, flat, basaltic stone. The stone's uneven surface yielded starch grains of grass seeds, mostly from wild barley and possibly also from wheat. This evidence presented in the journal Nature (August 5, 2004), pushes back the date for the processing of close wild relatives of domesticated wheat and barley, a key step in cultural development, to 23,000 years before the present era. "Ten thousand years before people were cultivating cereals, they were processing wild barley: starch grain analysis establishes a clear link between an intensive exploitation of wild cereals and the subsequent development of plant cultivation and domestication in the region " explains Dolores Piperno, lead author.

"We were very surprised by the abundance of seed remains we found on the stone and how the evidence pointed to the processing of just a few types of grass seeds. We could identify barley and there was no evidence for the processing of roots or tubers, underground plant organs."

Piperno, from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Archaebiology Program at the National Museum of Natural History, and her STRI colleague Irene Holst, had used starch analysis to chronicle plant domestication in the New World tropics [see references, below].

Harvard University archaeologist, Ehud Weiss and Dani Nadel, at the University of Haifa, had excavated a well-known paleo site in Israel, Ohalo II and carried out analysis of the numerous macroscopic remains of seeds and fruits found there. When Piperno and Weiss met for the first time a few years ago at a conference luncheon, they discussed the possibilities of applying starch grain analysis to artifacts from this Old World site.

Starch grain analysis is painstaking work. First, a fine needle is used to dislodge min
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Contact: Dr. Dolores Piperno
pipernod@si.edu
202-786-2094 x8101
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
4-Aug-2004


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