Seed collection sheds light on earliest African agriculture

  Last updated March 20, 2018 at 8:10 am


How crops were selected before formal farming.

Credit: iStock

A collection of wild cereal seeds found in a rock shelter in southwest Libya gives a unique insight into long-term plant manipulation and cultivation before the domestic agriculture.

The site, called Takarkori, is desert now, but thousands of years ago was part of a lush grassland expanse dubbed the “green Sahara”.

Dating evidence shows the site was occupied by humans for around 4,000 years, during which time the seeds of wild cereal plants were deliberately gathered and stored, strongly implying that they were also planted and scattered with the aim of producing specific crops.

But before drawing any conclusions, the researchers called in an insect specialist to exclude the possibility that a collection of 200,000 wild cereal seeds, dated to 10,000 years ago, had not been accumulated by ants.

Millet – opportunist and robust

The team, from the University of Huddersfield and the University of of Modena and Reggio Emilia, reports the presence of several strains of millet – a cereal plant that is both “weedy”, or opportunist, and robust, and is known to have been favoured by early agriculturalists.

Ironically, the very persistence that made it attractive to Holocene communities is the same quality that today marks it as an unwelcome invader on cereal farms.

But, write Vanin and his colleagues, its present reputation may soon change again.

“The same behaviour that allowed these plants to survive in a changing environment in a remote past makes them some of the most likely possible candidates as staple resources in a coming future of global warming,” they write.

New food resources

“They continue to be successfully exploited and cultivated in Africa today and are attracting the interest of scientists searching for new food resources.”

The Takarkori seeds are now carefully stored at the Italian university. When they were discovered, however, they were arranged in a series of small circles in the shelter of a towering rock incline.

The site also yielded a number of archaeological finds, including pottery and the remains of some woven roots, thought to be the remnants of a basket that might have been used to collect and carry seeds.

Chemical analysis of the pottery revealed that the occupants of the rock shelter made cereal soups and, intriguingly, cheese.

The research was published in the journal Nature Plants.

About the Author

Andrew Masterson
Andrew Masterson is former editor of Cosmos.