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After 6,000 Years of Farming, Barley Is Still (More or Less) the Same

Talk about an ancient grain

Right: Photograph during excavation exhibiting excellent dry preservation of plant remains Left: A well-preserved, desiccated barley grain found at Yoram Cave. (Uri Davidovich)
smithsonian.com

What did food crops look like thousands of years ago? This isn’t an easy question for scientists to answer because unlike bones or tools, plants decompose rapidly over time. But recently, scientists came across a lucky find: a trove of 6,000-year-old barley seeds sealed in a cave near the Dead Sea. And careful examination showed these archaic barley seeds aren’t too different from those grown today.

This find, described in the journal Nature Genetics, were remarkably intact—even the plant's delicate DNA survived—owing to the dry air common to the region around the Dead Sea. Even more surprising, the genetic material inside was very similar to modern barley.

"These 6,000 year-old grains are time capsules, you have a genetic state that was frozen 6,000 years ago,” co-author Nils Stein of the IPK Plant Genetics Institute in Germany tells Robert Thompson for the BBC. “This tells us barley 6,000 years ago was already a very advanced crop and clearly different from the wild barley.”

Barley is one of the world’s oldest crops, having been domesticated when farming first began around 10,000 years ago. This means that ancient farmers had 4,000 years to cultivate their desired traits.

Even so, the researchers were surprised to see just how similar the genetics were of the ancient and modern strains grown in the same region of present-day Israel, Ido Efrati reports for Ha’aretz. The persisting genes also suggest that the 6,000-year-old strain was already a successful crop—later travelers and immigrants to the Levant region didn't alter the variety with seeds from home.

“This similarity is an amazing finding considering to what extent the climate, but also the local flora and fauna, as well as the agricultural methods, have changed over this long period of time,” co-author Martin Mascher of the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research says in a statement.

While the findings are intriguing for researchers studying the diets of the ancients, it could also have implications for what future generations munch on as well. As food production continues to become more industrialized, scientists and farmers alike are concerned that modern crops are losing the genetic diversity that could be the key to their long-term survival.

But by peering into the genetic codes of these earlier crops, scientists might be able to pinpoint new traits that were specifically bred out by neolithic farmers or were accidentally lost over time, Thompson reports. If it turns out that some of these lost traits are useful to modern breeders, it is theoretically possible that they could someday be reintroduced into living plants.

"Breeders are trying to increase genetic diversity; maybe the knowledge of these ancient seeds will allow us to spot better genotypes from gene banks and seed vaults," Stein tells Thompson. “There could still be value in these ancient genes."

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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