Food around 11,000 BC



Southwest Asia

The Levantine cultures of between 18,000 and 15,000 years ago are called Kebaran, followed from about 15,000 to 12,500 BP by the Geometric Kebaran cultures. If the Kebaran peoples were doing something that inexorably led their remote descendants to become farmers, it is not obvious in their archaeological traces. In the Geometric Kebaran record, however, we get a few indications of economic changes that may be harbingers of agriculture. Some Kebaran sites, such as the Neve David site, seems to be have been occupied for a time by a relatively large group, a "macroband." This site has the full range of ground-stone tools, and it contains two small stone structures, one in a circular form about two meters in diameter. A grave at the site holds a body interred with the apparent ritual use of grinding stones. Grinding stones are a key artifact in examining the transition to agriculture because they were indispensable tools for processing cereals and many other plant foods. (Patterns in Prehistory)

In the archaeological record of the Natufian Period, from about 12,500 to 10,200 years ago, in the Levant we see clear evidence of agricultural origins. The stone tools of the Natufians include many lunate (i.e., shaped like a segment of the moon) flakes of chert, but there is also something new: they used "sickle blades" that show apperant wear characteristic of cereal harvesting. Also, querns (hand mills), mortars, pestles, pounders, and other ground-stone tools occur in abundance at Natufian sites, and many such tools show signs of long, intensive use. There is also evidence that these heavy grinding stones were transported long distances, more than thirty kilometers in some cases, and this is not something known to have been done by peoples of proceeding periods. (Patterns in Prehistory)

The Natufians had a different settlement pattern from that of their predecessors. Some of their "base camps" are far larger (over 1,000 square meters) than any of the earlier periods, and they may have lived in some of these camps for half of the year or even more. In some of the camps people made foundations and other architectural elements out of limestone blocks. Trade in shells, obsidian, and other commodities seems to have been on the rise, and we suspect that exchange of perishables, such as skins, foodstuffs,and salt was also increasing. (Patterns in Prehistory)

Since 1998, he has examined more than 100,000 bone fragments from Gobekli Tepe [Turkey]. Peters has often found cut marks and splintered edges on them—signs that the animals from which they came were butchered and cooked. The bones, stored in dozens of plastic crates stacked in a storeroom at the house, are the best clue to how people who created Gobekli Tepe lived. Peters has identified tens of thousands of gazelle bones, which make up more than 60 percent of the total, plus those of other wild game such as boar, sheep and red deer. He's also found bones of a dozen different bird species, including vultures, cranes, ducks and geese. "The first year, we went through 15,000 pieces of animal bone, all of them wild. It was pretty clear we were dealing with a hunter-gatherer site," Peters says. In fact, research at other sites in the region has shown that within 1,000 years of Gobekli Tepe's construction, settlers had corralled sheep, cattle and pigs. And, at a prehistoric village just 20 miles away, geneticists found evidence of the world's oldest domesticated strains of wheat; radiocarbon dating indicates agriculture developed there around 10,500 years ago, or just five centuries after Gobekli Tepe's construction.  Schmidt says the monuments could not have been built by ragged bands of hunter-gatherers. To carve, erect and bury rings of seven-ton stone pillars would have required hundreds of workers, all needing to be fed and housed. Hence the eventual emergence of settled communities in the area around 10,000 years ago. "This shows sociocultural changes come first, agriculture comes later," says Stanford University archaeologist Ian Hodder. (127)

The lower and more ancient village was primitive. It had begun as a seasonal camp with a few outdoor fireplaces and then huts of reed, mostly circular or oval in shape and positioned above pits cut into the subsoil. These homes had been inhabited by hunter­gatherers who lived at this spot for a major part of the year except when they journeyed to open prairie land to hunt for gazelle. Deploying netting, brush fences, and the natural contours of dry streambeds they drove herds of these swift antelope into narrow enclosures (called desert kites) in which they selectively slaughtered only the young males. Moore could deduce the selective culling of the herds by the uniform small size of the bones in the carcasses brought back to the village and the immaturity of the teeth in Abu Hureyra's fossil garbage heaps. He was impressed by how sensitive the Stone Age hunters were in keeping the breeding stock intact, thus assuring large herds in future years. (Noah's Flood)

Using salt and sun-drying these hunters, called Natufian by archaeologists, preserved the meat of their hunt for the months ahead. They also gathered a large variety of edible plants - more than a hundred individual species - to balance their diet. Moore discovered not only evidence of grain storage in bins hollowed from the limestone bedrock but also seeds and husks of plants carbonized by heat from ancient fireplaces and thereby saved from decay. The ages of the charcoal spanned from 11,000 to 9,500 BC, placing the first settlement of Abu Hureyra in the era of postglacial warming through to near the end of the Younger Dryas. The food residue revealed that the Natufians used sickles of carved deer antler studded with flakes of flint to harvest the natural stands of native wheat and rye. They reaped wild barley, lentil, and vetch, and the fruit of the hackberry, plum, pear, and fig tree, as well as the caper bush. Their diet of plants, fruit, and nuts, though coarse and stressful to their teeth and requiring back-bending labor with grinding stones, mortars, and pestles for preparation, was more than adequate for subsistence. (Noah's Flood)

This new information has come from the site at Abu Hureya, on the Euphrates, in what is now northern Syria. This site, which was probably an example of the Natufian culture, was established around 13.5 kya. Here there is an unbroken sequence of archaeological evidence stretching from hunter-gatherer times to full-blown farming. Recent results extend the evidence of domestic cereals in the region, which involve forms of wheat and barley, back before the conventional date of around 11-12kya. Now, it appears that systematic cultivation of cereals started at least as early as 13 kya: close to the beginning of the Younger Dryas. (Climate Change in Prehistory)

The evidence indicates that hunter-gatherers at Abu Hureyra first started cultivating crops in response to a steep decline in wild plants that had served as staple foods for at least the preceding four centuries. The decline in these wild staples is attributable to a sudden onset of a drier, colder, more variable climate. Work by Gordon Hillman, of University College London, and his colleagues found that the wild seed varieties gathered as food gradually vanished, before the cultivated varieties appeared. Those wild seeds most dependent on water were the first to die out, then one by one by the hardier ones followed. So the hunter-gatherers turned to cultivating some of the foods they had previously collected from the wild. In an unstable environment, the first farmers started simply by transferring wild plants to more suitable habitats and cultivating them there. (Climate Change in Prehistory)

Another piece in the jigsaw of agricultural origins is the lifestyle identified as the 'Natufian culture' that thrived in the Levant between 14.5 to 12kya. During the first half of this period temperatures rose and precipitation increased and in the southern Levant reached a peak around 13.5 kya. This led to increased vegetation and greater yields of wild fruit, seeds and game animals, which altered lifestyles. In favoured areas sedentism became the preferred settlement pattern. With sedentism came population growth. (Climate Change in Prehistory)


Excavations in the Nile Valley have revealed campsites that date from 16,000 BC to around 9000 BC, but these sites reflect a society subsisting on rigorous hunting and fishing. Known as the Sebilian culture, these sites clearly show a decrease in the size of tools. Although knowledgeable about animal domestication near the end of the period, the Sebilians were nothing more than the traditional hunter-gatherers of the Old Stone Age From 9000 to 6000 BC, there exists a "dark age" in North African history, from which little information is available. During this time, the Sebilians were living in the valley. Afterward, New Stone Age communities began to dot the landscape with a new concept of living centered on agriculture, yet the Sebilians held fast to their traditional ways of hunting and fishing. Some believe that agriculture was introduced from outside to these hunter-gatherers, who were not eager to become farmers. (Before the Pharaohs)

Further evidence of human habitation of the Nile Valley at the end of the LGM has come from the Kom Ombo Plain, which is a rich alluvial plain 50 km north of Aswan. Between 17 an 12 kya this area offered an attractive habitat for humans. Rainfall having increased at the end of the LGM, was more abundant than now. So not only were the Nile floods more substantial, but also the rainfall in the Red Sea Hills to the east of the river was sufficient to feed the now dried-up tributaries that ran into the Nile across the Kom Ombo Plain. The range of foods was substantial. Animal bones included a now extinct large wild ox, the bubal hartebeest, several species of gazelle and hippopotamus, which appeared to be the principal game eaten. In addition, there were hares, hyenas, a form of dog, bandicoot rats and possibly 'Barbary' sheep. The streams and pools provided Nile catfish, Nile perch, the African barbel, and local species of oyster and soft-shelled turtle. The bones of some 22 forms of birds were also identified. In addition, the food supply would have included roots and bulbs throughout the year, together with seasonal supplies of berries, nuts, and perhaps melons and cucumbers plus edible gum from various trees. (Climate Change in Prehistory)

Indus Valley

An epoch of spectacular geological turmoil occurred at the end of the last Ice Age, with the most dramatic effects registered in a series of cataclysmic floods that took place at intervals between roughly 15,000 and 7000 years ago. Is it an accident that this same 8000-year period has been pinpointed by archaeologists as the very one in which our supposedly primitive forefathers made the transition (in different places at somewhat different times) from their age-old hunter-gatherer lifestyle to settled agriculture? Or could there be more to 'the food-producing revolution' than meets the eye? After all, most scientists already recognize a causative connection between the end of the Ice Age and the supposed beginning of farming - indeed an unproven hypothesis that rapid climate changes forced hunter-gatherers to invent agriculture presently serves as pretty much the sum of conventional wisdom on this subject. But there is another possibility. Nobody seems to have noticed that in the general vicinity of each of the places in the world where the food-producing revolution is supposed to have begun between 15,000 and 7000 years ago there is also a large area of land that was submerged by the post-glacial floods between 15,000 and 7000 years ago: We have seen that this is true for India, one of the world's ancient agricultural 'hearths', which lost more than a million square kilometres in the south and the west and, most conspicuously in the north-west, at the end of the Ice Age. (Underworld)


Fossil rice phytoliths have been identified from late glacial to Holocene sediments in the East China Sea that were probably transported by the Yangtze River from its middle or lower reaches. The phytoliths appeared first in the sequence at about 13.9 kya and disappeared during the period of 13-10 kya, which includes the Younger Dryas. (Climate Change in Prehistory)


Mammoths, horses, and many other animals were hunted by these upper Paleolithic peoples, but the reindeer was the staff of life: at many sites 99% of all animal bones found belonged to reindeer. (Patterns in Prehistory)

By about 14,000 years ago the people of western Europe had developed fish traps to harvest the countless slamon that migrated up the rivers there each year. This relatively late exploitation of fish in Europe has a parallel in prehistoric southeastern North America, where native American lived for thousands of years subsisting primarily on deer, mussels, and a variety of plant foods, alomost totally ignoring the myriad fish in nearby streams. (Patterns in Prehistory)

One of the most amply documented Upper Paleolithic cultures in eastern Europe is the Kostenski-Bershevo culture centered in the Don River Valley, about 470 kilometers southeast of Moscow. About 25,000 to 11,000 years ago, the people of Kostenski subsisted primarily through big-game hunting, mainly of mammoths or horses, with an occasional wild cow or reindeer. (Patterns in Prehistory)

Undeniably, the hunting of big game – megafauna – made a significant contribution to the subsistence of Upper Paleolithic people. In central and eastern Europe, for example, sites dating between 28,000 BP and 10,000 BP reflect the major role of the wooly mammoth in the subsistence base of Upper Paleolithic people. Portrayals of ancient hunters fighting a daily duel to the death with huge, aggressive beasts may offer us a romantic image, but it seems an unlikely strategy for survival. It is far more likely that the people of the Upper Paleolithic subsisted on a broad spectrum of foods, including the meat from animals both large and small, birds, fish, seeds, nuts, berries, and starchy roots. Archaeological evidence is finally beginning to support this sensible reconstruction. (The Past in Perspective)

South America

Monte Verde, on the banks of Chinchihuapi Creek, is in the hills near the town of Puerto Mont, 500 miles south of Santiago. As Dr. Dillehay reconstructed the prehistoric scene in his mind, a group of 20 to 30 people occupied Monte Verde for a year or so. They gathered berries in the spring, chestnuts in the fall and also ate potatoes, mushrooms and marsh grasses. They hunted small game and also ancestors of the llama and sometimes went down to the Pacific, 30 miles away, for shellfish. Some seeds and nuts were shifted out of the soil. A chunk of meat had managed to survive in the bog, remains of the hunters' last kill; DNA analysis indicates the meat was from a mastodon. The site also yielded several human coprolites, ancient fecal material. (98)

Not far off, these people also built a wishbone-shaped structure of wooden uprights set in sand and gravel hardened with animal fat. Here mastodon carcasses were butchered and tools were made. Here also these people brought and perhaps dispensed some eighteen medicinal plants, half of which were local and half of which came either from the seacoast about thirty-six miles away or from the arid mountain lands some forty miles in the opposite direction. These same plants are actually still used by the local people today for lung and skin ailments. Aquatic food plants formed a good deal of these people's diet, and they also ate the meat of mastodons, paleollama, and small creatures like freshwater mollusks. The archaeologists even found "chaws" of partly chewed seaweed, nearly perfect molds of the chewer's palate and molars, which they probably sucked on for the high iodine content. In all, the remains of six mastodons were left behind at the site. It seems likely that these beasts were either adventitious kills, perhaps in the nearby boggy areas or scavenged prey of other animals. In addition, wild potato species formed a good deal of the diet, their remains left in the cracks of wooden mortars and food storage pits in the corners of the shelters. These people also brought salt from the coast a short distance away... (The First Americans)

...recent research has demonstrated that astonishingly sophisticated analyses of the chemical compositions of many poisonous high-altitude plants and tubers had been undertaken by somebody in this region in the furthest antiquity. Such analyses, furthermore, had been coupled with the invention of detoxification techniques which had rendered these otherwise nutritious vegetables harmless and edible. Likewise, in the same ancient period, somebody as yet unidentified by scholarship went to great lengths to build raised fields on the newly exposed lands that had so recently been under the waters of the lake - a procedure which created characteristic corrugated strips of alternately high and low ground. Still visible today, and known as toaru toaaru by the local Indians, they proved to be part of a complex agricultural design, perfected in prehistoric times, which had the ability 'to out-perform modern farming techniques'. In recent years some of the raised fields were reconstructed by archaeologists and agronomists. These experimental plots consistently yielded three times more potatoes than even the most productive conventional plots. Likewise, during one particularly cold spell, a severe frost 'did little damage to the experimental fields'. The following year the crops on the elevated platforms survived an equally ruinous drought: 'then later rode high and dry through a flood that swamped surrounding farmlands'. (Fingerprints of the Gods)



North America



 …by 11,000 BC Japanese of the Jomon culture were using pottery--the earliest known extensive ceramics industry in the world--and living for all or most of the year in communities of pit-houses, subsisting on a rich and varied diet of deer, bear, whale, salmon and many other fish, seabirds, shellfish in abundance, and numerous kinds of berries, nuts, and other plants. (Patterns in Prehistory)