science story

The following is a story off of the science section of the Reuters Newswire service. It's an interesting story but I don't think the conclusion necessarily follows the evidence. It could be valid, but there are other more likely explanations.

Since I doubt the researchers being quoted are foolish, the fault probably lies in the reporting not the research being done--and this is often a problem when reporters convert science work into marketable stories for widespread distribution.

Here's the situation: a discovery of some mutant figs, according to the story, pushes back the origination of organized agriculture nearly 5,000 years--almost double the current estimate. Now, in my mind that's a huge change and as such quite likely wrong. So the first thing I'd do is see if there's an alternate explanation.

Of course there is an alternate--the figs were gathered from a wild tree that the village folk fortuitously found. To hypothesize that organized orchards were developed, requiring artificial techniques like grafting, long before simpler methods of food production such as sowing grain existed, strikes me as too large a jump. The fig trees mutate on their own on an infrequent basis and while the mutated trees can't reproduce, they will bear fruit for a long time. It's no surprise that people back then would find these trees and harvest the figs. Concluding that because the figs had been gathered the trees must have been cultivated isn't valid--and I suspect that the researchers just gave that as a possibility, not a conclusion.

Anyway, here's the story:

Dried-up figs may have been humanity's first crop

Fri Jun 2, 4:26 PM ET

Dried-up figs found in what is modern day Israel may have been the first cultivated crop more than 11,000 years ago, researchers said on Friday.

Their discovery pushes back the earliest estimates of when agriculture began by 1,000 years.

And it suggests that, centuries before they figured out how to plant barley and other crops, people knew how to propagate fruit trees for sweet treats, said researchers Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Mordechai Kislev and Anat Hartmann of Israel's Bar-Ilan University.

"Eleven thousand years ago, there was a critical switch in the human mind -- from exploiting the earth as it is to actively changing the environment to suit our needs," Bar-Yosef, a professor of anthropology, said in a statement.

"People decided to intervene in nature and supply their own food rather than relying on what was provided by the gods. This shift to a sedentary lifestyle grounded in the growing of wild crops such as barley and wheat marked a dramatic change from 2.5 million years of human history as mobile hunter-gatherers."

People were known to have cultivated figs for thousands of years but this finding surprised even experts.

"It is generally accepted that the fig tree was domesticated in the Near East some 6,500 years ago," Bar-Yosef's team wrote in their report, published in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

"Here we report the discovery of nine carbonized fig fruits ... stored in Gilgal I, an early Neolithic village, located in the Lower Jordan Valley, which dates to 11,400 to 11,200 years ago."

Examination of the figs showed they were a variety that produces a large, sweet fruit, as opposed to the wild type, the researchers said.

In this variety, known as parthenocarpic figs, the fruit develops without insect pollination and is prevented from falling off the tree, which allows it to become soft, sweet, and edible.

But because such figs do not produce seeds, they cannot reproduce unless people propagate them, perhaps by planting shoots or branches. Fig trees will grow this way.

"Dried figs similar in size and structure imported from Iran are found today in the markets of London," the scientists said.

The carbonized figs were not distorted, which, the researchers said, suggested they may have been dried for human consumption.

"Once the parthenocarpic mutation occurred, humans must have recognized that the resulting fruits do not produce new trees, and fig tree cultivation became a common practice," Bar-Yosef said.

"In this intentional act of planting a specific variant of fig tree, we can see the beginnings of agriculture. This edible fig would not have survived if not for human intervention."

At the same site researchers found foods that must have been gathered, such as acorns and wild oats.

Of course in Western tradition and folklore the Fig Tree has another important purpose. It provided us with those first all-important clothes so we could hide our naked hides from the eyes of God. Since Adam and Eve probably didn't have much chance for bathing they might have really needed those fig leaves...and maybe a little deodorant too!

On a very different thought line--I love ragtime music. Which reminds me of the movie The Sting. Great flick.

Hmmm. On the other hand, maybe the fall from grace was cultivating fig trees and not eating an apple. Which of course isn't native to the Middle East anyway. I seem to recall that scholars that bother to think about such things have decided that the biblical apple was really a pomegranate...


keda said…
allah hallah!

i tell ya, if i was given the rubbish job of damning the human race for all eternity, i personally would be doing it with a fig rather than apple or pomegranite.

yum. and a bit of an aphrodisiac.

interesting stuff babe. cheers.
here via michele but i would have made it soon anyway again*
Prego said…
I think what actually chafed the almighty is when man created the fig newton...

and the fig thong.

Here via Michele again.

(go oilers.)
Carmi said…
I'm going to mull this over as I cycle past the farmers' fields that define the region just outside my city.

We never seem to give the history of agriculture much thought. Thanks to you, we will.
kenju said…
I think eventually we will all find out that our civilizations and their advanced abilities are much, much older than they are now thought to be.

Michele snet me this time!
I agree witg Kenju...And I happen to love figs, dried or otherwise...

Have you ever heard the Score to the wonderful special musical called "Ragtime"....beautiful show and a lovely score, with some ragtime music, of course!

Michele sent me today, my dear...
eerek said…
Bouncing back from Micheles to say that I think your interpretation is sound. THe disconnet betweeen science and the media is well-know, and irksome.
Crayonsetc said…
See, this is the reason I only believe a small fraction of what is actually reported by the media.

Stopping by via Michele this weekend to say Hello!!!
Teresa said…
I'm not so sure this is wrong. I'll read it again later, but I think you tend towards the science rather than the social and cultural influences. If fruit trees were deemed important or you had some renegade with an interest in it, experimentation could have happened before what you deemed simpler agricultural processes. I think that's quite possible.
Belinda said…
Tangent alert: Arabian horses were fed on figs and camel's milk by their Bedouin owners when out in the desert away from any grazing. They also lived in the tents with the families (well, the mares did), and if it came down to a choice between feeding his horse and his wife, the wife went hungry.
utenzi said…
True, that is a slight tangent, Belinda but at least there's the fig connection. Thanks for the advice. It sounds like those Desert Dwellers had their priorities straight. A good horse is hard to come by.
Shane said…
i always disliked the crunchy seeds in the fig newtons. Although pre-newton figs are rather tasty.

michele sent me.

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