TEL AVIV – In a groundbreaking study, a team of scientists has successfully sequenced the genome of 6,000 year old barley grains used by prehistoric humans in Israel’s Judean Desert.
The barley seeds, found in the Yoram Cave, are now the oldest plant ever to be reconstructed. The research team – comprised of archeologists, geneticists, and archaeobotanists from Israel, Germany, the UK, and the U.S. – published their results in the academic journal Nature Genetics.
The results affirm Israel’s position as a center of crop domestication that later spread to the rest of the world.
The Yorav Cave overlooks the Dead Sea on the southern end of Masada, a mountain that is famous for being the site of a lengthy siege during the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire in 66 CE.
The area’s extreme aridity preserved the Chalcolithic kernels over the millennia. The scientists said that since the cave was very difficult to reach, it was probably only used as a temporary refuge.
Ehud Weiss of Bar-Ilan University, who led the study, told the Times of Israel that while most ancient kernels are too charred to be useful for DNA study, the Yoram Cave kernels “looked almost alive, almost fresh.”
Wheat and barley were grown 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, the region stretching from present-day Iraq and Iran through Turkey and Syria into Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel.
Scientists were able to “read the DNA from these seeds” and thus conclude that they were domesticated locally, he said.
Radiocarbon dating determined the age of the seeds. Until now, corn was the only ancient grain with a genome that had been analyzed and sequenced.
Dr. Johannes Krause, director of archeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute, said the kernels provide insight into what prehistoric people ate.
“For us, ancient DNA works like a time capsule that allows us to travel back in history and look into the domestication of crop plants at distinct time points in the past,” explained Krause.
Sequencing prehistoric barley is “just the beginning of a new and exciting line of research,” Verena Schuenemann of Tubingen University, another researcher leading the study, said.
“DNA-analysis of archaeological remains of prehistoric plants will provide us with novel insights into the origin, domestication, and spread of crop plants,” Schuenemann said.