The Eight Founder Crops and the Origins of Agriculture

Re-imagining the Beginning of Farming

The Eight Founder Crops, according to long-standing archaeological theory, are eight plants that form the basis of 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. British archaeologist Dorian Q. 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. Some of these were "false starts" which have since died out or been 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). An increasing number of 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).

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Einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum)

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. Farmers wanted to be able to collect the seed while it was ripe, rather than letting the plant disperse the ripe seeds itself. Einkorn was likely domesticated in the Karacadag range of southeastern Turkey, ca. 10,600–9,900 calendar years ago (​cal BP). 

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Emmer and durum wheats (T. turgidum)

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, both of which can resow itself. The earliest (Triticum turgidum or T. dicoccum) is a form with seeds that are hulled--covered in a hull--and ripened on a nonshattering stem (called a rachis). Those traits were selected for by the farmers so that the separate grains were kept clean when the wheat was threshed (beaten to separate the rachis and other plant parts from the seed). A more advanced free-threshing emmer (Triticum turgidum ssp. durum) had thinner hulls that popped open when the seeds were ripe. Emmer was domesticated in the Karacadag mountains of southeastern Turkey, although there may have been multiple independent domestication events elsewhere. Hulled emmer was domesticated by 10,600–9900 cal BP. 

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Barley (Hordeum vulgare)

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 that was 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 recorded barley with non-brittle stalks is from Syria about 10,200–9550 cal BP. 

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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). These domesticated versions are different than the original plant (L. c. orientalis), because the seed stays in the pod at harvest time. The earliest lentils recorded are from archaeological sites in Syria by 10,200–8,700 cal BP.

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Pea (Pisum sativum L.)

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

There are three species of peas today, which arose from two separate domestication events from the same progenitor pea, P. sativum. Peas show a wide variety of morphological variation; domestication characteristics include retention of the seed in the pod, increase in seed size and the reduction of the thick texture of the seed coat. Peas were first domesticated in Syria and Turkey beginning circa 10,500 cal BP, and again in Egypt about 4,000-5,000 cal BP.

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Chickpeas (Cicer arietinum)

Chickpeas. Getty Images / Francesco Perre / EyeEm

The wild form of chickpeas is C. a. reticulatum. Chickpeas (or garbanzo beans) have two main varieties today, the small-seeded and angular "Desi" type and the large-seeded, rounded and beaked "Kabuli" type. Desi originated in Turkey and was introduced into India where Kabuli was developed. The earliest chickpeas are from northwest Syria, ca 10,250 cal BP. 

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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; bitter vetch (or ervil) is related to faba beans. The wild progenitor is not known, 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. Some scholars have suggested it was domesticated as a fodder crop for animals. The earliest occurrences of what seem to be domestic bitter vetch are in the Levant, ca. 10.240-10,200 cal BP.  

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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
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Hirst, K. Kris. "The Eight Founder Crops and the Origins of Agriculture." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 27). The Eight Founder Crops and the Origins of Agriculture. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "The Eight Founder Crops and the Origins of Agriculture." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).