Vegetation History and Archaeobotany

, Volume 27, Issue 6, pp 817–831 | Cite as

Pre-agricultural plant management in the uplands of the central Zagros: the archaeobotanical evidence from Sheikh-e Abad

  • Jade Whitlam
  • Amy Bogaard
  • Roger Matthews
  • Wendy Matthews
  • Yaghoub Mohammadifar
  • Hengameh Ilkhani
  • Michael Charles
Original Article


Prior to the emergence of agriculture in southwest Asia, increasingly sedentary human communities were experimenting with a diverse range of wild plants over a prolonged period. In some cases, this involved the cultivation of taxa that would go on to be domesticated and form the foundation of future agricultural economies. However, many forms of plant use did not follow this trajectory, and in multiple places farming was only taken up later as an established ‘package’ of crops and management practices. In this paper, we present new archaeobotanical evidence from the Early Neolithic site of Sheikh-e Abad in the central Zagros mountains of western Iran. Sheikh-e Abad is unique in being the only settlement known to date within southwest Asia that lies at an altitude above 1,000 m and which has occupation spanning the agricultural transition (9800–7600 bc). Thus, it provides a rare opportunity to examine pre-agricultural plant management strategies in an upland zone. Our analyses of the plant remains from Sheikh-e Abad suggest that from its earliest occupation the site’s inhabitants were ‘auditioning’ a group of locally available wild grasses, which ultimately were never domesticated. We discuss the possible reasons for this from a socio-ecological perspective, considering both the biology and ecology of the plant species in question, as well as the ways in which they were potentially managed.


Southwest Asia Neolithic Origins of Agriculture Wild grasses Pre-agricultural plant management strategies 



The research reported here was supported by the British Academy (BARDA-48993) and the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AH/H034315/1) as part of the Central Zagros Archaeological Project (CZAP), which has been supported by additional grants from the British Institute of Persian Studies, the University of Reading and University College London. We are grateful to our many colleagues in Iran for their support, including Dr. Hashemi and Dr. Mosavi (previously Directors of Research, Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization—ICHHTO) and our partners at Bu Ali Sina University, Hamedan, as well as the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research (ICAR and its previous Director, Dr. Fazeli Nashli) and ICHHTO for assistance in exporting material for scientific analysis from Iran. Our thanks extend to the entire CZAP team for their work in and out of the field, and to the Institute of Archaeology (University of Oxford) where post-excavation analysis was carried out and where all archaeobotanical material is currently stored.


  1. Adams KR (1999) Macrobotanical remains. In: Varien MD (ed) The Sand Canyon archaeological project: site testing (Version 1.0, CD-ROM). Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, CortezGoogle Scholar
  2. Antolín F, Buxó R (2011) Proposal for the systematic description and taphonomic study of carbonized cereal grain assemblages: a case study of an early Neolithic funerary context in the cave of Can Sadurni (Begues, Barcelona province, Spain). Veget Hist Archaeobot 20:53–66. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Arranz-Otaegui A, Colledge S, Ibañez JJ, Zapata L (2016a) Crop husbandry activities and wild plant gathering, use and consumption at the EPPNB Tell Qarassa North (south Syria). Veget Hist Archaeobot 25:629–645. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Arranz-Otaegui A, Colledge S, Zapata L et al (2016b) Regional diversity on the timing for the initial appearance of cereal cultivation and domestication in southwest Asia. Proc Natl Acad Sci 113:14,001–14,006. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Badripour H (2006) Country pasture/forage resource profiles. FAO, Islamic Republic of IranGoogle Scholar
  6. Bendrey R, Cole G, Tvetmarken CL (2013) Zooarchaeology: preliminary assessment of the animal bones. In: Matthews R, Matthews M, Mohammadifar Y (eds) The earliest Neolithic of Iran: 2008 Excavations at Sheikh-e Abad and Jani. British Institute of Persian Studies and Oxbow Books, Oxford, pp 147–158Google Scholar
  7. Bogaard A, Charles M, Twiss K et al (2009) Private pantries and celebrated surplus: storing and sharing food at Neolithic Çatalhöyük, Central Anatolia. Antiquity 83:649–668CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bor NL (1968) Flora of Iraq, vol 9, Gramineae. Ministry of Agriculture of the Republic of Iraq, BaghdadGoogle Scholar
  9. Charles M (1998) Fodder from dung: the recognition and interpretation of dung-derived plant material from archaeological sites. Environ Archaeol J Hum Palaeoecol 1:111–122CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Charles M, Forster E, Wallace M, Jones G (2015) “Nor ever lightning char thy grain”: establishing archaeologically relevant charring conditions and their effect on glume wheat grain morphology. STAR Sci Technol Archaeol Res 1:1–6. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Colledge S (1998) Identifying pre-domestication cultivation using multivariate analysis. In: Damania AB, Valkoun J, Willcox G, Qualset CO (eds) The origins of agriculture and the domestication of crop plants in the Near East. ICARDA, Aleppo, pp 121–131Google Scholar
  12. Colledge S (2001) Plant exploitation on Epipalaeolithic and Early Neolithic sites in the Levant. (British Archaeological Reports, International Series 986). Archaeo Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  13. Colledge S, Conolly J (2014) Wild plant use in European Neolithic subsistence economies: a formal assessment of preservation bias in archaeobotanical assemblages and the implications for understanding changes in plant diet breadth. Quat Sci Rev 101:193–206. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cunniff J, Charles M, Jones G, Osborne CP (2010) Was low atmospheric CO(2) a limiting factor in the origin of agriculture? Environ Archaeol 15:113–123. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Edwards PC, Meadows J, Sayej G, Westway M (2004) From the PPNA to the PPNB: new views from the Southern Levant after excavations at Zahrat adh-Dhra’ 2 in Jordan. Paléorient 30:21–60. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Ertug-Yaras F (1997) An ethnoarchaeological study of subsistence and plant gathering in central Anatolia. Doctoral Dissertation, Washington UniversityGoogle Scholar
  17. Fuller DQ (2007) Contrasting patterns in crop domestication and domestication rates: Recent archaeobotanical insights from the Old World. Ann Bot 100:903–924CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fuller DQ, Willcox G, Allaby RG (2012) Early agricultural pathways: moving outside the “core area” hypothesis in Southwest Asia. J Exp Bot 63:617–633. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Harlan JR (1992) Crops and man, 2nd edn. American Society of Agronomy, MadisonGoogle Scholar
  20. Harlan JR, de Wet JMJ, Price EG (1973) Comparative evolution of cereals. Evolution 27:311–325CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hesse B (1984) These are our goats: the origins of herding in west central Iran. In: Clutton-Brock J, Grigson C (eds) Animals in archaeology, vol 3. Early herders and their flocks. (British Archaeological Reports, International Series 227). Archaeo Press, Oxford, pp 243–262Google Scholar
  22. Hillman GC (2000) Plant food economy of Abu Hureyra: Abu Hureyra 1: The Epipalaeolithic. In: Moore AMT, Hillmann GC, Legge AJ (eds) Village on the Euphrates, from foraging to farming at Abu Hureyra. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 327–399Google Scholar
  23. Hopf M (1983) Appendix B: Jericho plant remains. In: Kenyon K, Holland TA (eds) Jericho, vol 5. The pottery phases of the tell and other finds. British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, London, pp 576–621Google Scholar
  24. Jones G (1991) Numerical analysis in archaeobotany. In: Van Zeist W, Wasylikowa K, Behre K-E (eds) Progress in Old World palaeoethnobotany. Balkema, Rotterdam, pp 63–80Google Scholar
  25. Kehl M (2009) Quaternary climate change in Iran—the state of knowledge. Erdkunde 63:1–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kislev ME (1997) Early agriculture and paleoecology of Netiv Hagdud. In: Bar-Yosef O, Gopher A (eds) An early Neolithic village in the Jordan valley. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Harvard University, Cambridge, pp 209–236Google Scholar
  27. Kuijt I, Finlayson B (2009) Evidence for food storage and predomestication granaries 11,000 years ago in the Jordan Valley. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 106:10,966–10,970. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kuijt I, Goring-Morris N (2002) Foraging, farming, and social complexity in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Southern Levant: a review and synthesis. J World Prehist 16:361–440CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Lange AG (1990) De Horden near Wijk bij Durstede. Plant remains from a native settlement at the Roman frontier: a numerical approach. (Nederlandse Oudheden 13). ROB, AmersfoortGoogle Scholar
  30. Matthews W (2010) Geoarchaeology and taphonomy of plant remains and microarchaeological residues in early urban environments in the Ancient Near East. Quat Int 214:98–113CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Matthews W (2013) Investigating Early Neolithic materials, ecology and sedentism: micromorphology and microstratigraphy. In: Matthews R, Matthews W, Mohammadifar Y (eds) The Earliest Neolithic of Iran: 2008 Excavations at Sheikh-e Abad and Jani. British Institute of Persian Studies and Oxbow Books, Oxford, pp 64–108Google Scholar
  32. Matthews W (2016) Humans and fire: changing relations in early agricultural and built environments in the Zagros, Iran, Iraq. Anthr Rev 3:107–139. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Matthews R, Matthews W, Mohammadifar Y (2013) The earliest Neolithic of Iran: 2008 excavations at Sheikh-e Abad and Jani. British Institute of Persian Studies and Oxbow Books, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  34. Miller NF (1996) Seed eaters of the ancient Near East: human or herbivore? Curr Anthropol 37:521–528CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Morrell PL, Clegg MT (2011) Hordeum, Chap. 6. In: Kole C (ed) Wild crop relatives: genomic and breeding resources. Springer, Berlin, pp 309–319CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Nesbitt M (2002) When and where did domesticated cereals first occur in southwest Asia? In: Cappers R, Bottema S (eds) The dawn of farming in the Near East. Ex Oriente, Berlin, pp 113–132Google Scholar
  37. Nesbitt M (2006) Identification guide for Near Eastern grass seeds. Institute of Archaeology, University College London, LondonGoogle Scholar
  38. Poppi DP, Hendricksen RE, Minson DJ (1985) The relative resistance to escape of leaf and stem particles from the rumen of cattle and sheep. J Agric Sci 105:9–14. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Riehl S (2016) The role of the local environment in the slow pace of emerging agriculture in the Fertile Crescent. J Ethnobiol 36:512–534. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Riehl S, Benz M, Conard N et al (2012) Plant use in three Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites of the northern and eastern Fertile Crescent: a preliminary report. Veget Hist Archaeobot 21:95–106. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Riehl S, Zeidi M, Conard NJ (2013) Emergence of agriculture in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains of Iran. Science 341:65–67. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Rowley-Conwy P, Layton R (2011) Foraging and farming as niche construction: stable and unstable adaptations. Philos Trans R Soc B 366:849–862CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Salamini F, Özkan H, Brandolini A et al (2002) Genetics and geography of wild cereal domestication in the near east. Nat Rev Genet 3:429–441. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Savard M, Nesbitt M, Jones MK (2006) The role of wild grasses in subsistence and sedentism: new evidence from the northern Fertile Crescent. World Archaeol 38:179–196. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Shillito LM, Matthews W, Bull ID, Williams J (2013) Biomolecular investigations of faecal biomarkers at Sheikh-e Abad and Jani. In: Matthews R, Matthews W, Mohamadifar Y (eds) The earliest Neolithic of Iran: 2008 excavations at Sheikh-e Abad and Jani. British Institute of Persian Studies and Oxbow Books, Oxford, pp 105–116Google Scholar
  46. Šmilauer P (1992) CANODRAW 3.0 user’s guide. Microcomputer Power, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  47. Smith BD (2007) Niche construction and the behavioral context of plant and animal domestication. Evol Anthropol 16:188–199CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Smith BD (2011) General patterns of niche construction and the management of “wild” plant and animal resources by small-scale pre-industrial societies. Philos Trans R Soc B Biol Sci 366:836–848. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Smith BD (2016) Neo-Darwinism, niche construction theory, and the initial domestication of plants and animals. Evol Ecol 30:307–324. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Snir A, Nadel D, Groman-Yaroslavski I et al (2015) The origin of cultivation and proto-weeds, long before Neolithic farming. PLoS One 10:e0131422. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Spengler RN, Willcox G (2013) Archaeobotanical results from Sarazm, Tajikistan, an Early Bronze Age settlement on the edge: agriculture and exchange. Environ Archaeol 18:211–221. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Stevens LR, Wright HE, Ito E (2001) Proposed changes in seasonality of climate during the Late glacial and Holocene at Lake Zeribar, Iran. Holocene 11:747–755. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Ter Braak CFJ, Šmilauer P (1997) CANOCO for Windows v. 4.02. Centre for Biometry, WageningenGoogle Scholar
  54. Townsend CC, Guest ER, al-Rawi A (1966) Flora of Iraq, vols 2, 3, 4, 8, 9. Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, BaghdadGoogle Scholar
  55. Valamoti SM (2011) Ground cereal food preparations from Greece: the prehistory and modern survival of traditional Mediterranean “fast foods”. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 3:19–39. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Van Tassel DL, DeHaan LR, Cox TS (2010) Missing domesticated plant forms: can artificial selection fill the gap? Evol Appl 3:434–452. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Van Zeist W, de Roller GJ (1994) The plant husbandry of aceramic Çayonü, S. E. Turkey. Palaeohistoria 33/34:65–96Google Scholar
  58. Wallace M, Charles M (2013) What goes in does not always come out: the impact of the ruminant digestive system of sheep on plant material, and its importance for the interpretation of dung-derived archaeobotanical assemblages. J Environ Archaeol 18:18–30. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Weide A, Riehl S, Zeidi M, Conard NJ (2017) Reconstructing subsistence practices: taphonomic constraints and the interpretation of wild plant remains at aceramic Neolithic Chogha Golan, Iran. Veget Hist Archaeobot 26:487–504. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Weiss E, Kislev ME, Hartmann A (2006) Autonomous cultivation before domestication. Science 312:1,608–1,610CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Weiss E, Kislev ME, Simchoni O et al (2008) Plant-food preparation area on an Upper Paleolithic brush hut floor at Ohalo II, Israel. J Archaeol Sci 35:2,400–2,414CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Weiss E, Kislev ME, Simchoni O, Nadel D (2004) Small-grained wild grasses as staple food at the 23,000-year-old site of Ohalo II, Israel. Econ Bot 58:S125–S134CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Weiss E, Zohary D (2011) The Neolithic southwest Asian founder crops: their biology and archaeobotany. Curr Anthropol 52:S237-S254. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. White CE, Makarewicz CA (2012) Harvesting practices and early Neolithic barley cultivation at el-Hemmeh, Jordan. Veget Hist Archaeobot 21:85–94. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Willcox G (1999) Agrarian change and the beginnings of cultivation in the Near East: evidence from wild progenitors, experimental cultivation and archaeobotanical data. In: Gosden C, Hather J (eds) The prehistory of food: appetites for change. Routledge, London, pp 478–500Google Scholar
  66. Willcox G (2002) Charred plant remains from a 10th millenium bp kitchen at Jerf el Ahmar (Syria). Veget Hist Archaeobot 11:55–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Willcox G (2005) The distribution, natural habitats and availability of wild cereals in relation to their domestication in the Near East: multiple events, multiple centres. Veget Hist Archaeobot 14:534–541CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Willcox G (2012a) The beginnings of cereal cultivation and domestication in Southwest Asia. In: Potts DT (ed) A companion guide to the archaeology of the ancient Near East. Blackwell, Oxford, pp 163–180Google Scholar
  69. Willcox G (2012b) Searching for the origins of arable weeds in the Near East. Veget Hist Archaeobot 21:163–167. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Willcox G (2013) The roots of cultivation in southwestern Asia. Science 341:39–40. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Willcox G, Fornite S, Herveux L (2008) Early Holocene cultivation before domestication in northern Syria. Veget Hist Archaeobot 17:313–325CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Willcox G, Stordeur D (2012) Large-scale cereal processing before domestication during the tenth millenium bc cal. in northern Syria. Antiquity 86:99–114CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Wollstonecroft MM, Ellis PR, Hillman GC, Fuller DQ (2008) Advances in plant food processing in the Near Eastern Epipalaeolithic and implications for improved edibility and nutrient bioaccessibility: an experimental assessment of Bolboschoenus maritimus (L.) Palla (sea club-rush). Veget Hist Archaeobot 17:S19–S27CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Zeder MA (2011) The origins of agriculture in the Near East. Curr Anthropol 52:221–235CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Zohary M (1973) Geobotanical foundations of the Middle East, vols 1, 2. Fischer, StuttgartGoogle Scholar
  76. Zohary D, Hopf M (2000) Domestication of plants in the Old World: the origin and spread of cultivated plants in West Asia, Europe, and the Nile Valley, 3rd edn. Clarendon Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of ArchaeologyUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK
  2. 2.Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of ReadingReadingUK
  3. 3.Department of ArchaeologyBu Ali Sina UniversityHamedanIran
  4. 4.Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of NottinghamNottinghamUK

Personalised recommendations