Ohalo II site, Israel; Cultivation and Proto-Weeds in Galilee 23,000 years Ago

In this post we present extracts from official publications on the exciting findings from the Ohalo II site in Israel. Evidence shows that cultivation had already begun in the Near East before 23,000 years. Important note: Cultivation does not mean domestication neither agriculture. Up to date evidence suggests that these came much later in Time.


Abstract Although the Near East has long been a textbook example of pristine agricultural origins, archaeobotanical research in the last decade has transformed our understanding of the processes involved and provides some important guidance and warning for agricultural origins research generally. While older theories tended to assume that the beginnings of cereal exploitation developed as part of a broad spectrum revolution shortly (and inevitably) before the transition to farming, it is now clear that there was a very long prehistory of wild cereal use by seed and nut gathering foragers. The evidence from Ohalo II puts wild wheat and barley use at least 10,000 years before cultivation. Also of particular importance are new archaeobotanical approaches to identifying the initial cultivation through analyses of associated weeds, which indicates that cultivation began significantly, perhaps a millennium or two, before recognizable morphologically domesticated cereals. What is also now becoming clear is that changes in cereal grain size may not be good indicators of domestication in terms of seed dispersal criteria (tough rachis) for all species. Seed size increase in pulses can also now be shown to not be closely linked to initial domestication. In general then, the quantitative increase in archaeobotanical data is showing the origins of crop cultivation to have been a dynamic and multi-stage evolutionary process and not a single simple ‘revolution’ or ‘discovery.’


Defining cultivation and domestication: Evolutionary Stages The basis of food production is a direct involvement of humans in the management of the lives and life cycles of certain plant and animal species, termed ‘domesticated’. It is the management of these species, over hundreds or thousands of years, that led to the evolutionary changes of domestication. A key distinction must be made between cultivation, which is something that people do, and domestication, which is a quality or set of attributes of a plant (Helbaek 1960; Harlan 1995; Harris 1989; 1996). Cultivation is an activity; domestication is a genetic status, and this has evolved on account of cultivation. Cultivation usually involves soil preparation or tillage, although the earliest forms of cultivation may have simply involved sowing seeds by broadcasting; cultivation may also include adding to soil, such as fertilizing or irrigating. Cultivation is an important change in human strategy as people start to manipulate the soil and the composition of plants ahead of time in order produce yields of particular plants months later on. Domestication, on the other hand, is changes to the plant.

People did not set out to domesticate plants, but to manipulate productivity through cultivation. The new environment created by cultivation causes unintended evolution, and that is domestication.

The origins of agriculture is a multi-stage process, and the human practices of cultivation cause the changes in plants that we call domestication. This is usefully summarized in a diagram by David Harris, which distinguishes four general stages, wild plant food procurement (true hunting and gathering), and wild plant food production (the very beginnings of cultivation) and systematic cultivation, and finally agriculture based on domesticated plants. The domestication results from the earlier wild plant food production, making crops more dependent on humans for survival but also more productive. Through all of these stages people are putting in increasing labour effort on a single unit of land and single field of crops, in other words this is intensification of production. But the reward is increased productivity of that land, and the ability to produce large surpluses, to feed more people, or to utilize for social and economic relations, i.e. for trade and the like.

The Ohalo warning: cereals do not mean agriculture Before looking at the evidence for the beginnings of agriculture, it is worth briefly introducing a site that is not agricultural, Ohalo II. This is a site discovered at the end of the 1980s when particularly harsh drought conditions lowered the level of Lake Galilee in Israel and revealed an archaeological settlement along its banks, which included the remains of brush huts, and abundant plant and animal remains (Nadel et al. 1995; Simmons and Nadel 1998; Nadel and Werker 1999). Faunal remains indicate important catching of shallow water lake fish and catching of waterfowl, as well hunting of larger mammals. The plant remains from this site include fruits and nuts, like grapes and almonds, but also acorns which are often a storable staple food for hunter-gatherers (Kislev et al 1992). But particular attention has been given to evidence for wild emmer and barley in substantial quantities from Ohalo II in Israel (Kislev et al 1992; Weiss et al. 2004; Piperno et al. 2004). This means that use of the wild cereals preceded cultivation by more than 10,000 years! This evidence includes not just grains but quantities of rachis remains amongst which the wild (smooth scar) type greatly predominates. It should be noted, however, that small quantities of rough scar types occur, but these are likely to represent the rare ‘domestic’-type mutants that occur in nature, or result from immature harvesting. This indicates the need for evidence from cereal rachises to also be considered quantitatively in studies of agricultural origins. Grinding stones from the site have been studied for starch grains, which indicate that wild barley was indeed ground for flour (Piperno et al. 2004). Ohalo is an important warning to archaeologists that hunter-gatherers may have utilized the wild forms of crops without cultivation and without any move to cultivation! This indicates that there is no necessary trajectory from wild cereal use to cultivation.

Agriculture as part of intensification The beginnings of cultivation can be seen as one of several interrelated practices by which human groups came to exploit the environment more intensively, to produce more food out of the same amount of land. Intensification is seen in increasingly stable, sedentary communities, and in the increasing use of pounding and grinding technology to extract more calories through processing. This process begins in the Late Pleistocene, in what is known archaeologically as the Epipalaeolithic period.

We can now see that a key change in human behaviour was cultivation, but that this did not immediately, nor inevitably, lead to biological domestication and full dependence on agriculture. The practices of preparing land (tillage), planting seeds from stores, and tending plants was an important change in strategy amongst certain hunter-gatherer groups. In this context, we can imagine that groups experimented with a range of potential plants that could be cultivated, and it was during this period that the cereals, pulses (like peas, lentils, chickpea and vetch—see Tanno and Willcox 2006b), and flax were explored as cultivars. It should be noted, however, that early pulse finds do not indicate any significant increase in size (cf. Zohary and Hopf 2000), and clearly enlarged pulses seed sizes come only from much later Pottery Neolithic and Bronze Age contexts. As suggested recently on the basis of the evidence from Indian mungbeans there may be a long lagtime of millennia between the beginnings of pulse cultivation (and probable domestication in terms of seed dispersal and germination) and the seed size increase (Fuller and Harvey 2006). There is also recent evidence that during this period some people began to transplant cuttings of trees and shrubs that were useful, such a fig trees (Kislev et al. 2006) and, perhaps, almonds. Unlike cereals which evolved gradually into domesticated forms, “domestication” for species of fruit tree, like the fig, involved simply the identification of a promising mutant in nature and its vegetation propagation (from cuttings) and tending by people. This is quite different from gradual evolution of domesticated cereals, but equally indicates the key change in human behaviour that occurred first.

Breaking down the fertile crescent: emerging sub-centers Textbooks and summaries often talk about the ‘Fertile Crescent’ or the Levant as the place where agriculture originated, but in fact this region needs to be broken into a number of distinct micro-centres (perhaps 3). This is a contention that remains a centre of fierce debates that draw on varying evidence from genetics, biogeography and archaeology. While reductionist views, often associated with particular types of genetic analyses (AFLP diversity analyses and neighbour-joining tree cluster analysis), often favour single centres (e.g. Lev-Yadun et al. 2000; 2006; Salamini et al. 2002). While botanical and genetic evidence have long support a very limited number of domestications for each crop species, in many cases perhaps only one (or two) (Zohary and Hopf 2000), these need not mean that they all come form the same place. Foci of domestication suggested from DNA diversity studies (assuming modern distirbiutions are repsentative) have been positied for (one-grained) einkorn wheat (Heun et al. 1997) and barley (Badr et al. 2000). Researchers starting from the geographical and chronological distribution of archaeobotanical data, together with considerations of the biogeogeography of wild progenitors tend to favour multiple localized places of domestication (e.g. Willcox 2005; Tanno and Willcox 2006b; 2006c; Weiss et al. 2006; Hartman et al. 2006; see also Jones and Brown 2000 on genetic support; and Allaby and Brown 2003 on concerns with the neighbour-joining tree methodology.). These debates indicate the vibrant state of research on Near Eastern agriculture origins, the significance of recent methodological developments in both genetics and archaeology, and need for further data gathering.

Archaeological evidence currently favours two or three sub-centres of early plant cultivation and domestication. A number of advances in recent years have made it increasingly clear that separate histories need to be traced for different sub-regions, which were separate in as much as the beginnings of agriculture relied on different species, which much have been taken separately from the wild into cultivation. Also of significance is the growing evidence for some extinct early crops, that is species or varieties that featured in early agriculture which cannot be found in cultivation today. In others there is lost biological diversity from early agriculture, a process akin to the lost of genetic diversity amongst many crop today. The evidence for this comes from the gradual accumulation of more archaeobotanical data but also from significant methodological advances in the genetic analysis of modern plants and in the refinement of archaeobotanical identification criteria.

Advances in genetics have been important for identifying evolutionary lineages of crops which are indistinguishable on morphological grounds. This was first achieved through ‘traditional’ plant genetics based on cross-breeding and the identification variant recessive genes that control for the same morphological result. For examples in barley (Hordeum vulgare) two variant genes control whether or not the ear shatters. A recessive mutation in either gene locus leads to the domesticated condition, while the dominant variant at either locus confers wild-type shattering ears (Zohary and Hopf 2000: 59-60). The existence of these two variants argues for two domestications for barley, although these need not both come from the wild barleys of Southwestern Asia (Hordeum spontaneum), as eastern wild barleys (of Eastern Iran through Central Asia) and landraces in these regions and eastwards in the Himilayas are quite genetically distinct (Morrell et al 2003; cf. Badr et al. 2000). Other approaches have included the examination of chromosomal form, or variation in seed proteins.

Chromosomal variants help to localize the closest ancestors of domesticated peas (Pisum sativum) with wild populations in central Turkey and Israel rather than other wild pea population spread throughout Turkey and the fertile crescent (Zohary and Hopf 2000: 105). More recently, however, it has become possible to identify distinct evolutionary lineages through the sequencing of parts of the DNA in crops and wild relatives to more closely pin down the likely ancestral populations and the number of domestications. Recent work on emmer wheat has identified two different lineages of a gluten gene which are so different that they are estimated to have evolved apart 100,000’s of years ago, and thus amongst wild emmer wheat, long before domestication. Such evidence implies two separate domestications of emmer (Allaby et al 1999: 305; Brown 1999; reviewed in Jones and Brown 2000).

Another source of evidence for multiple domestication of the “same” (or similar) crops comes from refinements in archaeobotanical identification criteria. Thus, for example, it is possible on the basis of grain shape to distinguish einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum) with singlegrained spikelets from einkorn with two-grained spikelets. Modern domesticated einkorn (T. monococcum) is normally one-grained. This is a trait derived from one-grained wild einkorn populations (Triticum boeoticum subsp. aegilopoides). There are also wild two-grained forms (T. boeoticum subsp. thaudar and T. urartu). Archaeobotanical evidence indicates the presence of one of these two grained forms as a wild cereal from the late Pleistocene in Syria (Hillman 2000; Willcox 2002; 2005), and later as a domesticated cereal in Syria, Turkey and into Neolithic Europe. It persists in prehistoric Europe at least through the Bronze Age (Kreuz and Boenke 2002; Kohler-Schneider 2003), and disappears in its Syrian homeland during the Chalcolithic (Van Zeist 1999). This implies that in addition to the einkorn domestication that is ancestral to the single-grained einkorn found in cultivation today (but rare), there was an additional two-grained einkorn domestication but this crop went extinct in prehistory. Similarly there is now evidence for an extinct emmer-like wheat (Jones et al. 2000; Kohler-Schneider 2003). As already indicated, genetic data suggests two domestications to account for the emmer wheat races in cultivation today. However, it has become clear that there is a distinctive prehistoric wheat chaff type (glume bases) which are consistently distinct from emmer, einkorn, or spelt wheats and therefore must derive from another, extinct wheat, which we might call “emmeroid”. This extinct cereal is known from Neolithic sites in Turkey, Djeitun in Turkmenistan, southeast and central Europe. It persists in parts of central Europe as late as the Bronze Age on current evidence (Kohler-Schneider 2003). In addition early sites in Syria appear to have cultivated a local form of rye (Secale cf. montanum), but rye did not become a major crop of the Neolithic Near East despite occasional later finds (Hillman 2000: 392); and was probably a different species from the later European rye (Secale cereale), domesticated from a field weed in Late Bronze Age or Iron Age times (ca. 1000 BC) (Küster 2000). Taken together the archaeobotanical morphotypes and genetics suggest a minimum of 7 domestications of wheat and barley in the Near Eastern Fertile Crescent region, and there is no reason to attribute them all to a single micro-region or a single process of agricultural origins.

As data has accumulated in recent years is has become clear that the earliest agriculture in the Near East was based on differing sets of crops in different parts of the Near East. This is especially clear with the cereal crops (Figure 11), different kinds of wheat, barley and rye, but some patterns may also be present in the pulses. This has been highlighted in particular by Willcox (2002; 2005). In the Southern Levant (Israel and Jordan), early cereals were barley and emmer wheat (Triticum diococcum) (Colledge 2001), whereas in the northern Levant (Syria), early cereals included rye, two-grained einkorn wheat and barley. In Turkey, by contrast, the early one-grained einkorn occurs, together with emmer and barley. The latter case is best-known from the site of Nevali Cori. Peas (Pisum sativum) were probably domesticated in the South and chickpeas (Cicer arietinum) in the north. This indicates that the earliest cultivation, at roughly the same time (PPNA to early PPNB), differed in different parts of the western Fertile Crescent. Thus archaeobotanical data, together with genetic evidence, converge to suggest multiple domestication centres in Southwest Asia.

(Source: “Recent lessons from Near Eastern archaeobotany: wild cereal use, predomestication cultivation and tracing multiple origins and dispersals”, by Dorian Q Fuller, Sue Colledge, 2007)


The search for concrete evidence for the first appearance of weeds some 12,000 years ago, when intentional systematic cultivation was initiated in the Levant, needs to rely on the prehistoric archaeobotanical plant assemblages. The archaeological record demonstrates that pre-Neolithic human societies were hunter-gatherers for millennia when a radical development took place throughout Eurasia at the onset of the Holocene, 11,700/500 cal BP. Over the course of the next several millennia, foraging societies across the Fertile Crescent began cultivating as well as herding, tending goats, sheep, pigs, and cattle. Eventually the development of the initial agricultural system saw the ‘Domestication Syndrome’ of both plants and animals. The establishment of long-term, agricultural-based permanent villages resulted in a population increase which later caused human expansions westward and eastward.

Research of the Paleolithic period has already demonstrated that humans caused significant modifications to their immediate environments long before the Neolithic revolution. This process that has intrigued scholars since the early 1950’s, and is currently referred as ‘niche construction’. Humans set fire to vegetation, hunted and trapped preferred species of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish, cut down trees for buildings and producing numerous objects, and created dump areas in and around their camps. Later, with the onset of successful intentional cultivation, hunter-gatherers cleared fields near their habitations for planting. The intensive disturbance of these environments led to the proliferation of synanthropic plants. These plant species, both annuals and perennials, exhibit functional and adaptive traits that enable them to withstand the disturbed habitats and increase their biological fitness in natural plant communities altered by natural or anthropogenic forces. Owing to their rapid water
uptake (particularly in water-limited habitats), high growth rates, dispersal capabilities, and ability to thrive in areas with altered soil nutrient resources, synanthropic species (later termed weeds) frequently invade newly formed habitats. They were able to rapidly established extensive populations, especially with the expansion of farming by invading cultivated fields and causing reduced crop yields.


Although modern agronomists and archaeologists generally refer to weeds as plants present in field crops, this term needs to be carefully defined as its use is manifold in both research domains. Here, weeds are defined as plants that disrupt or alter the functioning and composition of natural ecosystems and human-altered environments. In most cases in the Near East and Europe, they negatively impact human activities and as such are undesirable. “Protoweeds” are defined as the first wild plants that entered and thrived in early human-affected habitats, which subsequently led to the evolution of weeds.

Because weeds thrive in cultivated fields and disturbed soils, a significant presence of weeds in archaeobotanical assemblages retrieved from Neolithic sites and settlements of later age is widely considered an indicator of systematic cultivation. Generally, weeds are useful ecological markers only if they are identified to the species level. Undoubtedly, in genera which include several species, each species could have an entirely different ecological signature and could not serve as a proxy for agricultural activity. The unique anaerobic conditions that prevailed at Ohalo II enabled the high level of preservation of the samples, allowing the identification to the species level.

Until now, the geographic origin of some current Southwest Asian weeds was unknown. In this paper we present archaeobotanical evidence indicating that some of these species were initially present in human-affected environments as local wild plants during the Terminal Pleistocene. Later, with the establishment of systematic farming, they evolved into weeds or functioned as weeds without further evolution. We term the first stage of this human-plant interaction as “the proto-weed stage”.


Ohalo II is located on the southwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret), Israel. The site was inhabited during the Last GlacialMaximum (LGM) at ~23,000 years ago and then inundated. The uncovered huts were exceptionally well-preserved. The remains of six brush huts were identified during excavations, in addition to several hearths. In the carefully floated and hand-picked deposits found in these huts, a particularly rich plant assemblage of ca. 150,000 seeds and fruits was collected. In addition, a wide variety of flint and ground stone tools, faunal remains (fish, mammals, birds, rodents, reptiles, and mollusks), beads, bone, and wood objects were found on the floors of the huts. One grave of an adult male was found near one of the huts.

More than one-third of this rich plant assemblage of seeds and fruits belongs to the grass family (Poaceae), including wild emmer wheat, wild barley, and wild oat (Triticum dicoccoides, Hordeum spontaneum, Avena barbata/sterilis). Unequivocal evidence that these grains were processed for consumption is provided by (i) a grinding slab set on the floor of Brush Hut 1 from which wild cereal starch granules were extracted, and (ii) by the patterned distribution of these species’ seeds found around the grinding slab.

Ohalo II functioned as a year-round settlement, as indicated by the remains of migratory birds known to visit the region in different seasons, and the timing of ripening of the identified plant remains. This conclusion is supported by the earliest occurrence of commensal species at the site, such as the house mouse (Mus musculus) and the rat (Rattus rattus).

The plants and faunal remains demonstrate that Ohalo II inhabitants practiced a broad spectrum of exploitation of annual plants and birds. Some of the plants are the progenitors of domesticated crop species such as emmer wheat, barley, pea, lentil, almond, fig, grape, and olive. Thus, about 11,000 years before what had been generally accepted as the onset of agriculture, people’s diets relied heavily on the same variety of plants that would eventually become domesticated.

Among the ca. 150,000 identified charred seeds and fruits, 15,726 (10.5%) of these seeds belong to 13 current weed species. Their high frequency reflects their common presence as proto-weeds within the immediate environment of the site. Almost all of the studied protoweed seeds (93.2%) belong to two important species of current weeds in crop fields: corn cleavers (Galium tricornutum), and ten grains of darnel (cf. Lolium temulentum). Until now, the original habitat of these plants was unknown as they are rare outside segetal environments in the Levant. Ohalo II therefore provides the oldest and clearest known indication of their origin, as well as the time of their entrance into human-made niches. Also, it is possible that we couldn’t identify the darnel grain in 100% (hence the ca.) because these grains are morphologically closer to its unknown wild-type than the current weed-type. Four weed species found at the site, Chenopodium album, Malva parviflora, Notobasis syriaca, and Silybum marianum are common current weeds of the region that are typically found in disturbed areas or dump areas, though some of their parts are edible.

The presence of such a wide variety and huge quantity of proto-weeds, particularly Galium tricornutum, might indicate that these species were growing together with the cereals collected for consumption (wild barley, wild wheat, and wild oat). Since these cereals and weeds currently grow within the anthropogenic niche of wild and cultivated fields in the Jordan Valley, and in light of their common presence in Ohalo II, we should consider two alternative hypotheses. First, that they were collected in the wild, and second, that they grew in trial plots as the locals engaged in small-scale, elementary cereal cultivation.


In addition, the findings of weeds such as Ch. album, M. parviflora, N. syriaca, and S. marianum provide the earliest botanical indication of a disturbed environment in the Levant as a dump area where nitrophilic proto-weeds proliferated. This altered environment favored the establishment and growth of these species that flourished in the disturbed environment of the immediate surroundings of the Ohalo II’s permanent camp.

Here we note that domesticated cereals are usually identified by the type of disarticulation scars in their rachises; smooth disarticulation scars are considered as the main diagnostic element for the identification of the wild forms, while rough disarticulation scars indicate the domestic form. Presence of >10% domestic-type in a given archaeobotanical assemblage is regarded as an indication for domestication. At Ohalo II, 320 wild barley rachises were found, of which 36% show domestic-type scars, alongside 148 wild wheat rachises, 25% of which are domestic-type scars. Importantly, the relative width of the rachises indicate that most of the domestic-type scars do not derive from the lower part of the ear. Traditionally, similar finds would be regarded as domesticated. However, we do not claim such status. First, ears of wild cereals mature gradually, with the upper spikelet ripening and shedding to the ground. Second, ear ripening in wild stands is so irregular that at any given time only some of the ears are yellow (fully ripe), while others are green (unripe), or in the intermediate stage of green-yellow. However, field studies conducted in wild barley populations across Israel showed that harvested green or green-yellow ears tend to disarticulate and show the same wild-type clean scars when allowed to dry, rather than domestic-type rough scars. This high percentage of domestic-type scars in the Ohalo II assemblage is significant, therefore, to our reconstruction of the site inhabitants’ practices. Harvesting green-yellow cereal fields at Ohalo II is supported by the study of glossed flint blades found at the site.


Conclusions We suggest that the Ohalo II archaeobotanical remains indicate that the locals practiced small scale cultivation, with no evidence for its continuation in the following period.

It was already suggested that the appearance of non-shattering mutants in cereal crops was a fast process. Genetic considerations indicate that such a shift could have been accomplished in the course of a few dozen generations of selection. If so, the Ohalo II assemblage containing a high percentage of domestic-type rachises, might be the earliest indication for fast domestication rate.

In conclusion, our findings represent the earliest indications for the presence of protoweeds in a site predating the Neolithic plant domestication by some 11,000 years. This study shows for the first time that proto-weeds grew in the vicinity of human camps and most probably also in small scale, cultivated plots. Further discoveries of well-preserved archaeobotanical assemblages from the period between Ohalo II and the first Neolithic sites in the region will provide the missing evidence of trials and failures in early agriculture.

(Source: “The Origin of Cultivation and Proto-Weeds, Long Before Neolithic Farming”, by Ainit Snir et al., 2015)


Data results The Ohalo II stone tools and tool fragments were divided into five major types, namely, bowls, grinding tools, weights, multiple tools and varia (Figure 3). Tools were found in all the excavated loci (Table 1). The general frequencies of complete tools and tool fragments are nearly identical. The most prolific locus was Brush Hut 12, with 15 specimens, and in total the six brush huts yielded 40 ground stone tools, with an average of 6.7 objects per hut. All other loci have isolated specimens, except for Loc. 4 which is a stone feature composed of ground stone tools.

All bowls except one, share similar characteristics. Based on two wide rim fragments, the larger bowls had a diameter of ca. 30 cm; all were round or semi-round. The depth of most bowls did not exceed 4 cm and the angle between the rim and the inner (working) surface was wide and smooth. All preserved working surfaces contain macroscopically visible use-wear of protracted striations reflecting a longitudinal motion, probably related to grinding.

The smallest bowl was made of soft limestone. The fragment includes a base, a wall and a rim. It is sub-rectangular in shape, just under 5 cm in each direction. The rim is low and relatively thick, while the base is thin, in some parts <1 cm. The inner face is covered by deep and shallow incisions. They are present in two main directions. Most of the inner face is covered by incisions perpendicular to the rim, though their depths and distances are not highly organized. At the junction of the rim and the base there are incisions following the circumference of the base.

There are also some on the rim, inside, though their density is lower than both cases described above. No similar incisions are present on the outer surface. Likely, they reflect the manufacturing process; in such a case no smoothing or grinding work took place later. However, they could have also been made deliberately before discard. Use-wear analysis suggests the object may have been used for liquids (Dubreuil & Nadel 2015). Some scars around the broken sides may indicate deliberate breakage of the bowl. It was found face down on the floor of Brush Hut 13, with no similar fragments on that floor or elsewhere at the site (Nadel 2003: fig. 12).

Another limestone bowl fragment was found in a similar setting on the floor of Brush Hut 3, also face down and without conjoinable fragments. This bowl was much larger, and the retrieved fragment is ca. 15 cm long, rectangular in general shape and up to 5 cm thick. The inner profile is shallow, though the rim was not preserved. The inner face is densely incised by many delicate lines (striations), mostly perpendicular or diagonal to the rim. These, again, indicate that the implement was not used in any grinding or pounding manner after the incisions were made. Somewhat similar striations were found on a 10 cm long limestone cobble from Ein Aqev (Marks 1976: fig. 9.28, bottom).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In summary, only two bowl fragments with dense incisions were found at the site. Both are isolated fragments with no conjoinable pieces. Both were made of limestone, heavily incised (though in different manners), not used for grinding and pounding after the incisions were made, and buried face down in a floor of a brush hut.

Altogether, there are actually 7 bowls represented in the Ohalo II assemblage. The basalt bowls range in thickness between 3 cm and 6 cm (Table 2), while there is one thick and one thin limestone bowl.

Similar stone bowls or vessels are extremely rare in contemporaneous or somewhat later Epipalaeolithic sites in the southern Levant.

Clearly, the bowls had great value as their manufacture level is much higher than performed for other types, and most of the fragments (even small pieces) were reused. Some were redesigned by flaking; others were recycled as wall supports. Interestingly, except for one, all bowl fragments were found in brush huts.


Grinding tools There are 17 grinding tools, divided into lower (stationary) and upper (movable) components (Kraybill 1977: 487). Most of them are hardly shaped, or not shaped at all. They were chosen according to size and shape, and by using those for grinding at least one face became smooth, usually with delicate striations visible by the naked eye.


Lower tools Two grinding slabs were found. One boulder grinding slab (Wright 1992a:141; 1992b) was installed into the second floor of Brush Hut 1. It was firmly set on a patch of sand and stabilized by several pebbles (Nadel 2003). The distribution of 12,000 cereal grains on the floor, mostly around it, strongly suggests that grinding took place here (Piperno et al. 2004; Weiss et al. 2008). Starch grains of wild wheat, wild barley and wild oats were retrieved from the top side of the stone, while they were rare on the bottom side and the nearby sediments (Nadel et al. 2012). Use-wear analysis indicates grinding, although not intensively (Dubreuil & Nadel 2015).

Another grinding slab has a saddle-like shape. Broken into three pieces, it was placed together with 10 used handstones forming a round paved installation near a grave. All tools were very thin, likely not amenable for further use (Cane 1989). Remains of charred seeds were recorded here, suggesting the installation was used for processing (maybe by heating) plant foods.


Querns Fragments of three basalt basin querns (Wright 1992a:142 1992b) were found. Two of the querns were severely damaged by fire. The best preserved quern has an inner working surface, lower than the rim by 3 cm.


Upper tools All 12 upper tools (handstones) are made of basalt and are significantly smaller than the stationary ones. These have one or two parallel faces suitable for grinding. In two cases the tools were shaped by pecking, polishing and delicate flaking, creating a rounded outline. One of these was made on a large flake and in both only one face was used as a working surface. Ten additional handstones were found installed in Loc. 4. All Loc. 4 specimens are unmodified natural stones shaped purely by grinding motion. Following Wright’s (1992a; 1992b) definition, five are identified as bifacial oval/oval; three as bifacial sub-oval/lens; one bifacial oval-triangular / triangular; and one bifacial oval-rectangular/triangular. Stating the outline shape of the handstones may be misleading as the forms were not achieved by intentional design. The average length of the handstones (13.9 cm) appears to be typical of pre-agricultural grinding tools (Adams 1999). As the thickness of all handstones (except for one) is below 4 cm, it is possible that they were all exhausted (Cane 1989).


Multiple tools There are 13 multiple tools; most are actually handstones with one or more grinding faces and one or more additional working surface(s) for a non-grinding activity (e.g. pecking, percussion). Only one standard (Wright 1992a: 641) multiple tool was found. It was carefully shaped by pecking. Use-wear study (Dubreuil & Nadel 2015) revealed signs of percussion, pounding and abrasion, most likely caused by processing hard minerals.


Fishing weights Altogether 53 pebbles with two opposite notches were found at the site. Only 12 were retrieved from the excavated loci while the rest were collected from the surface (Nadel & Zaidner 2002). However, it should be noted that such tools are extremely rare around the lake’s shores according to our survey, while they were common on the surface of the Ohalo II site (see also Rosenberg et al. 2016). Furthermore, in terms of dimensions and technology they are identical to the in situ remains. It is thus concluded that they are part of the Ohalo II material remains.


Varia and fragments A range of tools and tool fragments that are too small or damaged to be assigned to a specific tool category is included in this group (n=22). Half of the specimens are irregular shapes and exhibit somewhat uncertain macroscopic use-wear signs. However, one of these implements (OHII-1a57) was studied under the microscope and showed a micropolish typical of skin processing (Dubreuil & Nadel 2015).


Interpretations of the data The use of stone at Ohalo II was common and in a wide range of realms. In terms of subsistence patterns, two aspects are particularly noteworthy. One is the evidence for cereal grinding, both in terms of lower and upper tools, as well as their in situ preservation. However, all such tools represent minimal investment in shaping the implements. In addition, according to use-wear analysis, they were not used intensively (Dubreuil & Nadel 2015). This may suggest that many were used ad-hoc and then discarded, outside the camp and thus only a small number were found. Alternatively, cereal grinding wasn’t a major activity at the site, as may be suggested by the very small number of sickle blades (Snir et al. 2015b). Both explanations are considered viable at this stage.

The second aspect concerns the double-notched pebbles, interpreted as net sinkers. These, the most common ground stone tools at the site, reflect fishing in the lake. That such activity was important and that fish were an essential component of the diet is clear based on the large numbers of fish bones on brush hut floors and around fireplaces (Zohar 2002; 2003).

In terms of workmanship quality, the bowls reflect the highest investment in shaping the implements. Interestingly, all bowl remains are of shallow vessels, likely usable not only as containers but also as confined working surfaces. All specimens are fragments, each one much smaller than half a bowl. Two were heavily incised and buried up-side-down into floors. In addition, two sets of conjoinable fragments were retrieved, but even in these cases most fragments of each bowl are missing. As such, and following ethnographic examples and archaeological studies in other continents, the patterns observed here are interpreted as reflections of cognitive behavior where grinding implements were deliberately broken, and then components were buried on site and distributed beyond, following social codes and traditions (Chapman 2000; Chapman & Gaydarska 2007; Adams 2008; Dubreuil & Nadel 2015). This may also be supported by the possible burial of basalt flakes under the floor and the setting of selected flints and animal bones in particular arrangements (Nadel 2000; 2003; 2006).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The presence of basalt and limestone flakes in various dimensions reflects local manufacture or maintenance of ground stone tools. Limestone dominance among flakes may reflect the common on-site manufacture of tools while basalt was mostly worked elsewhere. Several types, like the weights and the reworked bowl fragments, have flake scars. In most reports of Late Upper Palaeolithic – Early Epipalaeolithic sites in the southern Levant, no presentation or discussion of flakes and manufacturing by flaking are available (e.g. Wright 1994).

The large numbers of burnt fragments, supported by our experimental work, indicates that stones were common in many parts of the camp, including on brush hut floors; their original use is yet to be verified. The use of stone at the camp includes additional aspects. Supports for walls are present at least for one brush hut, although true stone walls were not present in the region at that time. This should be taken as an important point in terms of architecture developments and innovations at the region, as Ohalo II was occupied year-round and boulders were available in the vicinity of the site (Nadel 2003; Goring-Morris & Belfer-Cohen 2008). Yet, again, stone walls or even stone foundations were not constructed. Stone features, such as an installation made of grinding tools, are rare and become common only in the Natufian.

(Source: “The use of stone at Ohalo II, a 23,000 year old site in the Jordan Valley, Israel”, by Polina Spivak, Dani Nadel, 2016)


The use of plant resources as food is evident from the earliest days of humankind. Likely, these foods were gathered by bare hands or by using simple ad-hoc tools. By the end of the Pleistocene, the Natufians (ca. 15,500±11,600 Cal BP) of the Near East commonly used a composite harvesting tool, the sickle. These sickles were composed of a handle made of bone or wood, and flint blade(s) or bladelet(s) inserted in it, as found at Natufian sites such as el-Wad in Mount Carmel, northern Israel and Wadi Hammeh 27 in Jordan. The hafted Natufian blades/bladelets have typical sickle sheen (later identified through use-wear analysis, see below). Such glossed elements, commonly termed sickle blades in local literature, were found in small numbers in many Natufian sites, and in larger numbers in the proceeding Neolithic sites.


Pre-Natufian sickle handles have not been found yet, and reports of isolated blades with faint sickle sheen are also rare. We report here the presence of five blades with apparent sheen at Ohalo II, a 23,000-years-old fisher-hunter-gatherers’ camp on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Furthermore, use-wear evidence for cereal harvesting is combined with hafting indications on some of the blades. This is the earliest evidence for such a composite harvesting implement, a tool that became a hallmark of Early Neolithic tool kits some 12,000 years later.


The earliest evidence of sickles In the Levant, the earliest appearance of glossed blades in the archaeological record is during the Early Epipaleolithic period. Although rare, isolated flint blades with weak sheen were mentioned from Kebaran sites (ca. 23,000±18,000 cal BP) such as Ein Gev I to the east of the Sea of Galilee. However, only in the Natufian do such elements become relatively common.


The Natufian glossed implements, and for that matter the Neolithic ones too, were commonly perceived as associated with cereal harvesting. Indeed, already in 1892 Spurrel studied glossed items under the microscope and concluded that the glossy appearance was produced by friction with cereal stems [9]. Since then glossed blades and bladelets are commonly catalogued as sickle blades in the typo-technological analyses of flint assemblages in the Levant, and often interpreted as an indication of one of the most important developments in human subsistence technology, namely, the cultivation and later the domestication of cereals.


In the case of cereal harvesting tools, the investigation of Levantine Natufian and Neolithic sickle blades by the application of the methodological framework of use-wear analysis during the 80’s and 90’s provided a platform for reconstructing incipient agriculture, including aspects related to field conditions, species of crops and harvesting methods. The study of cereal gloss was also a platform to investigate wear formation processes, and recently cereal gloss on flints was analyzed by the application of laser confocal microscopy.


Yet, it is reasonable to assume that cereal grains were consumed by humans much earlier than the fluorescence of the Natufian culture. In the Levant, the earliest examples include cereal grains found in Middle Paleolithic Kebara Cave in Mount Carmel, northern Israel and Amud Cave in the Lower Galilee, northern Israel. Evidence of cereal starch entrapped in European Upper Palaeolithic grinding tools demonstrates their use for plant food processing.


The site of Ohalo II Ohalo II is located on the southwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. It was submerged shortly after it was abandoned and remained as such for millennia. The site was dated by over 50 14C dates of in situ remains, as well as of materials from pre-occupation and post-occupation layers. Eleven loci were directly dated by 34 14C readings, mostly ranging between 22,500±23,500 cal. B.P.. Two of the loci with the items discussed here were directly dated: Locus 3 with 12 radiocarbon dates and Locus 13 with 3 radiocarbon dates.


The camp includes the remains of six brush huts and several clusters of hearths around
them. A large faunal assemblage was found in all brush huts and fire places, including mammals, micro mammals, fish and birds. A sample of ca. 160,000 charred and uncharred seeds and fruit remains comprising approximately 150 identified taxa was studied. The presence of cereals in the plant assemblage is noteworthy.

Evidence for grinding cereals on the floor of Brush Hut 1 was well-preserved. First, the unique distribution of cereal grains around a carefully set flat stone suggests the stone was used for food preparation. Second, a thorough study of the stone, including sonication for the retrieval of microscopic remains, showed that the stone was indeed used for grinding wheat, barley and oats. The grinded cereals were supposedly used for making a baked product in an adjacent baking installation, which in turn increased the caloric intake of the inhabitants. A use-wear analysis of the stone corroborates the previous conclusions. Additional lower and upper grinding stones were studied, again reflecting the use of such implements in food processing at the site. Furthermore, a recent botanical-ecological study showed that the Ohalo II people were cultivating cereals, probably on a small scale; this is by far the earliest example of its kind.

Thus, there is evidence at the site for cereal cultivation on the one hand, and for grinding and accordingly, consumption, on the other. Direct evidence for the relevant harvesting technology was missing. It is this gap that the current paper bridges by studying glossed flint implements, one of which was already briefly published.


The glossed blades The Ohalo II flint assemblage is available at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa. Five artifacts with macroscopically visible gloss were identified in the typo-technological analysis of the flint assemblage from Ohalo II.

Although the assemblage is large and over 100,000 specimens (excluding chunks and fragments < 1 cm) have been studied, the retouched tools comprise only 3.3% of the assemblage, and the glossed pieces are indeed rare (ca. 0.1% of the tools). Furthermore, the assemblage is bladelet oriented, and most cores and laminar elements reflect an industry focusing on small bladelets. These form 41.5% of the assemblage, while blades form 11.4%, and most of them are small and similar to the bladelets. The retouched bladelets dominate the tool kit, as they form 60±70% of the tools in most loci. Other tools include retouched blades and flakes, and lower numbers of notches, burins and ad-hoc specimens. Interestingly, no gloss was identified on bladelets. Four of the glossed blades were found on radiometrically dated brush hut floors (two in each of Loci 3 and 13), and one in Locus 21 (at the edge of the excavated site).

The glossed blades vary in morphology and dimensions. The blades were produced of local flint nodules commonly used at the site. A study of 300 complete blades from six loci clearly illustrates the general tendency to manufacture and use small blades: the average length in all six samples ranges between 32.1 mm and 39.1 mm. Thus, all five specimens discussed here are much longer and, for that matter, are also wider and thicker than the average blade at the site. The glossed blades may have been produced on-site, as blade cores, large primary elements and large core trimming elements are present.


In all cases, traces that could be attributed to post depositional surface modification (PDSM) are very light or entirely absent, indicating that the specimens are well preserved, providing an excellent opportunity to study their macroscopic and microscopic wear traces.

The glossy edges of the blades are unmodified and the sheen, evident to the naked eye, appears as a thin band along the edge. Under high magnification (usually x100-x200) the polish exhibits the characteristics of semi-ripe cereal use-wear polish, similar to the traces observed on the experimental tools. It is smooth in texture, bright in appearance, undulating and domed in topography with a general distribution as a band along the edge. The presence of water in the semi-ripe stems is the most influential component in the use-wear formation process, causing a brighter and smoother polished surface. The hardness of the stem also plays an important role, as the harder ripe stems abrade the flint more intensively, creating the flatter, rougher and duller polished surface. The semi-ripe cereal use-wear polish is identified even where traces are developed only to a low degree, as the characteristics are evident on the polish located right on the edge of the tool or on the protruding surfaces (domes or reticulation). The linked polished surfaces observed right on the edge (less than 1mm in width) is associated with a reticular pattern that characterizes the surfaces very close to it. Polish away from the edge is developed on protruding surfaces in accordance with the microtopography of the flint. It is also evident that the polish fades gradually away from the edge and along most of the length of the edge, which is a pattern that characterizes use-wear of cutting soft materials such as cereals.


Discussion The glossed blades from Ohalo II are the earliest evidence for the use of flint inserts as part of composite cereal harvesting tools, appearing more regularly only in Natufian sites, some 8,000 years later. Our use-wear analysis results provide new insights pertaining to past technologies and subsistence patterns. Within the Ohalo II flint assemblage, the five glossed specimens are outstanding in their morphometric characteristics, as they are much larger than the average blades at the site. They were not a regular product of the local reduction sequence, mostly aimed at the manufacturing of bladelets and small blades, indicating the selection of large rare flint artifacts for harvesting.

The use-wear analysis shows that the Ohalo II glossed blades were used for cutting cereal stems at a near ripe semi-green condition. This was determined by comparison to our experimental tools where polish of identical characteristics was observed.

Cereal grains found at Ohalo II are of wild species and harvesting them semi-ripe indicates that the Ohalo II people already knew that harvesting the ripe cereals with a tool would result in shattering off the grains and in heavy loss of potential food. Using a sickle also enhances the harvest event in terms of speed and precision. One of the outcomes of such a method was larger quantities of cereal stems of regular length, available for use at the site. Evidence for cereal processing at the site is clearest in Brush Hut 1, where a grinding slab was firmly set on the floor; microscopic wild cereal starch grains were extracted from its surface, and a patterned distribution of cereal seeds was found around it.

The use of composite sickles at Ohalo II, inferred by the presence of typical cutting and hafting wear, is the earliest ever documented. It implies preplanned harvesting endeavors, as specific tools and materials were prepared in advance, including the handle, flint inserts and adhesives. Evidence for the preparation of composite hunting tools, i.e. projectiles with several barbs, is also present at the site. The distribution of the traces on the glossed implements indicates that blades were placed relatively protruding and parallel to the axis of the haft.

Cereal harvesting by hand-held blades has also been identified in our analysis. By comparing the distribution of the prehension wear it is evident that tools were held according to their morphology, exploiting a preferred edge to be used as an active edge. Compared to composite sickles, these tools may represent a more opportunistic nature of cereal harvesting. Still, they are unique in morphology and dimensions compared to most of the blades at the site, indicating selection of appropriate items for harvesting.


Large quantities of wild cereal grains were found at the site, including barley, wheat and oats, yet cereal harvesting and cutting tools are rare. The vast majority of the Ohalo II grains are smooth (i.e. harvested when ripe), and do not exhibit signs of puckering, which is characteristic of younger, unripe grains. It is thus reasonable to suggest that a variety of collecting methods such as uprooting, hand stripping, beating into baskets or collecting from the ground have been commonly used at Ohalo II.

The site was occupied year-round, as indicated by the remains of migratory birds and the timing of ripening of the identified plant remains. The wide variety of plant species consumed and used at the site indicates the range of habitats exploited by the people and the wide dietary breadth exercised. It would thus be reasonable to suggest that harvesting plant food in general, and cereal collecting in particular, incorporated several methods and tool types, according to season, distance from the site (e.g., carrying distance of tools and collected food), species, ripeness stage, and topographic location on the adjacent hill slopes.

The distinction between semi-ripe and ripe cereal use-wear polish is an important aspect in the documentation of the evolutionary process of cereal cultivation leading later to domestication, as before domestication the harvest was most likely carried out at a semi-ripe stage, and for domesticated species it was at the ripe stage. The change in shattering characteristics and thus reaping stage and method of harvesting reflects a long process led by human selection. The Ohalo II inhabitants were among the first to identify the ear-shattering problem and to find a technological solution. Unfortunately, due to poor preservation of organic remains in contemporaneous sites and even in most Natufian sites, we have no idea if the Ohalo II case was a short-lived isolated event that was re-invented thousands of years later, or if it was the beginning of a long continuous evolutionary process of which many of its stages are missing.

At any rate, the Ohalo II inhabitants also used grinding technology, albeit on a small scale, as is the case in isolated Upper Paleolithic sites in Europe. According to the Levantine archaeological record, both harvesting and grinding technologies appeared more or less at the same time, and became wide-spread and commonly used only eight millennia later. The scarce archaeological remains of both technologies thus suggest a limited reliance of pre-Natufian societies on cereals. The Natufians, with their large sedentary or semi-sedentary settlements and their new subsistence patterns, were the first to incorporate and develop these two technologies to enable cereal consumption on a new wide level; shortly after it became the hallmark of the Near Eastern Neolithic village.

The excellent and rare preservation at Ohalo II provides a unique combination of finds that include cultivated cereal grains of two species, an in situ grinding slab with cereal grains around it, microscopic cereal starch remains and grinding use-wear evidence on its upper side, as well as the use-wear evidence on flint blades used for cereal harvesting in a semi-ripe stage. It is this range of finds that indicates that the Ohalo II people were innovative, and even without knowing so were the first on a long, likely intermittent, bumpy road finally leading to the establishment of agriculture.

(Source: “Composite Sickles and Cereal Harvesting Methods at 23,000-Years-Old Ohalo II,
Israel”, by Iris Groman-Yaroslavski et al., 2016)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides & Maximus E. Niles



One thought on “Ohalo II site, Israel; Cultivation and Proto-Weeds in Galilee 23,000 years Ago

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: