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Fig Trees and Archaeology

The History of the Domestication of Fig Trees

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Figs on a Tree in northern Israel

Figs on a Tree in northern Israel

Yaniv Yaakubovich

The fig tree, long a symbol of Western culture, may also be one of the earliest domesticated plants in the world. In an article in the June 2, 2006 issue of Science magazine, a research team led by Mordechai Kislev at Bar-Ilan University in Israel reports evidence for parthenocarpic figs from six sites in the greater Mediterranean Sea region dated between 11,700 and 10,500 years ago. This evidence of domestication at the Pre Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA 8300-7300 BC) sites of Gilgal, Jericho, Netiv Hagdud and Gesher in the Jordan Valley and Mureybet in the Euphrates Valley, occurs at roughly the same time as rice domestication in Asia, but fully five thousand years earlier than millet or wheat or any other seed plant in the middle east.

To explain why the recovery of this particular fruit almost certainly means they were from domesticated fig trees involves a dip into the biology of this weird and fascinating plant.

Fig Trees: Weird and Wonderful

The fig tree (Ficus carica) is a plant native to the Mediterranean region. The edible part of the fig, called the 'fruit' is not really a fruit at all, it's a synconium. A synconium, in the fig's case anyway, is a green globe with an opening on one end. Inside the synconium are a cluster of hundreds of flowers. If pollinated, these flowers produce drupelets, tiny bubbles of fruit material with a seed in the center.

Each species of fig tree in the wild comes in two types: the hermaphrodite fig, that produces pollen but does not produce seeds to generate a new tree; and the female, that produces no pollen but does produce three crops of figs throughout the year, one of which if pollinated, produces a seed that can make a new tree. One important physical difference between a hermaphrodite and female fig, believe it or not, is the length of the flower.

Symbiosis and the Fig Tree

Fig trees are symbiotic--that is to say, they can only survive to reproduce with the assistance of another creature, in this case a fig wasp. Without the fig wasp's pollinating activities, the tree would never produce a germinated seed for the next generation; alternatively, the fig wasp would never survive without the fig tree's food and shelter. At the proper time, female fig wasps enter the opening of the synconium, and attempt to inject their progeny (eggs) into the flowers. If fig wasp eggs are injected into the short hermaphrodite fig flowers by their mothers, the new fig wasps feed on the developing fruit and spend most of their lives within the synconium until they reach adulthood. Still inside the syncomium, the females are fertilized by the males and then the females gnaw their way out of the synconium. On the way out, their bodies are dusted with pollen. Their sole remaining job in life is to find another synconium, enter it, inject their eggs, dust the pollen off their bodies and die.

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