“Founder crops” v. wild plants: Assessing the plant-based diet of the last hunter-gatherers in southwest Asia

Amaia Arranz-Otaegui*, Lara González Carretero, Joe Roe, Tobias Richter

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Natufian culture (c. 14.6–11.5 ka cal. BP) represents the last hunter-gatherer society that inhabited southwest Asia before the development of plant food production. It has long been suggested that Natufians based their economy on the exploitation of the wild ancestors of the Neolithic “founder crops”, and that these hunter-gatherers were therefore on the “threshold to agriculture”. In this work we review the available data on Natufian plant exploitation and we report new archaeobotanical evidence from Shubayqa 1, a Natufian site located in northeastern Jordan (14.6–11.5 ka cal. BP). Shubayqa 1 has produced an exceptionally large plant assemblage, including direct evidence for the continuous exploitation of club-rush tubers (often regarded as “missing foods”) and other wild plants, which were probably used as food, fuel and building materials. Taking together this data we evaluate the composition of archaeobotanical assemblages (plant macroremains) from the Natufian to the Early Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (EPPNB). Natufian assemblages comprise large proportions of non-founder plant species (>90% on average), amongst which sedges, small-seeded grasses and legumes, and fruits and nuts predominate. During the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, in particular the EPPNB, the presence of “founder crops” increases dramatically and constitute up to c. 42% of the archaeobotanical assemblages on average. Our results suggest that plant exploitation strategies during the Natufian were very different from those attested during subsequent Neolithic periods. We argue that historically driven interpretations of the archaeological record have over-emphasized the role of the wild ancestors of domesticated crops previous to the emergence of agriculture.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)263-283
Number of pages21
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This project has been funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark (Sapere Aude Starting Grant Number DFF – 4001-00068 and Postdoctoral Grant Number 11-116136 awarded to T. Richter), H.P. Hjerl Mindefondet for Dansk Palæstinaforskning and the Danish Institute in Damascus . We wish to thank the Department of Antiquities of Jordan for allowing the excavation and exportation of the materials, and the Danish Institute Damascus for co-funding the excavation seasons at Shubayqa 1. We thank Alexis Pantos (Glasgow School of Art) for recording the supplement video, Prof. Ehud Weiss (Bar-Ilan University), Prof. Dorian Fuller (University College London), Dr. Michele Wollstonecroft (University College London) and Terry C. Spurgeon (Simon Fraser University) for their help on the identification of some of the plant remains from Shubayqa 1, and last but not least, we thank the anonimous reviewers for their useful comments and suggestions.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Elsevier Ltd


  • Archaeobotany
  • Founder crops
  • Natufian
  • Neolithic
  • southwest Asia
  • Underground storage organs

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