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Rewriting Biblical history? Agriculture might be 5,000 years older than believed.

A new find suggests farmers in Bible lands built channels for irrigation long before historians thought they did, allowing for cultivated vineyards, olives, wheat and barley.

By Douglas MainLiveScience.com / March 20, 2013

By using walls to channelize and collect floodwaters, ancient farmers made the most of scant rainfall to grow crops in the desert. These techniques are still used today, like in this field outside the old city of Avdat, Israel.

Douglas Main / LiveScience.com

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AVDAT, Israel

For thousands of years, different groups of people have lived in the Negev desert, building stone walls and cities that survive to this day. But how did they make their living?

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The current thinking is that these desert denizens didn't practice agriculture before approximately the first century, surviving instead by raising animals, said Hendrik Bruins, a landscape archaeologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

But new research suggests people in this area, the Negev highlands, practiced agriculture as long ago as 5000 B.C., Bruins told LiveScience. If true, the finding could change historians' views of the area's inhabitants, who lived in the region in biblical times and even before, he added.

A great surprise

Bruins' findings come from radiocarbon dating of bones and organic materials in various soil layers in an ancient field in southern Israel. He measured the ratio of carbon isotopes (atoms of the same element with a different number of neutrons), which changes as the radioactive carbon-14 isotope breaks down over time, while the stable carbon-12 does not. Within the soil, he found evidence of past cultivation, including animal manure and charred organic material (likely burnt kitchen scraps), both of which have been used as fertilizer around the world for millennia, he said. (Carbon dating has been used to date famous objects, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls). 

"I found a wonderful radiocarbon sequence of ages," Bruins said. "And it was for me a great surprise."

He found three distinct layers in the earth indicating that the field had been cultivated, corresponding to three different periods of activity, with long gaps in between. The first one dated from 5000 B.C. to 4500 B.C., followed by another from 1600 B.C. to 950 B.C. and a final layer dating from A.D. 650 to A.D. 950.

The first group of people that farmed here has no current known name, he said, but developed flint tools that have been found throughout the region.

The Exodus

The second period of agriculture, from 1600 B.C. to 950 B.C., corresponds to the time in which the Jews made their way from Egypt to modern-day Israel, according to Exodus and other books of the Bible, Bruins said.

The site where Bruins conducted his research, south of Beersheba, is likely to the south and east of where historians place the Israelites during this time period, he said. But it could possibly have been home to tribes associated with the Amalekites, a group living in the area at the time that was hostile to the Israelites, Bruins said.

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