The Eight Founder Crops and the Origins of Agriculture

Were There Really Only Eight Founder Crops in Farming History?

According to long-standing archaeological theory, there are eight plants that are considered the domesticate "founder crops" in the story of the origins of agriculture on our planet. All eight arose in the Fertile Crescent region (what is today southern Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Turkey and the Zagros foothills in Iran) during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period some 11,000-10,000 years ago. The eight include three cereals (einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, and barley); four legumes (lentil, pea, chickpea and bitter vetch); and one oil and fiber crop (flax or linseed).

These crops could all be classed as grains, and they share common characteristics: they are all annual, self-pollinating, native to the Fertile Crescent and inter-fertile within each crop and between the crops and their wild forms.

Really? Eight?

However, there is considerable debate about this nice tidy collection these days. Fuller and colleagues (2012) have argued that there were likely many more crop innovations during the PPNB, closer to 16 or 17 different species--other related cereals and legumes, and perhaps figs--that were likely cultivated in the southern and northern Levant. There were numerous "false starts" which have since been extirpated  or dramatically changed as a result of climatic variations and environmental degradation resulting from overgrazing, deforestation, and fire.

More importantly, many scholars disagree with the "founder notion". The founder notion suggests that the eight were the result of a focused, single process that arose in a limited "core area" and spread by trade outside (often called the "rapid transition model". Other scholars argue instead that the process of domestication took place over several thousand years (beginning much earlier than 10,000 years ago) and was spread across a wide area (the "protracted" model).

Comparison of Bread (left) and Einkorn (right) Wheat
Comparison of Bread (left) and Einkorn (right) Wheat. Mark Nesbitt

Einkorn wheat was domesticated from its wild ancestor Triticum boeoticum: the cultivated form has larger seeds and doesn't disperse the seed on its own. Einkorn was likely domesticated in the Karacadag range of southeastern Turkey, ca. 10,600-9,900 cal BP.  More »

Wild Emmer wheat (Triticum turgidum ssp. dicoccoides)
A spike of wild emmer wheat (Triticum turgidum ssp. dicoccoides), the progenitor of the cultivated tetraploid and hexaploid wheats, discovered 101 years ago in northen Israel. Zvi Peleg

Emmer wheat refers to two distinct wheat types, associated with the ability of the plant to resow itself. The earliest, a hulled nonshattering (Triticum turgidum or T. dicoccum) keeps the separate grains encapsulated when the wheat is threshed. A more advanced free-threshing emmer has thinner hulls that pop open when hulled. Emmer too was domesticated in the Karacadag mountains of southeastern Turkey, although there may be multiple events. Hulled emmer was domesticated by 10,600-9900 cal BP in Turkey.  More »

Barley landraces in southeast Turkey
Barley landraces in southeast Turkey. Brian J. Steffenson

Barley also has two types, the hulled and the naked. All barley developed out of H. spontaneum, a plant native across Europe and Asia, and the most recent studies say domesticated versions arose in several regions, including the Fertile Crescent, the Syrian desert, and the Tibetan Plateau. The earliest nonbrittle barley recorded is from Syria by 10,200-9550 cal BP.  More »

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Lentils (Lens culinaris ssp. culinaris)

Lentil Plant - Lens culinaris
Lentil Plant - Lens culinaris. Umbria Lovers

Lentils are typically grouped into two categories, small-seeded (L. c. ssp microsperma) and large-seeded (L. c. ssp macrosperma): the domesticated versions are different than the original plant (L. c. orientalis) by the retention of the seed in the pod at harvest. Lentils appear in sites in Syria by 10,200-8,700 cal BP.

Peas (Pisum sativum) var Markham
Peas (Pisum sativum) var Markham. Anna

Peas show a wide variety of morphological variation; domestication characteristics include retention of the seed in the bod, increase in seed size and the reduction of the thick texture of the seed coat. Peas developed in Syria and Turkey beginning circa 10,500 cal BP.   More »

Chickpea - Cicer artietinum
Chickpea - Cicer artietinum. Starr Environmental

Chickpeas have two varieties, the small seeded "Kabuli" type and the large seeded "Desi" type. The earliest chickpea seeds are from northwest Syria, ca 10,250 cal BP.  More »

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Bitter Vetch (Vicia ervilia)

Bitter Vetch (Vicia ervilia)
Bitter Vetch (Vicia ervilia). Terry Hickingbotham

This species is the least known of the founder crops, but it may have arisen from two different areas, based on recent genetic evidence. It is widespread on the early sites, but has been difficult to determine the domestic/wild nature.  

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Flax (Linum usistatissimum)

Field of Linseed Flax South of Salisbury, England
Field of Linseed Flax South of Salisbury, England. Scott Barbour / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Flax was a principal oil source in the Old World, and was one of the first domesticated plants used for textiles. Flax is domesticated from Linum bienne; the first appearance of domestic flax is from 10,250-9500 cal BP at Jericho in the West Bank 

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Seedlings. Dougal Waters / Getty Images