The origin of fava beans

If you've been paying attention during history lessons at school, you might remember that agriculture was once the key factor that helped people to settle down. The ability to produce and store food-surplus drastically reduced the risk of famine and it was the very first step to create villages, complex societies and eventually entire empires.

It was once thought that cereals were the first agricultural products that were successfully planted and harvested. Plant domestication, most scientists think, made its debut around 8,000 BC, with grain storage cropping up about 9,000 BC. An ancient site in Israel yielded a collection of grains (wild wheat and barley), which was dated to about 21,000 BC[1].

Recent discoveries of early-domesticated cereals show that the Middle East is rich with examples of early forms of agriculture. Several notable examples of cultivation and domestication of legumes such as fava bean and chickpea have been discovered in the Levant[2].
Recently, large amounts of fava beans (Vicia faba) were found in the Lower Galilee in Israel[3]. The remains of the legumes were collected from floors and pits dating to an early phase of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (ca. 9,000 BC). Radiocarbon measurements of the legumes dated the findings between the 8250 BC and 7900 BC. These findings represent the earliest evidence of intensive farming of legumes in the southern Levant.

While findings of lentil and pea are quite common in the Levant in earlier phases, remains of fava beans are rare, and mostly found in the southern Levant. Recently, wild specimens of faba beans have been discovered in the Epipalaeolithic campsite el-Wad and dated to 12,000 BC[4].
Thus, we have people eating wild fava beans since around 12,000 BC and eating domesticated fava beans around 8,000 BC. From then on, the frequency of findings of fava bean begins to increase.

What came first, you might ask, the domestication of grains or the domestication of fava beans? The answer might be lost forever in the mists of time.

[1] Weiss et al: The broad spectrum revisited: evidence from plant remains in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – 2004
[2] Caracuta et al: The onset of faba bean farming in the Southern Levant in Science Reports – 2015
[3] Caracuta et al: Farming legumes in the pre-pottery Neolithic: New discoveries from the site of Ahihud (Israel) in PloS One – 2017
[4] Caracuta et al: 14,000-year-old seeds indicate the Levantine origin of the lost progenitor of faba bean in Scientific Reports – 2016

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