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Stones used to process food and medicine 12,000 years before farming began

Traces of grains and vegetables found on three grinding stones discovered in China’s Yellow River region suggest that people were using those plants for food and medicine before agriculture began.

The stones date from 23,000 to 19,500 years ago, late in the last ice age. But the earliest archaeological evidence for crop cultivation in China is 11,000 years old, suggesting that farming was slow to emerge from ancient traditions of plant use.

That fits with a wider pattern, says Robin Allaby of the University of Warwick, UK. In the Middle East “we also have evidence of cereals at that 23,000-year point”, he says – which is long before people were farming them. “Although this period is around the late glacial maximum, there is a blip at 23,000 years during which time it was milder.” Millet and the other food plants could have flourished in the warmth, tempting people to start exploiting them.

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Story: Colin Barras, NewScientist | Photo: Li Liu

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