Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Getting Around to Agriculture and DNA Migration in Ancient Fertile Crescent Times

"It's a part of the story of civilization that we're just beginning to understand."
"There seem to be [early genetic traces in primitive farming peoples] expansions out in all directions."
Dr. Iosif Lazaridis, postdoctoral researcher, Harvard Medical School

"It's not like you had one Near Eastern population that developed farming that expands and overruns all the others."
Dr. David Reich, geneticist, Harvard Medical School

"This botanical find is really opening new windows to the past. You have to remember Ohalo is a unique preservation. Between Ohalo and the beginning of the Neolithic we have a blank. And when the early Neolithic arrives people start [agriculture again] from scratch."
"We’re not trying to say cultivation and an agricultural way of life started in Ohalo and then continued to the Neolithic. You can’t say that. What you can say is that this was perhaps a trial cultivation from which we can understand how humans were always sophisticated, trying to push borders and make life better."
Professor Ehud Weiss, head, archaeological botany lab, Department of Land of Israel Studies

JTB Photo/UIG via Getty Images
Ears of emmer wheat, a crop first farmed in the Fertile Crescent more than 10,000 years ago
Dr. Reich's leading theory that groups of farming communities erupted spontaneously, without having had contact with and inspiration from one another to turn to agricultural pursuits, does not find complete agreement with others of his colleagues. Dr. Melinda A. Zeder, senior research scientist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington does support the working idea that across the Fertile Crescent now known as the Middle East, independent farming arose as a new human enterprise.

On the other hand, an archaeologist at Harvard University, Dr. Ofer Bar-Yosef, feels it far more likely that agriculture on a wide basis had an initial evolution, whose success swiftly rippled from one group to another. It seems the oldest sites showing evidence of agricultural activity on a large scale appeared in what is now northern Syria and southern Turkey. Needless to say at that time in evolutionary history there were no Syrians and Turks to claim the land.

According to the research in DNA about eight thousand years ago there were presumably few tribal, religious or ethnic barriers existing between the people inhabiting the Fertile Crescent and they recognized one another as residents of a common area with the Near East presenting at that time -- according to the researchers who have interpreted the results of what they have discovered -- as a homogeneous mix of people. Usually homogeneity excludes a mixture of anything.

The Sea of Galilee in Israel.
The Sea of Galilee in Israel. Archaeologists made their discovery at a site called Ohalo II which was occupied at the height of the last ice age. Photograph: Hanan Isachar/Alamy

But in this case scientists appear to feel that peace reigned at this ancient time in pre-history with one group of people viewing another with the equanimity of collegiality, as opposed to a spirit of challenge and offense, more in keeping with the older, larger theory of territorial imperatives leading one group to view another as competition for scarce resources. If indeed the greater Middle East at a time in ancient history represented a pacific area of human settlement, they have long since strayed far from this ideal.

Dr. Reich had hopes that he could find more evidence in his scientific explorations on early human settlements and emerging realization of land pasturage and agriculture. He thought of the possibility of accessing archaeological samples in a more systematic manner across the Fertile Crescent. His hopes temporarily dashed, in deference to extending his personal life expectancy rather than expose himself and his team to the dangers inherent in the conflict gripping Syria at the present time.

For the present, he and his colleagues will have to feel satisfied with what they have to date uncovered, that in central Jordan (long, long predating the current Hashemite Kingdom) the remains of a ten thousand-year-old village named Ain Ghazal lies, considered to be evidence of one of the world's first ever farming villages that arose at the dawn of agriculture.

Research has turned up evidence that farmers at Ain Ghazal took to raising barley, wheat, chickpeas and lentils, while others belonging to the village would trek off seasonally for long periods of time with herds of sheep and goats into the hills for them to graze and mature. This is a momentous discovery; the time in the mists of the primitive past when humans domesticated animals and grew plants from seeds in an organized fashion.

It was when humankind changed from wandering the land from season to season and began to settle in discrete places setting the template aeons into the future where we are today, as 'civilized' societies living urban lifestyles, long distanced from our nomadic beginnings.
early farmers the Fertile Crescent

DNA was extracted from skeletons found at Ain Ghazal along with other early settlements discovered in the larger area. It is now held as settled that agriculture originated in the areas that now include current-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, dating back to about 11,000 or even 23,000 years, according toIsraeli archaeologists who last year revealed the presence of what they believe are the earliest known attempts at agriculture, 11,000 years before the generally recognized advent of organized cultivation.

Their conclusion was based on a study that investigated over 150,000 samples of plant remains that were gathered for examination from an unusually well preserved hunter-gatherer settlement located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel.

A team of researchers at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany reconstructed genomes from four early farmers extracted from the Zagros Mountains; bones dating back to around ten thousand years. David Reich and his colleagues managed to recover genetic material extracted from 44 sets of remains in the Near East, including DNA from early farmers who existed at that time in Iran, along with bones extracted from yet another site like the one at Ain Ghazal.

Even more ancient genetic material from early hunter-gatherers in the region was also discovered dating back as far as 14,000 years.

In the geography now known as Turkey early farmers appear to have crossed the Bosporus to travel into Europe some 8,000 years ago, encountering no other farmers, but rather hunter-gatherers who had existed there for over 30,000 years. The invading farmers took possession of much of the territory they had invaded, converting it into farmland.

The early farmers in Iran expanded easterly and their descendants ended up in India, there DNA now seen to provide a large proportion of the east Indian genomes.

The people of Ain Ghazal, on the other hand saw an expanded population moving into East Africa and where, in Somalia, a third of the DNA of people there was also inherited from the Ain Ghazel migrants. What research has established is that the people originally from Ain Ghazal show evidence of having scattered their DNA into East Africa; the first agriculturalists of the southern Levant made East Africans beneficiaries of both their genetic endowment and their agricultural skills.

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