Unprecedented yet gradual nature of first millennium CE intercontinental crop plant dispersal revealed in ancient Negev desert refuse

  1. Daniel Fuks  Is a corresponding author
  2. Yoel Melamed
  3. Dafna Langgut
  4. Tali Erickson-Gini
  5. Yotam Tepper
  6. Guy Bar-Oz
  7. Ehud Weiss
  1. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
  2. Department of Archaeology, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel
  3. Archaeobotany Lab, Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology, Bar-Ilan University, Israel
  4. Laboratory of Archaeobotany and Ancient Environments, Institute of Archaeology & The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, Tel Aviv University, Israel
  5. Southern Region, Israel Antiquities Authority, Omer Industrial Park, Israel
  6. Central Region, Israel Antiquities Authority, HiPort, Israel
  7. School of Archaeology and Maritime Cultures, University of Haifa, Israel
5 figures, 2 videos, 4 tables and 10 additional files


Study sites and middens. The study sites—Shivta, Elusa, and Nessana—roughly span the Negev Highlands region of the Negev desert.

The excavated middens are marked on the aerial photos above and are lettered as named in the 2015–2017 excavations (see also Table 4). Adjacent middens include K1-K2 at Shivta and A1-A4 at Elusa; the latter are marked above only as A.

First finds from the Negev Highlands middens.

Section photos of Nessana midden A (left) and Shivta midden E (right) are shown with select loci (photographed by Yotam Tepper) and their uncalibrated radiocarbon dates, from which remains of white lupine (center top), jujube (center middle), and aubergine (center bottom) were found. These plant remains represent some of the earliest of their species found in the Southern Levant (photographed by Daniel Fuks).

Figure 3 with 1 supplement
Select plant remains from the Negev Highland middens (a) charred almond (Prunus amygdalus Batsch) exocarp; (b) charred pistachio (Pistacia vera L.) drupe; (c) charred carob (Ceratonia siliqua L.) pod fragment; (d) uncharred stone pine (Pinus pinea L.) outer seed coat fragment; (e) uncharred walnut (Juglans regia L.) endocarp fragment (f) charred peach (Prunus persica [L.] Batsch) endocarp; (g) charred cherry/plum (Prunus subgen. Cerasus/Prunus) endocarp; (h) uncharred aubergine (Solanum melongena L.) seed; (i) charred jujube (Ziziphus jujuba/mauritiana) endocarp; (j) charred Nile acacia (Vachellia nilotica [L.] P.J.H.Hurter & Mabb.) seed; (k) charred fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum/berythea) seed; (l) charred white lupine (Lupinus albus L.) seed; (m) charred broad bean (Vicia faba L.).

Scale bars = 5 mm for both a-f and g-m; all photos in grayscale (photographed by: Daniel Fuks and Yoel Melamed). Additional photos of select plant remains appear in Figure 3—figure supplement 1.

Figure 3—figure supplement 1
Supplementary photos of select plant remains from the Negev Highland middens.

(a) Left: Solanum melongena L. seed from Shivta (E 504-5029). Right: cf. Solanum melongena from Nessana (A 102-1072-1). (b) Prunus subgen. Cerasus/Prunus endocarp from Shivta (K1 165-1652). (c) Vachellia nilotica (L.) Wild. ex Delile seed faces A and B from Elusa (A1/10a). (d) Lupinus albus L. seed faces A and B from Nessana (A101-1040/2). (e) Ziziphus jujuba/mauritiana endocarp from Shivta (E501-5108). (f) Lathyrus clymenum L. seed from Shivta (K2-158-1618).

Schematic representation of domesticated food plants according to their frequency in the first millennium CE Negev Highland sites and period of initial domestication in, or introduction to, the Southern Levant: (a) barley, (b) free-threshing tetraploid wheat, (c) free-threshing hexaploid wheat, (d) grape, (e) lentil, (f) bitter vetch, (g) fig, (h) date, (i) olive, (j) pomegranate, (k) fenugreek, (l) peach, (m) almond, (n) carob, (o) Spanish vetchling, (p) stone pine, (q) broad bean, (r) walnut, (s) plum/cherry, (t) pistachio, (u) hazel, (v) white lupine, (w) jujube, (x) aubergine.
Schematic representation of directions of first millennium CE crop diffusion into the Southern Levant based on plants attested to in the Negev Highland middens.

Roman Agricultural Diffusion (RAD) crops are labeled red; Islamic Green Revolution (IGR) crops are labeled purple. Placements on map convey general directions of diffusion, not necessarily precise origins.


Video 1
Micro-CT longitudinal scans of Z. jujuba/mauritiana endocarp.
Video 2
Micro-CT lateral scans of Z. jujuba/mauritiana endocarp.


Table 1
Proposed Islamic Green Revolution (IGR) crops (according to Watson, 1983).
CategoryLatin nameEnglish common name
cerealSorghum bicolor (L.) Moench.sorghum
Oryza sativa L.rice
Triticum durum Desf.hard wheat
tree fruitCitrus aurantium L.sour orange
Citrus limon (L.) Osbecklemon
Citrus aurantiifolia (Christm.) Swinglelime
Citrus maxima (Burm.) Merr.shaddock
Musa paradisiaca L.banana/plantain
Cocos nucifera L.coconut
Mangifera indica L.mango
vegetableCitrullus lanatus (Thunb.) Matsum. & Nakaiwatermelon
Spinacia oleracea L.spinach
Cynara cardunculus L.artichoke
Colocasia esculenta (L.) Schotttaro
Solanum melongena L.eggplant
condimentSaccharum officinarum L.sugar cane
textileGossypium arboreum/herbaceum L.Old World cotton
Table 2
Proposed Roman Agricultural Diffusion (RAD) crops in the Eastern Mediterranean*.
CategoryLatin nameEnglish common name
cerealOryza sativa L.rice
Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench.sorghum
legumeLupinus albus L.white lupine
tree fruit/nutCeratonia siliqua L.carob
Morus nigra L.black mulberry
Prunus persica (L.) Batschpeach
Pyrus communis L.pear
Prunus domestica L.plum
Prunus armeniaca L.apricot
Prunus avium/cerasus L.cherry
Pistacia vera L.pistachio nut
Pinus pinea L.stone pine
Corylus sp.hazel
Ziziphus jujuba/mauritianajujube
Citrus limon (L.) Osbecklemon
Cocos nucifera L.coconut
vegetableCucumis melo convar. melomuskmelon
textileCannabis sativa L.hemp
  1. *

    Includes species first attested in the 1st c. BCE Hellenistic-Roman transition. Although carob is a native Mediterranean tree, improved food cultivars are first attested in this period. Similarly, stone pine is first attested during this period in the S Levant, although native to the NE Mediterranean.

Table 3
Pre-1st millennium CE introductions/domestications in the Southern Levant*.
PeriodCategoryLatin nameEnglish common name
NeolithiccerealHordeum vulgare subsp. vulgarebarley
Triticum monococcum subsp. monococcumeinkorn wheat
T. turgidum subsp. dicoccum (Schrank ex Schübl.) Thell.emmer wheat
T. aestivum/durum s.l.free-threshing wheats
legumeLens culinaris Medik. syn. Vicia lens (L.) Coss. & Germ.lentil
Pisum sativum L. syn. Lathyrus oleraceus Lam.pea
Cicer arietinum L.chickpea
Vicia ervilia (L.) Willd.bitter vetch
Vicia faba L.broad bean
fiber/oilLinum usitatissimum L.flax
Chalcolithictree fruit/nutOlea europaea L.olive
Vitis vinifera L.grapevine
Ficus carica L.fig
Ficus sycomorus L.sycomore fig
Phoenix dactylifera L.date
Punica granatum L.pomegranate
Prunus amygdalus Batschalmond
Bronze-Iron AgecerealPanicum miliaceum L.broomcorn millet
legumeLathyrus clymenum L.Spanish vetchling
Lathyrus sativus/cicera L.grass/red pea
Trigonella foenum-graecum L.fenugreek
tree fruit/nutJuglans regia L.walnut
Citrus medica L.citron
vegetableCitrullus lanatus (Thunb.) Matsum. & Nakaiwatermelon
condiment/oilPapaver somniferum L.opium poppy
Nigella sativa L.black cumin
Sesamum indicum L.sesame
  1. *

    Based primarily on Zohary et al., 2012, this list includes only species whose evidence for domestication/introduction is clear. This and the preceding tables are not intended to be exhaustive lists but rather to provide a basis against which the Negev Highlands crop plant assemblage can be compared.

Table 4
Domesticated plant seeds in order of magnitude by period, site, and area (from fine-sift).
Century CE1st–3rd4th–mid-5thmid-5th–mid-6thmid-5th–mid-7thmid-6th–mid-7thearly 7th7th–8thmid-7th–8th
Area (midden)PA4A1MAAOK2EAEK1K2E
Vol. (L)15858542211536998433393936
Plant speciesCommon name
Vicia erviliaBitter vetchXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Trigonella foenum-graecumFenugreekXXXXXX
Lathyrus clymenumSpanish vetchlingXX
Lupinus albusWhite lupineX
Olea europaeaOliveXXXXXXXXXXXX
Phoenix dactyliferaDateXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Punica granatumPomegranaterindrindXrindXrindXXXXXX
Ceratonia siliquaCarobXXpistil
Prunus amygdalusAlmondXXXX
Prunus persicaPeachXXXX
Pinus pineaStone pineXX
Solanum melongenaAubergineXX
Vachellia nilotica*Nile acacia X X X
  1. SVT-Shivta; HLZ-Elusa; NZN-Nessana; for midden locations see Figure 1. Orders of magnitude presented as 1≤X<10≤XX<100≤XXX<1000. See Materials and Methods for sampling strategy. This table is based on source data in Table 4—source data 1, Table 4—source data 2 and Table 4—source data 3.

  2. *

    Although not necessarily a domesticate, we take this Egyptian wild plant to have been cultivated or imported into the Negev Highlands, as explained in the text.

Additional files

MDAR checklist
Supplementary file 1

Carpological plant remains from Negev Highland middens.

Supplementary file 2

Presence/absence of domesticated species in Negev Highland middens by period (carpological remains).

Supplementary file 3

Identified wood and charcoal taxa from Shivta, Nessana, and Elusa.

Supplementary file 4

Identified pollen from Shivta reservoirs and garden.

Supplementary file 5

Combined evidence for fruit/nut trees.

Supplementary file 6

Radiocarbon dating of select loci.

Supplementary file 7

Earliest archaeobotanical evidence in the S Levant for domestication/introduction of Negev Highland domesticated plants.

Supplementary file 8

Some Acacia spp. seed measurements from the Israel National Collection of Plant Seeds and Fruits.

Supplementary file 9

Select L. clymenum seed measurements from Tel Nami.


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  1. Daniel Fuks
  2. Yoel Melamed
  3. Dafna Langgut
  4. Tali Erickson-Gini
  5. Yotam Tepper
  6. Guy Bar-Oz
  7. Ehud Weiss
Unprecedented yet gradual nature of first millennium CE intercontinental crop plant dispersal revealed in ancient Negev desert refuse
eLife 12:e85118.