Archaeobotanists have found evidence that the dawn of agriculture may have come with the domestication of fig trees in the Near East some 11,400 years ago, roughly 1,000 years before such staples as wheat, barley, and legumes were domesticated in the region. The discovery dates domesticated figs to a period some 5,000 years earlier than previously thought, making the fruit trees the oldest known domesticated crop.

Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University and Mordechai E. Kislev and Anat Hartmann of Bar-Ilan University reported their findings in the journal Science.

“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,” says Bar-Yosef, professor of anthropology in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and curator of Paleolithic archaeology at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. “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 humans as mobile hunter-gatherers.”

The research was sponsored by the American School of Prehistoric Research at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Shelby-White-Leon Levy Foundation, and the Koschitzky Foundation at Bar-Ilan University.