Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Domestication of the Fig

Man's first farming venture: Figs.

Nine preserved figs were recently found in the Jordan Valley. The discovery team estimated their age at about 11,000 years. Given the nuclear one-upmanship of late, today's organic matter may not last through the next few decades, let alone 11 millennia.
"We suggest that these edible fruits were gathered from parthenocarpic trees grown from intentionally planted branches. Hence, fig trees could have been the first domesticated plant of the Neolithic Revolution, which preceded cereal domestication by about a thousand years."
- Early Domesticated Fig in the Jordan Valley, Science Magazine, June 2.

"An 11,400-year-old fig found in Israel (left) may be the result of the earliest known form of agriculture, scientists say. The ancient fig is similar in size to a variety still cultivated in Iran (middle) but is considerably smaller than a more common Turkish type (right)."
- Photo and caption: National Geographic News

Early farmers were smart. Figs are sweet, calorically dense, travel well, can be dried for storage, don't need to be cooked, and come in individual serving sizes. Figs have it all over rice1. For instance, you don't have to wade through leech laden waters to harvest them.

Everything I've read about the Neolithic Revolution (from what I can tell - the beginning of farming), until a few weeks ago had to do with its dawning in the Middle East. But Charles Mann, in his recent bestseller 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, discusses the existence of another independent Neolithic Revolution that occurred in Mesoamerica (an area between central Mexico and Costa Rica) "about ten thousand years ago, not long after the Middle East's Neolithic Revolution." And even a third one:
"In 2003, archeologists discovered ancient seeds from cultivated squashes in coastal Ecuador, at the foot of the Andes, which may be older than any agricultural remains in Mesoamerica."
It makes me wonder if squashes, not figs, weren't the output of man's first foray into farming. It also makes me wonder if referring to The Neolithic Revolution, assuming just one of Middle Eastern origin, isn't Eurocentric.

1 I like rice, I do. It's very good in its brown state, cooked al-dente, with a dusting of gomasio. But in my eyes, it can't compare to the joys of fig.

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