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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Well, now a story about the stuff that we've been putting into our guts for ages. Domesticated crops were the key to the growth of human civilization that made it possible for us to settle down, build cities, monuments, cultivate what we think of as a civilized life.

The very first crops were thought to be cereal grains, but a discovery in Israel suggests that it was a fruit that ended human rootlessness and that fruit was the fig.

NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE reporting:

Hunting and gathering for a living isn't much fun. Long commutes for those hunters to find game, same for those who have to gather those acorns and wild oats. Thankfully, people in what is now the Middle East and Turkey figured out that if you collected seed from wheat or barley and planted it in the ground, you could kick back and eat out of your own backyard.

But now archaeologists in Israel have discovered something they didn't expect: 11,400-year-old figs in an excavated house. And not just any figs. Mutant figs. This fig is an accident of nature, a rare kind of tree that isn't pollinated by insects and won't reproduce unless someone takes a cutting and plants it. But it does grow soft and tasty figs rather than the unpalatable wild kind.

According to Harvard anthropologist Ofer Bar-Yosef, generations of people must have lived around wild fig trees until the Newtonian moment when someone figured out how to grow these mutants.

Professor OFER BAR-YOSEF (Harvard): It's generally women who do the gathering in hunting-and-gathering societies. And you know, years of experience would tell them exactly how the plants behave and so on. With the figs, it's very easy because you just need to cut the branches and just stick them into the ground.

JOYCE: The evidence for this conclusion is a handful, quite literally, of dried mutant figs found in a village called Gilgo(ph), not far from Jericho. The figs were in a house where there'd been a fire.

Mr. BAR-YOSEF: Then maybe they were all the remains of what used to be some kind of a domestic storage, you know, baskets hanging from the ceiling, you know, to avoid the mice get to them and so on. And the whole thing just collapsed on the floor.

JOYCE: Writing in the journal Science, Bar-Yosef and colleagues in Israel say these figs may now be the first cultivated crops, centuries before the first farmers planted cereal grains. But he suspects the transition to domesticated crops, whether it was barley, oats or figs, was a slow process.

Mr. BAR-YOSEF: The fact that the figs were already domesticated means that humans were enjoying this practice of cutting branches and sticking them into the ground to be the new trees. You don't get plants like figs domesticated if you don't start planting it systematically again and again.

JOYCE: Since these were small, tightly knit communities, once one person figured it out, well, the fig doesn't fall far from the tree, does it?

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You can see photos of what's left of those ancient mutant figs at npr.org.

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