A female revolution? How necessity may have been the mother of agricultural invention

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The Independent Online

The effect for the people living in the so-called Fertile Crescent was catastrophic, not only had their hunting grounds been drowned by rising sea levels following the Ice Age melt, but now – thanks to this sudden climate change – a severe drought set in and much of their remaining rich and fertile woodland was transformed into barren scrub.

Wild grasses such as wheat were an important part of the staple Natufian diet, but in the now sweltering scrubland they simply withered away. Some experts think this is what may have led Natufian women to experiment with sowing seeds themselves, and deliberately clearing the land to make it suitable for cultivating grasses such as wheat, barley and rye.

In hunter-gathering societies it was generally women who gathered seeds and picked fruits while men went out to hunt game. In the face of starvation, Natufian women are thought to have selected the best seeds they could find, the biggest, sweetest and most easy to harvest, which they then sewed on specially prepared land as a crop for the following year.

Was it their handiwork – an agricultural insurance policy – that triggered a chain of events that eventually led to the spread of crop farming all over the Middle East, Europe, and northern Africa? Seeds are easy to store and transport. The Natufian women's crop cultivation seems to be the earliest known to history. Evidence of their inventiveness comes from the discovery by modern archaeologists of farming tools, in the form of picks and sickle blades used for harvesting cereal crops. Alongside these ancient farming implements are pestles, mortars and bowls, all essential instruments for gathering and grinding up seeds.

Archaeologists have painstakingly sifted material excavated from one Natufian site called Abu Hureyra in modern-day Syria. What they have found suggests that here was a culture that had learnt how to domesticate wild crops by selectively sowing the best-looking seeds. As the wild grasses that people relied on for food died out, they were forced to start cultivating the most easily grown seeds in order to survive. From the location of seed finds, it seems they planted them on slopes where moisture collected naturally. They then actively managed these hillside terraces and slopes by keeping the weeds and scrub at bay, so giving their crops the best possible chance of producing a good yield.

Natufians were also among the first people known to have started domesticating animals – in their case wolves. By choosing the tamest grey wolves, they eventually bred them into domestic dogs which could help them hunt other animals that lived in the regions nearby – in particular wild sheep, boar, goats and horses. With the help of dogs, it was a relatively small step to tame these other wild animals and breed them in one place for their meat and milk.

Natufian people loved their dogs. Graves have been found in which they and their dogs are buried side by side. Their graves also reveal another telltale sign of early animal domestication: a high infant mortality rate. A third of all Natufian graves unearthed so far contain the skeletons of children under the age of eight. Were these victims of the first diseases to mutate from animals and jump across to humans? If so, it points to the beginnings of a new type of human selection – people naturally more vulnerable to these new diseases died more often than those less susceptible. As generations passed, people who lived in close proximity to domesticated animals gained a greater immunity from the diseases they spread.

Once the Younger Dryas period ended, about 11,400 years ago, the climate recovered its previous balminess, and within the space of just a few years people in the Fertile Crescent were once again living in a land of plenty, with enough rainfall to support rich, diverse vegetation. But now there was a big difference. These people were equipped with a raft of potent new technologies, in the form of breeds and seeds that gave them the opportunity of living a radically different way of life.