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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee