Cultivated, but not domestic. In the prehistoric Sahara the earliest forms of storage and cultivation of wild cereals

The search for an Italian team of archaeologists and botanists, coordinated by Sapienza and the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, tells of forms of prehistoric cultivation, hitherto unknown, in Saharan Africa around 10,000 years ago. The study has been published in Nature Plants

Archaeology and biology teach us that cultural pathways are not all the same. The domestication of plants and animals, a crucial passage of our humanity, has in fact different trajectories and timescales. The research recently published in Nature Plants, by an Italian team coordinated by Sapienza University of Rome and the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, describes the exceptional discovery of sophisticated forms of cultivation wild cereals - about 10,000 years ago! – practiced by early Holocene hunter-gatherers from Saharan Africa.

The combined research of  archaeology and archaebotany illustrates and describes millennia of manipulation, storage and authentic "agricultural" practices, without these plants ever being domesticated. It is clear that in our path of cultural evolution, the selection of plants for food has not always been directed towards the traits that we recognize today as typical, almost indispensable, in domestic plants, such as the production of large fruits that do not fall once mature. Every phase of global transformation must have forced plants and humans to face new challenges, innovate and develop ingenious adaptive strategies. The formidable climate changes that characterised the history of the Sahara are an active part of these processes.
Takarkori is an extraordinary site located in south-western Libya, a completely desert area of central Sahara today.

During the excavations of the "Archaeological Mission in the Sahara" of SapienzaUniversity of Rome, directed by Savino di Lernia, millions of plant remains were brought to light: among these, more than two hundred thousand seeds were observed in small circular concentrations, authentic "residues of human actions", of hunter-gatherers first, and shepherds then, of the prehistoric Sahara. The harvesting, storage and processing of wild cereals are articulated over a millenary period, during which hunter-gatherers (between 10 and 8000 years ago) and herders (between 7000 and 5500 years ago) have succeeded each other, refining cultivation practices indispensable to survival. On the one hand, then, archaeology and archaeobotany allow to understand the human behavior and in the case of Takarkori show the first known evidence of storage and cultivation of cereal seeds in Africa.

On the other hand, human action is a reflection of the environmental reality in which these societies were moving and demonstrates that wild cereals have been transformed, are human pressure and benefit from it during the phases of climate change. Archaeobotanical research, coordinated by Anna Maria Mercuri, has shown how wild species of EchinochloaPanicum, and Sorghum have been manipulated by humans for thousands of years: their predisposition to be' weeds', that is plants that invade today's cultivations and human-made environments, has ancient roots also rooted in the coexistence with humans.



Plant behaviour from human imprints and the cultivation of wild cereals in Holocene Sahara - Anna Maria Mercuri, Rita Fornaciari, Marina Gallinaro, Stefano Vanin and Savino di Lernia - Nature Plant; DOI 10.1038/s41477-017-0098-1

Further Information:

Savino di Lernia

Anna Maria Mercuri

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

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