Letter | Published:

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

Nature volume 430, pages 670673 (05 August 2004) | Download Citation



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.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    & Domestication of Plants in the Old World, 3rd edn (Oxford Science Publications, Oxford, 2000)

  2. 2.

    Ohalo II—A 23,000-Year-Old Fisher-Hunter-Gatherers' Camp on the Shore of the Sea of Galilee (Catalogue No. 20, Hecht Museum, Univ. Haifa, Haifa, 2002)

  3. 3.

    & The oldest ever brush hut plant remains from Ohalo II, Jordan Valley, Israel. Antiquity 73, 755–764 (1999)

  4. 4.

    , & Radiocarbon dating of Ohalo II: Archaeological and methodological implications. J. Archaeol. Sci. 22, 811–822 (1995)

  5. 5.

    , & Epipaleolithic (19,000 bp) cereal and fruit diet at Ohalo II, Sea of Galilee, Israel. Rev. Palaeobot. Palynol. 73, 161–166 (1992)

  6. 6.

    , , & Small-grained wild grasses as staple foods at the 23,000 year old site of Ohalo II, Israel. Econ. Bot. (in the press)

  7. 7.

    , , & Starch grains reveal early root crop horticulture in the Panamanian tropical forest. Nature 407, 894–897 (2000)

  8. 8.

    , & Maize in ancient Ecuador: Results of residue analysis of stone tools from the Real Alto site. J. Archaeol. Sci. 31, 423–442 (2004)

  9. 9.

    Milk and cereals; identifying food and food identity among Fellahin and Bedouin in Jordan. Levant 34, 173–195 (2002)

  10. 10.

    Bedouin Life in the Egyptian Wilderness (Univ. of Texas Press, Austin, 1992)

  11. 11.

    Ecology and Culture of the Pastoral Tuareg (Copenhagen National Museum, Copenhagen, 1963)

  12. 12.

    et al. Glycemic index: overview of implications in health and disease. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 76, 266–273 (2002)

  13. 13.

    , & International table of glycemic index and glycemic load values. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 76, 5–56 (2002)

  14. 14.

    in Foraging and Farming (eds Harris, D. R. & Hillman, G. C.) 171–194 (Unwin Hyman, London, 1989)

  15. 15.

    Ground-Stone tools and hunter-gatherer subsistence in southwest Asia: Implications for the transition to farming. Am. Antiq. 59, 238–263 (1994)

  16. 16.

    & in Hunter-Gatherers: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (eds Painter-Brick, C., Layton, R. H. & Rowley-Conwy, P.) 99–142 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2001)

  17. 17.

    & in Foraging and Farming: The Evolution of Plant Exploitation (eds Harris, D. R. & Hillman, G. C.) 633–642 (Unwin Hyman, London, 1989)

  18. 18.

    in The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals (eds Ucko, P. J. & Dimbleby, G. W.) 73–100 (Duckworth, London, 1969)

  19. 19.

    , & The behavioral ecology of modern hunter-gatherers, and human evolution. Trends Ecol. Evol. 12, 29–32 (1997)

  20. 20.

    & in Foraging Theory and the Transition to Agriculture (eds Kennett, D. & Winterhalder, B.) (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC, in the press)

  21. 21.

    , , & The broad spectrum revolution revisited: Evidence from plant remains. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 101, 9551–9555 (2004)

  22. 22.

    From sedentary foragers to village hierarchies: The emergence of social institutions. Proc. Br. Acad. 110, 1–38 (2001)

  23. 23.

    The Differentiation and Specificity of Starches in Relation to Genera, Species, Etc. (Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington DC, 1913)

  24. 24.

    Starke Atlas (Paul Parey, Berlin, 1966)

  25. 25.

    & Starch grain analysis as a microscopic identification feature in the identification of plant material. Econ. Bot. 48, 171–181 (1994)

  26. 26.

    Starch analyses reveal the multiple functions of quartz ‘manioc’ grater flakes from the Orinoco Basin, Venezuela. Interciencia 27, 635–639 (2002)

  27. 27.

    & The presence of starch grains on prehistoric stone tools from the lowland Neotropics: Indications of early tuber use and agriculture in Panama. J. Archaeol. Sci. 25, 765–776 (1998)

  28. 28.

    , & Identification of starch granules using image analysis and multivariate techniques. J. Archaeol. Sci. 31, 519–532 (2004)

Download references


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.

Author information

Author notes

    • Dolores R. Piperno
    •  & Ehud Weiss

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Box 2072, Balboa, Republic of Panama

    • Dolores R. Piperno
    •  & Irene Holst
  2. Archaeobiology Program, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC 20560, USA

    • Dolores R. Piperno
  3. Department of Anthropology, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, 11 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02130, USA

    • Ehud Weiss
  4. Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, Mount Carmel, Haifa 31905, Israel

    • Dani Nadel


  1. Search for Dolores R. Piperno in:

  2. Search for Ehud Weiss in:

  3. Search for Irene Holst in:

  4. Search for Dani Nadel in:

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Dolores R. Piperno or Ehud Weiss.

Supplementary information

Word documents

  1. 1.

    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.

About this article

Publication history






Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.