A few months ago, I joined some archaeologists who were searching for clues about an ancient civilization. We were on a mound near Jerusalem, surrounded by yellow wildflowers and rolling hills. The archaeologists were digging up a stone house that people had lived in thousands of years ago.
It was a dusty summer, and I had to wipe my camera lens clean every time I took a snapshot. Between photos, I noticed a piece of ancient pottery sitting off to the side; it was a fist-sized fragment with what looked like a carving on it. The archaeologists didn’t seem to have noticed it, so I showed it to one.
“That must be ancient Greek pottery,” the archaeologist told me. Many civilizations had passed through the area, leaving pottery, bones and other remains behind.
Civilization is so ancient in this part of the world that archaeologists treat ancient Greek pottery like potato chip bags or Coke bottles. This is where civilization began, quite possibly thanks to a group of people known as the Natufians.
Back in the day, all humans were hunter-gatherers, meaning they hunted, fished and gathered food, living mostly in small, wandering tribes. Then, 10,000 years ago, a group of hunter-gatherers living in Israel invented the one thing that made cities and society possible: farming.
Wild emmer grasses grew in the area back in the day. Seeds from grasses generally fall off their stalks when they’re ripe; this makes perfect sense if you’re grass, but it’s pretty annoying if you’re a human trying to collect the seeds to make bread. So the Natufians figured out how to breed the grass to keep seeds on their stalks, leading to the wheat we eat today.
That’s a big deal because farming cultures (that’s us) from ancient times to present day get most of their calories from wheat, corn and rice. The Natufians went on to cultivate figs and other plants and develop advanced irrigation. They may have been the first culture to invent agriculture, leading to the Neolithic Revolution.
“The invention of agriculture was not a mistake,” Israeli archaeologist Gonen Sharon told me. Hunter-gatherers must have had amazing knowledge of plants and animals, better perhaps than our modern understandings. Even today, remote research centers work with hunter-gatherers to learn about local flora and fauna. “We know nothing and they knew everything,” he went on.
The Natufians also may have been the first humans to domesticate animals such as wild cows, goats, sheep, dogs and cats. One ancient woman was even found buried with a puppy. The Natufians made art, including the oldest sexy sculpture ever found.
Life as an early farmer may actually have been harder than life as a hunter-gatherer – more work, less healthy food, famines, infectious disease — but it provided one big advantage: large populations that could take over territory. Nobody is quite sure whether settling down led to farming or if it was the other way around, but farming and domesticating animals certainly made more food, which fed more people, and towns began to pop up. The Natufians founded Jericho, which might be the oldest city in the world (it still exists today; now it has coffee shops and cable cars).
Owning farmland and animals turned into social hierarchies, kings and countries. This little, largely forgotten society rocketed humans to modernity.
“Today, all of us live in an agricultural world,” Sharon explained.
On that dig, I looked out over the landscape and thought about how an ancient person on the brink of civilization must have stood in the same place and looked out over the same hill. I turned over the pottery fragment in my hand. Once the Natufians invented agriculture, the practice spread throughout the Mediterranean. Eventually, ancient Greeks started farming and created city-states, which turned into kingdoms, leaving their broken pottery behind.
The Greeks are just one example; the whole globe has a similar story. Farming cultures spread from this very spot throughout the planet, ending the age of hunter-gatherers and ushering humanity into a new era, one so different that scientists have to dig for clues of a world before agriculture. The Natufians may be gone, but their legacy conquered the world.