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Seed Cultivation by Ancient Hunter Gatherers

Ten thousand years ago, the Sahara was not the desert we know today. It was a verdant area where plants and wild grains were cultivated. The discovery made by Sapienza’s Archaeological Mission in the Sahara, directed by Prof. Savino di Lernia, in collaboration with the University of Modena e Reggio Emilia, has been published on Nature Plants.

The joint archaeological and botanical research project conducted at the archaeological site of Takarkori in southwestern Libya, in the heart of the Sahara Desert, reveals millennia of plant and grain storage and use. Indeed, both hunter-gatherers (8,000-10,000 years ago) and then shepherds (5,500-7,000 years ago) cultivated wild grains, albeit without ever domesticating the plants.

The team unveiled millions of plant remains, including over 206,000 seeds that had been stored in small piles, authentic archaeological proof of a sophisticated form of seed cultivation and storage, even though these people never had domestic plants.

The study clearly shows that, over the course of our cultural evolution, the domestication of plants and animals, a crucial milestone for humanity, took different routes and happened at different times around the globe. The selection of plants as food did not always turn to those aspects that we consider typical and nearly indispensable for domesticated plants, today, such as the cultivation of large fruits that do not drop when they are mature. Every phase of environmental transformation must have obliged plants and humans to face new challenges, innovate and develop ingenious adaptive strategies. And the formidable climactic changes that characterise the history of the Sahara are an active element in these processes.

One example concerns species of Echinochloa, Panicum and Wild Sorghum, whose behaviour depends both on the ability to reap advantage from climactic change and human manipulation. The plants are weeds, invasive plants, and have a long history with mankind. “This is an extraordinary archaeobotanic finding,” explains Prof. di Lernia. “On the one hand, it allows us to understand the behaviour of hunter-gatherers in the Sahara and, in Takarkori, we find the first traces of the storage and cultivation of wild grain seeds in Africa; on the other, it reveals how clearly human action is a mirror of the environmental reality of these roaming civilisations.”


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