Background of the project
In recent decades, archaeobotanical research on the origins of agriculture has strongly focused on the wild progenitors of the founder crops (Zohary et al. 2012), the experimental cultivation of predominantly wild cereals (Hillman and Davies 1990; Willcox 1999), and on identifying potential arable weeds in archaeobotanical assemblages for tracing the beginnings of cultivation (Willcox 2012). Based on these investigations scholars developed the “pre-domestication cultivation hypothesis”, arguing that wild cereals and pulses were cultivated for more than 1,500 years before morphological domestication traits appeared (e.g. Colledge 2002; Fuller et al. 2011). Pre-domestication cultivation now represents the major explanatory framework for understanding Early Holocene subsistence developments, with the identification of potential weed floras associated with remains of wild cereals as its key identification criterion. However, little is known about the origins of arable weeds and their association with unmanaged wild cereal habitats, casting doubt on their reliability as indicators of early cultivation activities. In addition, scholars have emphasised that Early Neolithic archaeobotanical assemblages could represent wild cereal exploitation strategies that did not involve cultivation (Rosen and Rivera-Collazo 2012; Asouti 2017), but nevertheless resulted in the incorporation of unwanted seeds (=“weeds”) in the grain harvests from unmanaged stands structurally resembling cultivated fields (Anderson 1999). We must therefore be cautious in using modern facultative weed taxa for identifying prehistoric cultivation activities and need to develop a more holistic approach to trace the origins of “weed seeds” associated with wild cereal grains in Early Neolithic archaeobotanical assemblages. A related problem concerns medium- and large-seeded wild grasses (e.g. goat grasses, oats, medusahead, etc.) that grow together with the wild progenitors in modern stands and occur abundantly at numerous Early Neolithic sites (e.g. Savard et al. 2006; Whitlam et al. 2018). Although it is not fully clear whether these edible grasses were harvested individually or represent by-products (=”weeds”) of wild cereal exploitation strategies, they seem to have played a crucial role in Early Neolithic subsistence economies and culinary practices throughout the Near East (Weide et al. 2018). Reconstructing subsistence developments during the Neolithic transition must therefore consider these medium- and large-seeded wild grasses more thoroughly and we need to develop new approaches for understanding the role of edible grass resources in comparison to the wild cereals in prehistoric contexts. Moreover, harvesting “non-cereal” grasses from dense but unmanaged stands could represent an additional route of entry for “weed seeds” into archaeobotanical assemblages, reflecting the ecology of foraging habitats rather than cultivation activities.
Wild barley, emmer and oat grow intermixed near the village of Tabgha at the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. These dense stands are structurally similar to cultivated cereal fields. (Photo: A. Weide, early May 2017)
© Alexander Weide