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Some Ancient Farmers Grew Fava Beans Before They Grew Grains

The world's oldest domesticated fava seeds which were found at Ahihud. The black spots inside the brown dirt are the beans.
Kobi Vardi
Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority
The world's oldest domesticated fava seeds which were found at Ahihud. The black spots inside the brown dirt are the beans.

You might not like your fava beans prepared the way Hannibal Lecter made them in the 1991 thriller Silence of the Lambs. But they can be delightful pureed or sauteed.

The bright green veggie, which also goes by "broad bean" and other names, is a key staple in much of the word. It's also the third most important legume for livestock behind the soybean and the humble pea.

According to archaeologists and archaeobotanists, humans have been eating these beans for many millennia. In a paper published online this week in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers say they've found the world's oldest domesticated fava beans in sites in the central-southern Levant, now the Galilee area of northern Israel. The most ancient beans were carbon dated to over 10,000 years ago.

Farming, mostly of grains, had already taken hold around the region by this time. "In the Jordanian plateau and in Syria, we see that cereals were domesticated long before," says Dr. Kobi Vardi of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who oversaw the excavations analyzed in the new study.

But Vardi and his colleagues say the fava discovery indicates that the Neolithic people of these settlements between the Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee may have preferred beans. "What we know now is that in the Galilee, pulses were domesticated long before wheat and barley."

Beans, or pulses, are high in protein. And Vardi says early farmers probably struggled to get enough protein in their diet. That said, it's hard to know how the favas might have affected their nutrition.

"We don't have skeletons," says study co-author Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto of Israel's Weizmann Institute. "So we don't know their DNA. These were people who hadn't yet invented pottery, so how they ate these [beans], how they cooked them — these are good questions."

Determining when specific plants were domesticated can get controversial in scientific circles. But Vardi says the number of fava beans found in the Galilee sites bolsters the study's claims.

And although the beans were discovered in storage areas, all had been burned. Boaretto says there is no evidence indicating a specific catastrophe. But if nothing else, that did allow the ancient beans to be discovered today, preserved as essentially charcoal.

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International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.