Distinguishing wild and domestic wheat and barley spikelets from early Holocene sites in the Near East


Identifying morphologically domestic cereals is essential to understanding the origins of agriculture. Charred spikelet bases provide the best evidence for distinguishing wild from domestic varieties of emmer, einkorn and barley; however until now, identification criteria have not been agreed upon or well established. We examined more than 20,000 remains of charred spikelets from eleven early Holocene sites in the Near East, classing them into nine groups. We show that damage and fragmentation of wheat spikelets probably due to dehusking makes identification problematic, and only when the abscission scar is well preserved is it possible to distinguish wild spikelets which shatter from domestic spikelets which adhere and separate during threshing. Barley spikelets were found to be less damaged and more easily identified, perhaps because the processing was less damaging. Einkorn was dominant over emmer on early sites, whereas on later sites emmer was dominant. Identifications presented here from eleven sites date from approximately 13000 to 8200 cal b.p. They give an incomplete picture, but no domestic cereals were identified during the PPNA (Pre-pottery Neolithic A). Early PPNB Aswad produced domestic barley but at other sites for this period the evidence is inconclusive. Unequivocal signs of domestic emmer spikelets appear during the Middle PPNB about 10,000 years ago but wild forms continue as part of the crop after this period. These conclusions are based on limited data. Future studies will undoubtedly produce a more accurate picture.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5


  1. Colledge S (1998) Identifying pre-domestication cultivation using multivariate analysis. In: Damania A, Valkoun J, Willcox G, Qualset CO (eds) The origins of agriculture and crop domestication. ICARDA, Aleppo, pp 121–131

    Google Scholar 

  2. Colledge S, Conolly J, Shennan S (2004) Archaeobotanical evidence for the spread of farming in the Eastern Mediterranean. Curr Anthropol 45(suppl):S35–S58

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Edwards PC, Meadows J, Sayej G, Westaway 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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Fuller D (2007) Contrasting patterns in crop domestication and domestication rates: recent archaeobotanical insights from the Old World. Annals Bot 100:903–924

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Kislev M (1989) Pre-domesticated cereals in the pre-pottery Neolithic A period. In: Hershkovitz I (ed) People and cultural change. (BAR International Series 508(i)). BAR, Oxford, pp 147–151

    Google Scholar 

  6. Kislev M (1997) Early agriculture and palaeoecology 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 209–236

    Google Scholar 

  7. Kuijt I, Finlayson B (2009) Evidence for food storage and predomestication granaries 11,000 years ago in the Jordan Valley. PNAS 106:10,966–10,970

    Google Scholar 

  8. Meadows J (2004) The earliest farmers? Archaeobotanical research at Pre-Pottery Neolithic A sites in Jordan. In: al-Khraysheh F (ed) Studies in the history and archaeology of Jordan VIII:16, archaeological and historical perspectives on society culture and identity. Department of Antiquities of Jordan, Amman, pp 119–128

    Google Scholar 

  9. Murray M-A (2003) The plant remains. In: Peltenburg E (ed) The colonisation and settlement of Cyprus. Stud Mediterr Archaeol 70(4):59–71

  10. 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 113–132

    Google Scholar 

  11. Pasternak R (1998) Investigation of botanical remains from Nevalı Çori, PPNB, Turkey: a short interim report. In: Damania A, Valkoun J, Willcox G, Qualset CO (eds) The origins of agriculture and crop domestication. Aleppo, ICARDA, pp 170–177

    Google Scholar 

  12. Riehl S, Benz M, Conard N, Darabi H, Deckers K, Fazeli H, Zeidi-Kulehparcheh M (2011) The modalities of plant use in three PPN sites of the northern and eastern Fertile Crescent—a preliminary report. Veget Hist Archaeobot. doi:10.1007/s00334-011-0309-z (this volume)

  13. Stordeur D, Helmer D, Jamous B, Khawam R, Molist M, Willcox G (2010) Le PPNB de Syrie du Sud à travers les découvertes récentes à tell Aswad. In: Al-Maqdissi M, Braemer F, Dentzer J-M (eds) Hauran V, La Syrie du Sud du Néolithique à l’antiquité tardive, recherches récentes, actes du colloque de Damas 2007, vol 1. Institut Français du Proche-Orient, Beyrouth, pp 41–68

    Google Scholar 

  14. Tanno K, Willcox G (2006) How fast was wild wheat domesticated? Science 311:1,886

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Van Zeist W, Bakker-Heeres JH (1984) Archaeobotanical studies in the Levant, 1. Neolithic sites in the Damascus Basin: Aswad, Ghoraife, Ramad. Palaeohistoria 24:165–256

    Google Scholar 

  16. Van Zeist W, de Roller GJ (1994) The plant husbandry of Aceramic Cayönü, E. Turkey. Palaeohistoria 33(34):65–96

    Google Scholar 

  17. Weiss E, Kislev ME, Hartmann A (2006) Autonomous cultivation before domestication. Science 312:1,608–1,610

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Whingwiri EE, Kuo J, Stern WR (1981) The vascular system in the rachis of a wheat ear. Ann Bot 48:189–201

    Google Scholar 

  19. White C, Makarewicz C (2011) Harvesting practices and early Neolithic barley cultivation at el-Hemmeh, Jordan. Veget Hist Archaeobot (this volume)

  20. Willcox G (2004) Measuring grain size and identifying Near Eastern cereal domestication: evidence from the Euphrates valley. J Archaeol Sci 31:145–150

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Willcox G, Fornite S, Herveux L (2008) Early Holocene cultivation before domestication in northern Syria. Veget Hist Archaeobot 17:313–325

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank T. Akazawa, H. Hongo, D. Stordeur, E. Coqueugniot, R. Pasternak, K. Onuma M. Ozbasaran, W. van Zeist, Y. Nishiaki, Y. Miyake and A. Tsuneki for providing the samples and information. Financial support came from the CNRS and JSPS grants, Japan (17063007 and 20700664).

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to George Willcox.

Additional information

Communicated by F. Bittmann.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Tanno, Ki., Willcox, G. Distinguishing wild and domestic wheat and barley spikelets from early Holocene sites in the Near East. Veget Hist Archaeobot 21, 107–115 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00334-011-0316-0

Download citation


  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Origins
  • Near East
  • Domestication
  • Agriculture