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A new functional ecological model reveals the nature of early plant management in southwest Asia

Abstract

The protracted domestication model posits that wild cereals in southwest Asia were cultivated over millennia before the appearance of domesticated cereals in the archaeological record. These ‘pre-domestication cultivation’ activities are widely understood as entailing annual cycles of soil tillage and sowing and are expected to select for domestic traits such as non-shattering ears. However, the reconstruction of these practices is mostly based on indirect evidence and speculation, raising the question of whether pre-domestication cultivation created arable environments that would select for domestic traits. We developed a novel functional ecological model that distinguishes arable fields from wild cereal habitats in the Levant using plant functional traits related to mechanical soil disturbance. Our results show that exploitation practices at key pre-domestication cultivation sites maintained soil disturbance conditions similar to untilled wild cereal habitats. This implies that pre-domestication cultivation did not create arable environments through regular tillage but entailed low-input exploitation practices oriented on the ecological strategies of the competitive large-seeded grasses themselves.

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Fig. 1: Overview over the archaeological and modern sites included in the study.
Fig. 2: DCA plot of samples (transects and plots) from modern arable and non-arable habitats.
Fig. 3: Discriminant function extracted from the DA using only flowering duration as a discriminating variable.

Data availability

All data used to perform the discriminant analyses and their outputs are given in the Supplementary Materials. The modern floristic datasets and the archaeobotanical data analysed during the current study are not publicly available due to ongoing analyses of the samples and raw data. Upon completion of all analyses the raw datasets will be made publicly available. Parts of the modern floristic datasets are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request. The raw data on which the analyses from Çatalhöyük are based are fully published and publicly accessible in Green37.

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Acknowledgements

We thank H. Leschner, N. Manela, Y. Melamed and T. Avin-Wittenberg for their great support in the preparation and realization of the vegetation surveys that represent the basis of this study. We also thank S. Bowles and G. Larson for valuable comments on previous drafts of this article. This research was supported by an AHRC studentship (2013–2016; L.G.) and a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship from the European Commission (grant number 838395; A.W.).

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A.W. developed the original ideas and designed the study. A.W., J.G.H., J.W. and A.B. conducted field work and collected the plant functional-trait data. G.D. and Y.O. contributed survey data and gave permission for their use. L.G., C.D. and M.T. provided archaeobotanical data and gave permission for their use. A.W. performed the data analysis and wrote the paper with the help of A.B. All authors were involved in the interpretation of the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Alexander Weide.

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Nature Plants thanks Anna Maria Mercuri, Robert Spengler and Burhan Ulas for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Weide, A., Green, L., Hodgson, J.G. et al. A new functional ecological model reveals the nature of early plant management in southwest Asia. Nat. Plants 8, 623–634 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-022-01161-7

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