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Ancient grain tells the tale of our ancestors' cities

A study published in Nature Plants sheds new light on the agricultural and political economy that underpinned the growth of some of the world's oldest cities in Mesopotamia, in present-day northern Syria.
The researchers, led by a team from the University of Oxford, used stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of charred ancient grains to reconstruct the conditions under which crops grew, building up a picture of how farming practice changed over time.
They found that as populations in these early cities swelled, increasing demand for more food, farmers strove to cultivate larger areas of land, rather than plough more resources - such as manure - into existing, more intensively managed fields.

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African deforestation
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Early humans implicated in Africa's deforestation

Humans may have played a significant role in the sudden disappearance of rainforests from Central Africa, according to a study published online in Science. The work contradicts the prevailing view that the expansion of farming practices on the continent was made possible by the increased incidence of long, severe dry spells that destroyed vast tracts of rainforest.
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Jumping gene enabled key step in corn domestication

Corn split off from its closest relative teosinte, a wild Mexican grass, about 10,000 years ago thanks to the breeding efforts of early Mexican farmers. Today it's hard to tell that the two plants were ever close kin: Corn plants stand tall, on a single sturdy stalk, and produce a handful of large, kernel-filled ears. By contrast, teosinte is branchy and bushy, with scores of thumb-sized "ears," each containing only a dozen or so hard-shelled kernels.
In seeking to better understand how teosinte gave rise to corn, a scientific team has pinpointed one of the key genetic changes that paved the way for corn's domestication. As reported today (Sept. 25) on the Nature Genetics website, a major change occurred about 23,000 years ago, when a small piece of DNA - a jumping gene known as Hopscotch - inserted itself into the control region of a teosinte gene that affects plant architecture. This case is among the first to show that a jumping gene can cause alterations in gene expression that impact evolution.

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Scientists have shed new light on the origins of rice, one of the most important staple foods today.
A study of the rice genome suggests that the crop was domesticated only once, rather than at multiple times in different places.
Tens of thousands of varieties of rice are known, but these are represented by two distinct sub-species.
The work published in PNAS journal proposes that rice was first cultivated in China some 9,000 years ago.

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Archaeologists uncover early Neolithic activity on Cyprus

Cornell archaeologists are helping to rewrite the early prehistory of human civilization on Cyprus, with evidence that hunter-gatherers began to form agricultural settlements on the island half a millennium earlier than previously believed.
Beginning with pedestrian surveys of promising sites in 2005, students have assisted with fieldwork on Cyprus led by professor of classics Sturt Manning, director of Cornell's archaeology program. The project, Elaborating the Early Neolithic on Cyprus (EENC), has involved undergraduate and graduate students from Cornell, the University of Toronto and the University of Cyprus.

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Sting in the tail of farming revolution

Dr Spencer Wells is a geneticist, anthropologist and explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.
In a new book, Pandora's Seed, he charts the unforeseen costs of farming, which began to transform society 10,000 years ago, but brought with it illnesses such as diabetes and obesity.

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Ancient seeds
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Ancient seed sprouts plant from the past

A 4,000-year-old lentil seed found during an archeological excavation has germinated, exciting scientists as the event might lead to invaluable data for comparisons between the organic and genetically engineered plants of today.
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Agriculture
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Harvesting of wild grains may have begun more than 100,000 years ago.

Humans may have been baking bread 105,000 years ago, says a researcher who has discovered evidence of ground seeds from sorghum grass on stone tools in a Mozambique cave.
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Listening to Tom Standage talking about his new book, An Edible History of Humanity this morning I was reminded of a paper written by the anthropologist and author Jared Diamond in the late 1980's.
Diamond described agriculture as, "the worst mistake in the history of the human race".

Farming was, he argued, a catastrophe from which we have never quite recovered. With agriculture came "the social and sexual inequality, disease and despotism, that curse our existence".

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Archaeologists in Israel say that the figs they discovered while excavating at the sit of an 11,400-year-old house near the ancient city of Jericho may be the first cultivated crops.
The researchers say that the find provides evidence that cultivated crops came centuries before the first farmers planted cereal grains.
They say the fruits found in the excavated house in a village called Gilgal appeared to be mutant figs growing on a rare kind of tree that was not pollinated by insects, and would not reproduce unless someone took a cutting and planted it.

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