Research in the News: Ancient barley tells a tale of drought

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A Yale University anthropologist is helping document how drought conditions in the Near East thousands of years ago affected communities and agricultural systems.

The research, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, comes at a time when water and food scarcity issues are deepening in the same region.

Frank Hole, the C.J. MacCurdy Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale, was part of a team that examined drought stress variability during a period stretching from 10,000 B.C. until 500 B.C., in a region that included Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran. The team conducted an isotopic analysis on grains of barley from archaeological sites as well as modern sites.

“Think of the barley isotopes as a ‘black box’ or flight recorder,” Hole said. “They tell the actual conditions the year the grain was grown. In the past we had to rely on circumstantial evidence. Now we have the smoking gun.”

Early civilizations depended heavily upon agriculture, and even a slight climatic change could have devastating effects on entire communities. The research found a direct link between drought stress and climatic fluctuations, resulting in a variety of effects on communities — depending on local geography and agricultural technology.

Simone Riehl of the Institute for Archaeological Science and the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoecology at the University of Tubingen, Germany was the principal researcher and author of the paper.

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