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When did wheat farming get trendy?

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Computers, video cameras, the Internet and cell phones have all had their moment as "the cool new thing." Thousands of years ago, farming was the cool new thing for some groups of people. Now, scientists are trying to figure out when and where wheat farming got its start.

The change over from wild wheat plants that drop their grain to more farmer-friendly wheat plants that hold on to their grain was an important step in the history of wheat farming.

Wheat plants that hold their fruit or grain are easier to harvest because you can collect most of the grain from one plant all at the same time. In contrast, wild wheat plants drop their grain which means that harvesting the grain would require picking up each tiny grain of wheat off the ground.

Plants that hold their grain are thought of as domesticated plants while grain-dropping wheat plants are wild.

The scientists studied the remains of villages from the present-day countries of Turkey and Syria, looking for evidence for the first signs of wheat fields with lots of farmer-friendly wheat.

Almost all the wheat plants from the oldest archaeological site the scientists studied, which is from about 10,000 years ago, appear to be wild. Farmer-friendly wheat plants start to show up about 8,000 years ago. From 8,000 to about 5,500 years ago, these grain-holding plants appear more and more frequently.

This discovery, along with independent research on the early farming of another grain crop, barley, suggests that wheat was domesticated over many years rather than over a short period of time.

Wheat farming may have started soon after humans settled down in villages in Turkey and Syria around 12,000 years ago.

This research from Ken-ichi Tanno at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Kyoto, Japan and George Willcox from CNRS in Lyon, France will appear in the 31 March 2006 issue of the journal Science.