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Processing of wild cereal grains in the Upper Palaeolithic revealed by starch grain analysis

Abstract

Barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) and wheat (Triticum monococcum L. and Triticum turgidum L.) were among the principal ‘founder crops’ of southwest Asian agriculture1. Two issues that were central to the cultural transition from foraging to food production are poorly understood. They are the dates at which human groups began to routinely exploit wild varieties of wheat and barley, and when foragers first utilized technologies to pound and grind the hard, fibrous seeds of these and other plants to turn them into easily digestible foodstuffs. Here we report the earliest direct evidence for human processing of grass seeds, including barley and possibly wheat, in the form of starch grains recovered from a ground stone artefact from the Upper Palaeolithic site of Ohalo II in Israel. Associated evidence for an oven-like hearth was also found at this site, suggesting that dough made from grain flour was baked. Our data indicate that routine processing of a selected group of wild cereals, combined with effective methods of cooking ground seeds, were practiced at least 12,000 years before their domestication in southwest Asia.

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Figure 1
Figure 2: Characteristic starch grains from seeds of various modern cereals and other grasses.
Figure 3: Starch grains recovered from the stone implement.

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Acknowledgements

Supported by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), a grant to the STRI from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the American School of Prehistoric Research (Peabody Museum), Harvard University and the National Museum of Natural History. We acknowledge the help of the following people and institutions for supplying the seed reference collection used in this study: E. Wood and D. Pfister (Harvard University Herbarium), the United States National Plant Germplasm System (North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station, Western Regional Plant Introduction Station and Plant Genetic Resources Conservation Unit), and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (Seed Conservation Department). The Ohalo II project was supported by the Irene-Levi Sala CARE Archaeological project Foundation, the Israel Academy of Science, the Jerusalem Center for Anthropological Studies, the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, the M. Stekelis Museum of Prehistory in Haifa, the MAFCAF Foundation, the National Geographic Society and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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Correspondence to Dolores R. Piperno or Ehud Weiss.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figure 1. A typical starch grain population from Hordeum spontaneum; Supplementary Figure 2. Typical starch grains from Aegilops geniculata; Supplementary Figure 3. A typical starch grain population from Triticum dicoccoides; Supplementary Figure 4. A typical starch grain population from Hordeum marinum; Supplementary Figure 5. A typical starch grain population from Pisum sativum; Supplementary Figure 6. A typical starch grain from Potamogeton perfoliatus; Supplementary Figure 7. A typical starch grain from Ruppia maritima; Supplementary Figure 8. The arrangement of stones forming the oven feature at Ohalo II; Supplementary Table 1. Glycemic index of wheat and barley. (DOC 1116 kb)

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Piperno, D., Weiss, E., Holst, I. et al. Processing of wild cereal grains in the Upper Palaeolithic revealed by starch grain analysis. Nature 430, 670–673 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02734

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