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Figs were likely humans' first crop

You may not eat figs on a daily basis today, but 11,000 years ago it was the hot new food--and may have been a first step toward modern agriculture.

Before humans started farming wheat, barley or oats, they probably had fig plantations, new research finds.

Figs were domesticated around 11,400 years ago, roughly 1,000 years before the major staple crops, according to Ofer Bar-Yosef, an anthropology professor at Harvard University, and Mordechai E. Kislev and Anat Hartmann of Israel's Bar-Ilan University. Earlier, scientists had thought figs were domesticated around 6,000 years ago.

The group found nine small figs and 313 fig drupelets (a small part of a fig) at Gigal I, a village in the lower Jordan Valley. The village was abandoned 11,200 years ago. The carbonized figs were not distorted, which suggests they may have been dried, sort of the way Trader Joe's sells them today. Similar fig drupelets were found 1.5 kilometers west of the area.

The ancient figs are members of a variety of fig called parthenocarpic and differ from modern wild figs. These figs develop without insect pollination and stay on the tree, allowing them to become soft and edible. These figs, however, do not produce seeds and can't reproduce on their own. Reproduction can occur only if humans plant shoots. Thus, the existence of the figs means that husbandry was taking place.

The Gigal figs were found with wild barley and acorns, indicating that humans around this area still ate many wild ingredients. That, or they were experimenting with nouvelle cuisine.

The development of farming was one of the big events in human history, allowing groups of individuals to stay put, rather than roam for food. Division of labor, written labor, stratified government and buildings all followed. Many of the world's major staple crops, such as wheat, and domesticated animals originated in the Golden Crescent, a swath of land in the Middle East. University of California, Los Angeles Professor Jared Diamond, among others, have theorized that the existence of these crops explains why complex civilizations grew more rapidly in the Middle East and Europe than in New Guinea, Africa or other parts of the world.

"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," said Bar-Yosef in a prepared 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."