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Stocking the Paleolithic Pantry Volume 57 Number 5, September/October 2004

[image] People gathered grasses like this specimen of charred wheat 23,000 years ago. (Courtesy Ehud Weiss) [LARGER IMAGE]

Paleolithic people gathered wild grasses, including cereals like wheat and barley, at least 10,000 years earlier than previously known. Harvard archaeobotanist Ehud Weiss and his team excavated a collection of 90,000 plant remains from Ohalo II, a site on the banks of Israel's Sea of Galilee that dates to 23,000 years ago. The largest such discovery of botanical remains from the Paleolithic, the collection gives researchers an unprecedented look at the diet of Stone Age people in the Near East. "Ohalo shows the plant-human relationship with amazing clarity," says Weiss. "It's like we were able to open these people's cupboards."

The site was submerged until recent droughts gave archaeologists an opportunity to explore the site, where they found traces of several brush huts and even remains of the earliest bedding ever discovered, a grass mat arranged around a hearth. In one hut, cereal grains were found concentrated around a grinding stone. Excavations also showed that besides wild grasses, the people at Ohalo gathered a number of other plant foods, including almonds, pistachios, olives, and figs.

Thanks to faunal remains, researchers have long known the people of the Late Paleolithic began hunting a much wider variety of animals than their forebears. But because of the scarcity of botanical remains from the period, hard evidence for a similar revolution in plant collecting has been missing until now. The quantity and variety of specimens from Ohalo II show its inhabitants had a sophisticated knowledge of the plant world, foreshadowing the development of agriculture in the same area thousands of years later.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America