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Discovered: A Prehistoric Pantry

Our prehistoric ancestors didn't have supermarkets stocked with corn flakes (or crunchberries, fortunately), but they apparently found ways to stock up on cereal grains as long as 11,300 years ago—even before they managed to domesticate plants.Anthropologists Ian Kuijt and Bill Finlayson have disco...

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Our prehistoric ancestors didn't have supermarkets stocked with corn flakes (or crunchberries, fortunately), but they apparently found ways to stock up on cereal grains as long as 11,300 years ago—even before they managed to domesticate plants.

Anthropologists Ian Kuijt and Bill Finlayson have discovered the remains of some of the world's earliest granaries at a Neolithic site called Dhra', near the Dead Sea in modern-day Jordan.

What the prehistoric granary may have looked like. The exposed area illustrates the upright stones supporting larger beams, covered with smaller wood and reeds and finally mud. Image courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS.

They found four round, mud-walled structures of about 10 feet across. Each had raised floors made by laying wooden beams atop notched stones—which reflects some smart thinking, since keeping food off the ground would help protect it against rodents and moisture.

Wild barley husks were found inside one granary in "a concentration...not identified elsewhere on the site," according to the pair's recent paper about their find, and they also found several surrounding buildings which appear to have been used for food processing and/or residences.

These days, silos and granaries are no big deal, just part of the scenery in farm country. But back in what's called the "Pre-Pottery Neolithic A" (PPNA) era, such a structure represented not only an architectural feat, but a "major transition in the economic and social organization of human communities," as Kuijt and Finlayson put it.

Combined with evidence found at other sites from the PPNA period, their discovery points to a marked shift from the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more settled existence. (Seasonal settlements had begun to appear in the previous Natufian period, but there's little evidence of food storage.)

The granary also reflects "active intervention in normal plant cycles," in other words, the first footsteps on a path that eventually arrived at agriculture, the fulcrum for a host of social changes. And it shows that this society was thinking ahead, protecting itself from potential future food shortages.

Was this perhaps the first time that the concept of "extra food" entered humans' frame of reference? It's interesting to consider how far we've come since then, especially in America, where many of us take it for granted that we will always have access to plenty of food (much more than we need, in some cases).
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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