First seeds of civilisation

June 9, 2000

It was a turning point in human history, the moment when a group of Levantine farmers first sowed seeds of barley before returning at the end of the growing season to reap their harvest.

Scientists have pinpointed when and where this epoch-making event occurred, which along with the domestication of wheat, ultimately led to the birth of civilisation.

Previous studies have located the domestication of einkorn wheat to mountainous southeast Turkey, where chickpea and bitter vetch were also cultivated by former hunter-gatherers.

Work by Fran-cesco Salamini and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Breeding Research, in Cologne, Germany, in collaboration with experts from the universities of Tanta and Menoufiya, in Egypt, has found genetic evidence that domesticated barley had its origins elsewhere in the Fertile Crescent - in the borderlands of Jordan and Israel some 10,000 years ago, shortly after wheat.

"Understanding seed was a very big discovery by humanity - it's the start of the story that has led ultimately to our present civilisation," said Professor Salamini.

The scientists analysed the DNA of 317 wild and 57 cultivated lines of barley. In research published in the latest issue of the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, they found that the cultivated barleys had the most genetic similarities to those uncultivated varieties found in the Jordanian/Israeli border region. This fits well with the archaeological record.

These pioneering farmers may have taken between 20 and 100 years to domesticate wild barley, increasing the size of the seeds and bolstering the strength of the ear, among other things, simply through reaping, harvesting and replan-ting the best crop.

In return for their patience they were rewarded with a source of food that could be stored through the winter.

Professor Salamini has also found evidence that as domesticated barley rapidly spread across the Eurasian landmass, it was crossed with native wild species in central Asia, resulting in a distinct genetic signature in those cultivated varieties used in India and the Himalayas.

While wheat was well suited to colder, northern climes, barley was planted around the Mediterranean and was a linchpin staple for the Neolithic people who laid the foundations of classical civilisation.

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