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Assessing the economic role of the founder crops prior to the emergence of agriculture

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Founders (Assessing the economic role of the founder crops prior to the emergence of agriculture)

Reporting period: 2020-09-01 to 2022-08-31

Between 10.7 and 10.2 ka cal. BP a process culminated in southwest Asia that marked the path of human history: the domestication of plants. A group of eight species including einkorn, emmer, barley, lentil, pea, chickpea, bitter vetch and flax become the “founder crops” of Neolithic agriculture, which revolutionized our economy and subsistence for the time to come. But why were these particular species domesticated and not others?. Building on some of the richest and most iconic Natufian hunter-gatherer and early farming Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites in southwest Asia (14.6-10.2 ka cal. BP), this project aimed to evaluate the economic role these eight “founder crops” played prior to agriculture. It asked: 1) How often were there these species used as food before the emergence of Neolithic agriculture?; 2) Were they staples, occasionally exploited food resources, or “special” foodstuffs?. To answer these questions the FOUNDERS project took a radically new perspective: it pioneered an inter-disciplinary approach that merged archaeobotany, experimental archaeology, ethnobotany and biomolecular techniques to analyse the charred food remains these societies left behind.
The specific objectives of the project were to:
1) Define the group of plant species consumed by the last hunter-gatherers and early farming communities, through the microscopic and biomolecular analyses of archaeological remains of prepared plant foods.
2) Characterize the contextual setting for plant-food consumption, through the comparison of the spatial distribution of food remains in different archaeological sites, and integration of the associated archaeological material culture.
3) Synthetize the data and assess the economic role of the “founder crops” prior to agriculture, based on the comparison of the results obtained across eight sites, two regions (southern-central and northern Levant) and three main periods (Natufian, Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and Early Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, 14.6-10.2 ka cal. BP).
The study of accidentally preserved remains of carbonised plant-foods has the potential to illuminate the origins of some of the foodstuffs that still play a central role in our lives (e.g. cereal-based meals like bread), and provide first-hand empirical evidence with which to directly contribute to current debates on the nature and of the “Palaeodiet” and clarify long-held misconceptions about past plant-based subsistence.
Although the project was finally reduced to 12 months, all the specific objectives planed for the first part of the project were achieved, and even some of the tasks planned for the second part of the grant period were positively carried out.

Overall, the FOUNDERS project contributed to systematising the study of archaeological food remains. Through the first six work packages, it allowed the:
1) Initial identification of the plant ingredients and cooking methods used at several late Epipalaeolithic and early Neolithic sites located in the Levant (14.6-10.2 ka cal. BP).
2) Establishment of a novel interdisciplinary approach that integrated tissue-based SEM analyses, with micro-CT scanning, experimental archaeology and ethnobotany.
3) Detailed step-by-step experimental reproduction of the activities involved in the preparation of prehistoric foodstuffs, as well as the production of reference collections of modern plant-based foodstuffs with which to compare prehistoric remains.
4) Communication and dissemination of preliminary results among both the scientific community and the society as a whole.

The FOUNDERS project has demonstrated that accidentally burnt food remains can be regularly found mixed with other plant macro-remains (e.g. seeds, wood charcoal etc.) in flotation samples from late Pleistocene and early Holocene sites in the Levant. Besides, the first results obtained so far indicate considerable chronological variation in plant-food consumption practices during the Epipalaeolithic and the early Neolithic. Food remains consumed by the last hunting and gathering communities include a wide range of taxa, including grasses (not only cereals like wheat and barley, but also other small-medium seeded grasses), pulses (specially lentil), wild plants (including species of the mustard family) and particularly root-foods (e.g. club-rush rhizome-tubers). During the early part of the Neolithic period instead, the exploitation and consumption of cereals increased significantly, although other wild plant resources continued to be used as well. These first insights into the food consumption practices of the last hunter-gatherers and first farming communities in southwest Asia has started to challenge previous hypothesis which assumed that: 1) the “founder crops”, primarily cereals like wheat and barley, were staples during the Epipalaeolithic period; and 2) that these eight “founder” species were the most important plants exploited during the early Neolithic. As such, and despite the fact that the FOUNDERS project concluded before schedule, it started to provide exciting new insights with which to re-evaluate role that cultural factors played in one of the most fundamental changes in the history of humanity: the Transition to Food Production.
The main strength of this project relied on the fact that it focused on one of the emerging forties of archaeological science, and the only one capable of providing first-hand revolutionary evidence on prehistoric food preparation and consumption practices. The project focused on geographical regions (the Levant) and chronologies (sites dated to 14.6-10.2 ka cal. BP) for which no previous studies of archaeological food remains were available. Besides, instead of focusing on single sites, the FOUNDERS project integrated several site-clusters to track chronological and geographical trends in the selection and production of plant-based foodstuffs. Apart from this, it pioneered an interdisciplinary approach to analyze carbonized food remains, fostering the integration of different disciplines (archaeobotany, biomolecular archaeology, ethnobotany and experimental archaeology) and methods regularly applied in other fields (e.g. GC/MS, X-ray CT scan), but not yet systematically implemented in the study of prehistoric food. In particular, the use of x-ray CT scan constituted a major technological advance on the anatomical description of archaeobotanical samples.
The evidence obtained so far will allow us in the upcoming years to move beyond pre-established narratives that highlight the economic and cultural role of the “Neolithic founder crops”, and explore the use, cultivation and domestication processes of other plant-food species. Such studies will contribute with a more comprehensive understanding of the plant food-related activities and the scale and nature of the plant management practices that developed in southwest Asia.
The project has developed an integrated interdisciplinary strategy to standardize the analyses of archaeological food remains. This is an important contribution to the field of archaeology since this kind of data proxy is commonly overlooked or missed in routine archaeobotanical analyses. The experimental work carried out in this project has enabled the development of a comparative modern collection of food remains that will be invaluable for future studies tackling this “long-ignored” archaeological artefact.
Scanning Electrin Microscopy (SEM) at the MNHN © Amaia Arranz Otaegui
Archaeological food remains under SEM © Amaia Arranz Otaegui