Fig Antiquity

If you ask people what was the first edible crop plant domesticated by humans, many would probably guess the cereals, eg wheat, barley, millet, rye etc. Domestication of crops allowed a move from the hunter, gatherer, nomadic lifestyles of earlier times that meant such societies had to spend almost all their days in search of food, sometimes with periods of relative famine. Raising crops in a more settled environment meant food supply became more abundantly reliable, allowing more time in larger groupings for increasingly sophisticated/specialised skills and behaviours to be passed on to future generations, construction of more permanent buildings affording better protection from adverse weather events, tilling of land etc.

Concerning our interest in fruit tree crops, you’ll occasionally see articles stating that this or that species was the first off the cab rank, sometimes heavily influenced by the author’s commitment to and promotion of their favorite fruit. The evidence so far from a study published in the top journal Science (2006, 312,1372-1374) is that figs appear to have won the race, even gazumping the cereals by a considerable time.

It is generally accepted that the fig tree was domesticated in the Near East some 6500 years ago.  Here we report the discovery of nine carbonized fig fruits and hundreds of drupelets stored in Gilgal I, an early Neolithic village, located in the Lower Jordan Valley, which dates to 11,400 to 11,200 years ago.  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.

Barry Madsen