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Zagros MountainsIn the dry foothills of Iran’s Zagros Mountains, a new picture of mankind’s first farmers is emerging from an archaeological dig that has turned up a jackpot of artifacts and plant grains. People who lived in the region began cultivating cereal grains as early as 11,700 years ago, according to the new analysis, which adds Iran to the list of places in the Near East where the first inklings of farming emerged just after the end of the last Ice Age.

Once people figured out how to cultivate, and then domesticate, plants and animals, they eventually developed settlements and agricultural economies that formed the foundation of modern civilizations, said Nicholas Conrad, head of the archaeological team that made the new discoveries. Along with previous work in nearby regions, the new study suggests that farming began simultaneously over a widespread area, offering an important window into a pivotal time in human history.

“There is not just one village where you can say, ‘This is where domestication occurred,’” said Conrad, of the University of Tübingen in Germany. “It wasn’t as if the development of agriculture was like someone flipped a light in one place and from that point of origin, agriculture spread. It’s a process that occurred in a whole range of places.”

The study of farming’s origins have long focused on a region known as the Fertile Crescent, which encompasses the land around modern-day Syria, Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. When the last Ice Age ended around 12,000 years ago, the Fertile Crescent’s climate and terrain became ripe for crops to grow. Previous digs have turned up evidence of the very beginnings of cultivation in a handful of sites in the western part of that region.

In 2009 and 2010, archaeologists were finally able to excavate a site called Chogha Golan at the base of Iran’s Zagros mountains on the eastern edge of the Fertile Crescent, much further east than previous searches for evidence of early farming. As they dug through 26 feet of sediment dating back nearly 12,000 years, the researchers unearthed an amazing array of artifacts, including clay figurines, animal bones, ornaments, mortars, grinding tools and signs of burials. The sequence of objects and materials showed that fairly large groups of people lived in the area between 12,000 and 9,800 years ago, the researchers report today in the journal Science.

For the new study, which is likely to be the first of many that will emerge from the site, Conrad and colleagues focused on an extraordinarily rich bounty of botanical remains, including grains of barley and wheat. Out of 717 collected samples, the new paper reports on analyses of just 25, Conard said, which turned up 21,000 plant remains.

Over 2,000 years of prehistoric living, changes in the structure of plant remains allowed the team to see progress from crude plant management to true domestication. In the earliest days of occupation at the site, people were planting wild varieties of barley, wheat, lentils, grass peas and other plants. Over time, the part of the plants where the grains attach changed in ways that suggest people began breeding and domesticating the crops to be better for harvesting and processing.

The new discoveries push eastward the boundaries of the region where experts now think agriculture began, said George Wilcox, an archaeologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research and the University of Lyon. Without a written record, no one can say whether ideas spread from population to population at the time or if people migrated, bringing crops and knowledge with them. It’s also possible that different groups of people came up with the same ideas around the same time. Whatever the details, the new work suggests that there was no single point where farming began.

“This gives us a good signal that the first cultivators that we can identify were actually dispersed right across the Fertile Crescent from Israel and Jordan through Syria, around to Turkey and down to Iraq and Iran, and that this early cultivation was synchronous, it was beginning at the same time,” Wilcox said.

“This is a good example,” he added, “where a new site changes the way we look at things.”

Text by Emily Sohn