The history of food is fairly simple in rough outline. After 200,000 years living on forest berries, beach clams and the occasional wild boar for big occasions, modern humanity invented agriculture 12,000 years ago – the origin of the Neolithic era – and with it the first settlements, the division of labor and a unusual population growth, then armies and officials, the first cities, writing and mathematics, civilization as we know it.

All this happened not only in the Middle East, between the Tigris and the Euphrates, but also in China and South America, perhaps not simultaneously, but independently. The end of the last ice age was the critical factor that allowed agriculture to clear wide fertile lands that had hitherto been buried under thick ice sheets. If there is a dazzling example of the effect of the environment in the history of the human species, it is none other than the origin of the Neolithic. A change in the average temperature of the planet that literally ignited the spark of agriculture and therefore of civilization. That is the history of food.

But genomics insists on also presenting us with a profound history of food, one in which its domestication seems to have begun long before our species had anything to do with it, or existed at all. One of the first domesticated foods was the fig, as we know from a box in which a dozen of these fruits had been carefully placed, almost as gift-wrapped, and whose fossilized, or mummified remains, appeared in an Israeli excavation dated more than 12,000 years ago.

A fig – for anyone who likes it – seems like a high-tech agricultural product, and few people would have bet on it as the most primitive food domesticated by humanity. The same scientists who found the box, however, also came up with the explanation for the phenomenon. The wild fig, which produces dwarf fruits very much to the taste of bees, spontaneously generates mutant figs of size jumbo. Only very occasionally, on some unlikely branch of an unlikely tree, but surely that was enough for a pioneer of agriculture to take the giant fruit and use it to reproduce the prodigy. That requires talent, but this time we must thank Mother Nature for her support. Yes, the same one that generates tsunamis and AIDS viruses.

Genomics insists on presenting us with a profound history of food, one in which its domestication seems to have begun long before our species had anything to do with it.

Bears also contributed to the domestication of the apple long before we had appeared there. This fruit comes from a tiny berry native to East Asia, and it was the bears that spread it to the west of the continent, by the venerable procedure of eating the berry, walking one day and depositing the seed in the ground with all its garnish of compost and nitrates, to express it in some way. A bear may not be as good a farmer as Cain, but he doesn’t need to eat the biggest berries and select the precursors of the amazing Cézanne apples that we see in our markets.

Read on Subject another very notable case, that of the tomato, which also grew in size on the American Pacific coast tens of thousands of years before humans had set foot there. Then followed a complicated history of migrations, adaptations and selections, but someone or something had already started the work. There were no bears there, so the contest is open.

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