Humans Cultivated Figs During the Pleistocene

Israeli archaeologists found the burned remains of a house near the ancient biblical town of Jericho.  The site, named Gilgal 1, is much older than Jericho, dating to 11,400 BP.  They discovered 9 dried figs within the site of the house.  Scientists determined this variety of fig was a cultivated mutant that resulted in a sweeter fruit than any wild fig, and it had no seeds.  Most wild figs requre tiny pollinating wasps but this mutation did not–proof that it must have been propagated by people.  This makes the fig the oldest known cultivated plant, and it predates the known cultivation of cereal grains by thousands of years.  It’s the only known cultivated fruit dating to the Pleistocene.

This variety of fig is known as LSU purple, developed by the Louisiana State University agricultural department.  I grew these in my backyard.  The tree is incredibly productive, but the fruit is only of high quality, if there is little rain during the week they ripen.

Figs are easy to propagate.  Simply cut a 12 inch twig from an existing bush and plant it in a container.  Keep it well watered.  The leaves will die back as the twig grows roots.  Soon, the twig will refoliate and grow into a bush or tree.

My Celeste fig hasn’t been producing in recent years, so I cut a twig from it and planted it in this container last summer.  This is a 1 year old fig sapling.  It should begin producing Celeste figs within the next few years.

I grow 2 varieties of figs.  LSU purple figs are large and as the name suggests, purple.  They produce abundant good quality fruit as long as the weather is dry.  Any significant rain while they are ripening causes the fruit to split open which attracts insects.  This makes them kind of yucky, and the rain also dilutes the sugar content, making them less sweet.  Split figs not invaded by insects are still usable.  Slice them and place them in a simple syrup made from brown sugar and water and boil them for about 5 minutes.  They taste just like canned Kadota figs.  The other variety of fig I grow is Celeste, a small brown fig with a purplish tinge.  This variety is more resistant to splitting from heavy rain.  I find it puzzling that LSU developed a fig so unsuited for the humid environment of Louisiana.  I recomend Celeste over LSU purple, though the latter looks so much better.

My figs attracted 5 species of birds this summer including crows, mockingbirds, cardinals, brown thrashers, and red bellied woodpeckers.  They’re likely drawn to the insects that infest the fruit such as wasps, ants, fruit flies, and stink bugs.  The combination of fruit and insects provides the birds with a balanced diet.

This is a photo of my fig tree with a crow on it.  Click on the photo to enlarge it, and you should be able to see the crow on the upper right side of the tree.  I tried to take a better photo, but crows are just too wary.  I took this photo from inside my home. 

Two species of figs are native to North America but are restricted to a range from central Florida south to the tropics of South America.  Strangler figs ( Ficus aureus and Ficus citrifolia ) have a fascinating life history.  Mature trees produce up to 1 million edible fruits every year.  Birds eat the fruit and deposit the seed in their dung on another tree’s bark.  The fig seeds begin their life as an epiphyte tree parasite and start growing on a host tree (often cypress, oak, or palm).  Eventually, they send roots to the ground and kill the host tree.

A strangler fig that appears to have smothered its host–apparently a live oak.  Now it’s a dead live oak.  Strangler figs depend on a tiny species of wasp (Pegoscapus mexicanus) for pollination.

Strangler figs may have ranged farther north during warm climate phases of the past.  It’s possible strangler figs colonized the Georgia and Carolina coasts during the Sangamonian Interglacial (~132,000 BP-~118,000 BP) which may have remained frost free as evidenced by the presence of giant tortoises.  The early Pliocene and most of the Miocene were also mostly frost free and strangler figs probably colonized the entire southern half of the North American continent.

Figs are in the same family (Moracea) as the mulberry (Morus rubra).  Mulberries were a common fruit of the Indians and formerly grew abundantly in virgin forests.  It’s not endangered but I’ve rarely encountered them.  Perhaps mulberries, a temperate species, evolved from a tropical fruit that grew in North America during the Miocene.

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2 Responses to “Humans Cultivated Figs During the Pleistocene”

  1. James Robert Smith Says:

    I love figs. One thing that I’ve always thought was very weird when I became an adult and thought about it was that we had a very nice fig tree growing in our yard in Macon Georgia. I was 12-14 at the time so I didn’t think about it much, being too busy with kid stuff. It was only as an adult that I wondered why my parents NEVER harvested the figs, although it was covered with fruit in season.

    I recall once asking my mom if the figs were edible.

    “Yes,” she said.

    And that was the end of it. Edible though they were, neither she nor my dad (or I) ever picked a single one of them.

  2. markgelbart Says:

    Maybe the palates in that house weren’t adventurous enough.

    I’m sure the birds got them.

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