Image: Figs
Jonathan Reif
An ancient fig, at far left, is covered with gold in preparation for electron microscope photography. It is similar in size to an Iranian commercial fig, in the middle. These are much smaller figs than a common variety of Turkish fig, shown on the right.
updated 6/1/2006 2:49:30 PM ET 2006-06-01T18:49:30

Gourmets savoring their roasted figs with goat cheese may not realize it, but they’re tasting history.

Archaeologists say they have found evidence that ancient people grew fig trees 11,400 years ago, making the fruit the earliest domesticated crop.

The find dates the use of figs 1,000 years before the first evidence that crops such as wheat, barley and legumes were being cultivated in the Middle East.

Remains of the ancient fruits were found at Gilgal I, a village site in the Jordan Valley north of ancient Jericho, Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University and Mordechai E. Kislev and Anat Hartmann of Bar-Ilan University report in Friday’s issue of the journal Science. Gilgal was abandoned more than 11,000 years ago.

The fig remains they found appeared to have been dried for human consumption, the researchers said.

The type of figs were a mutant variety that does not drop from the tree, but remains there, becoming soft and sweet for consumption. It does not produce seeds and has to be propagated by planting shoots.

“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 a statement. “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.”

Other food remains found there included acorns and wild oats and wild barley, but no other domesticated crops, they said.

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