It’s the time of the year — especially in an inordinately warm winter year — when folks start putting out fertilizer and pre-emergent herbicides to suppress the growth of weeds in their lawns, gardens, or fields.
It turns out that weeds have been a problem for a long time — and that intentional farming may go back much further than the generally acknowledged advent of agriculture some 12,000 years ago, when prehistoric peoples of the Middle East and southern Turkey were clearly cultivating cereal grains and leaving evidence of their activities.
A recent analysis of stone tools and organic remains from an Upper Paleolithic (late Stone Age) camp on the southwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee shows clear evidence that residents there had added farming to their hunter-gatherer lifestyle — some 23,000 years ago.
The year-round camp, first excavated in 1989 and several times since, consisted of a dozen roughly oval-shaped brush huts that were occupied over a long period of time. Cooking hearths were found outside of the huts, no doubt contributing to the fact that the huts burned and were rebuilt several times. Lower floor levels of the huts included rich finds of fish and animal bones, botanical remains, and evidence of flint knapping, which included cores and blades, some bearing a tell-tale sheen indicating that they were used for harvesting grain.
The organic remains included 140 different species of plants, well-preserved because the seeds were first charred by fire, then later buried in sediment when water levels in the Sea of Galilee rose and covered the area. Irrigation in modern times lowered the water level again, exposing the site.
Plant species found included not only wild emmer wheat, wild barley and wild oats, but also wheat and barley that showed clear signs of domestication. Wild wheat and barley are capable of self-sowing, but when they are planted close together over many seasons, the shape of the seeds changes slightly, locking them together so that they can’t disperse without human help.
And what is farming without weeds? Scientists who studied the thousands of seeds recovered also identified 13 types of “proto-weeds,” early examples of weeds that typically flourish in fields of wheat or barley and are accidentally harvested along with the grain.
So, 17,000 years before the time Bishop Usher calculated for Adam’s days of sweating over thorns and thistles in the fields, early residents of Galilee were already sowing seed and battling weeds.
Twenty-three thousand years later, some things haven’t changed.
Want to learn more? Look here and here for recent popular reports in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, and here for an older but thorough description of the excavations by Dani Nadel in Archaeology, Ethnology & Anthropology of Eurasia 1(13): 2003