Unprecedented yet gradual nature of first millennium CE intercontinental crop plant dispersal revealed in ancient Negev desert refuse

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    The study presents important findings on the timing and movement of crops in the Near East. The authors provide convincing data supporting a predominant contribution of Roman Agricultural Diffusion to the spread of a number of cultigens in the region. The work will be of interest to those thinking about the timing and movement of the diffusion of agricultural crops post-domestication.

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Abstract

Global agro-biodiversity has resulted from processes of plant migration and agricultural adoption. Although critically affecting current diversity, crop diffusion from Classical antiquity to the Middle Ages is poorly researched, overshadowed by studies on that of prehistoric periods. A new archaeobotanical dataset from three Negev Highland desert sites demonstrates the first millennium CE&'s significance for long-term agricultural change in southwest Asia. This enables evaluation of the 'Islamic Green Revolution' (IGR) thesis compared to 'Roman Agricultural Diffusion' (RAD), and both versus crop diffusion during and since the Neolithic. Among the finds, some of the earliest aubergine ( Solanum melongena ) seeds in the Levant represent the proposed IGR. Several other identified economic plants, including two unprecedented in Levantine archaeobotany-jujube ( Ziziphus jujuba/mauritiana ) and white lupine ( Lupinus albus )-implicate RAD as the greater force for crop migrations. Altogether the evidence supports a gradualist model for Holocene-wide crop diffusion, within which the first millennium CE contributed more to global agricultural diversity than any earlier period.

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  1. Author Response

    Reviewer #1 (Public Review):

    The authors managed to show the broad botanical landscape and not only the main crops. This unique achievement is based on decades of establishing an excellent collection of a full comparative seed collection of the current flora. This allows the identification of species that usually are not identifiable. The authors were able to compare the crops that were grown there and identify the contribution of the Roman period with that of the Arab one. This excellent study is a landmark in how such studies should be done. The list of identified species will be used for many other studies on this subject.

    We are very grateful to Reviewer #1 for this generous assessment.

    Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

    Fuks et al. provide extensive paleobotanical data from several sites in the Negev desert to address hypotheses regarding the relative importance of the Roman Agricultural Diffusion (RAD) and the Islamic Green Revolution (IGR) in the dispersal of crops across Eurasia.

    While the overall claims from the authors are convincing, I found the presentation of the data somewhat difficult to follow.

    Graphical visualization of the data with respect to the proposed hypotheses would go a long way towards making the argument clearer for a non-specialist audience.

    The authors apply appropriate caveats in the discussion about their ability to assess IGR given their timeline only incorporates the first few hundred years and some IGR plants may not leave macrobotanical remains. Yet I think more could be done to explain how the data they do find provides positive evidence for RAD. Many of their findings are inferred to be RAD introductions not because of the timing in their sites, but because of previous evidence of introductions at other sites. It would thus be helpful to be more explicit about what additional evidence these findings provide beyond previously published data of introductions of many of these crops into the Levant.

    We thank Reviewer #2 for the positive assessment and helpful comments. We have moved several tables out of the main text to the supplementary tables. We also added a new schematic of the main findings regarding 1st millennium CE introductions to the southern Levant and their significance in the Negev Highlands crop assemblage (Figure 4). We have also added explanatory text to clarify the point about taphonomy vs. period of diffusion.

  2. eLife assessment

    The study presents important findings on the timing and movement of crops in the Near East. The authors provide convincing data supporting a predominant contribution of Roman Agricultural Diffusion to the spread of a number of cultigens in the region. The work will be of interest to those thinking about the timing and movement of the diffusion of agricultural crops post-domestication.

  3. Reviewer #1 (Public Review):

    The authors managed to show the broad botanical landscape and not only the main crops. This unique achievement is based on decades of establishing an excellent collection of a full comparative seed collection of the current flora. This allows the identification of species that usually are not identifiable. The authors were able to compare the crops that were grown there and identify the contribution of the Roman period with that of the Arab one. This excellent study is a landmark in how such studies should be done. The list of identified species will be used for many other studies on this subject.

  4. Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

    Fuks et al. provide extensive paleobotanical data from several sites in the Negev desert to address hypotheses regarding the relative importance of the Roman Agricultural Diffusion (RAD) and the Islamic Green Revolution (IGR) in the dispersal of crops across Eurasia.

    While the overall claims from the authors are convincing, I found the presentation of the data somewhat difficult to follow.
    Graphical visualization of the data with respect to the proposed hypotheses would go a long way towards making the argument clearer for a non-specialist audience.

    The authors apply appropriate caveats in the discussion about their ability to assess IGR given their timeline only incorporates the first few hundred years and some IGR plants may not leave macrobotanical remains. Yet I think more could be done to explain how the data they do find provides positive evidence for RAD. Many of their findings are inferred to be RAD introductions not because of the timing in their sites, but because of previous evidence of introductions at other sites. It would thus be helpful to be more explicit about what additional evidence these findings provide beyond previously published data of introductions of many of these crops into the Levant.