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Prehistoric ancestors ate a rich variety of plant-based foods during the Stone Age, say scientists who discovered a collection of 780,000-year-old edible plants in Israel. A tiny grape pip, left on the ground some 780,000 years ago, is one of more than 9,000 remains of edible plants discovered in an old Stone Age site in Israel, dating back to the Acheulian culture from 1.75-0.25 million years ago.
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The collection is the largest and most diverse in the Levantine corridor linking Africa and Eurasia, and provides rich testimony of the plant-based diet of our ancestors.
While around the world remains of Paleolithic plants are scarce, this unique macro-botanical assemblage has allowed researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Bar Ilan University in Israel to study the vegetal diet of humans from early-mid-Pleistocene.
The findings were recovered during archeological excavations at the waterlogged site of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, where the earliest evidence of human-controlled fire in western Asia was discovered in recent years.
Researchers have long studied findings of hominid occupations in the Levantine Corridor, through which several hominin waves dispersed out of Africa.
The discovery of the ancient macrobotanical remains for the first time indicate to the rich variety of plant assortments and subsistence opportunities that were available to the early humans on the transition from an African-based to a Eurasian diet.
“In recent years we were met with a golden opportunity to reveal numerous remains of fruits, nuts and seeds from trees, shrubs and the lake, alongside the remains of animals and human-made stone tools in one locality,” Naama Goren-Inbar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Of the remains found on site, researchers have identified 55 species of edible plants, including seeds, fruits, nuts, leaves, stems, roots and tubers.
The findings, many of them minor in size, have been preserved for hundreds of thousands of years thanks to the damp conditions in the vicinity of the site, said Melamed.
“We found more than 10 species that existed here in prehistoric times but no longer today, such as two types of water nuts, from which seven were edible,” said Yoel Melamed of the Bar Ilan University.
The site was submerged under the Jordan River and the Hula Lake in conditions of humidity and lack of oxygen, aided by the fast covering of layers of sediments, in which researchers also found stone tools and animal fossils.
Gesher Benot Ya’aqov is also the place where researchers found the earliest evidence of the use of fire in Eurasia.
“The use of fire is very important because a lot of the plants are toxic or inedible,” said Goren-Inbar. “Using fire, like roasting nuts and roots for example, allows the use of various parts of the plant and increases the diversity of the plant component of the Acheulian diet, alongside aquatic and terrestrial fauna,” he said.