Beneath a rocky slope in central Jordan lie the remains of a 10,000-year-old village called Ain Ghazal, whose inhabitants lived in stone houses with timber roof beams, the walls and floors gleaming with white plaster.
Hundreds of people living there worshiped in circular shrines and madehaunting, wide-eyed sculptures that stood three feet high. They buried their cherished dead under the floors of their houses, decapitating the bodies in order to decorate the skulls.
But as fascinating as this culture was, something else about Ain Ghazal intrigues archaeologists more: It was one of the first farming villages to have emerged after the dawn of agriculture.
Around the settlement, Ain Ghazal farmers raised barley, wheat, chickpeas and lentils. Other villagers would leave for months at a time to herd sheep and goats in the surrounding hills.
Sites like Ain Ghazal provide a glimpse of one of the most important transitions in human history: the moment that people domesticated plants and animals, settled down, and began to produce the kind of society in which most of us live today.
But for all that sites like Ain Ghazal have taught archaeologists, they are still grappling with enormous questions. Who exactly were the first farmers? How did agriculture, a cornerstone of civilization itself, spread to other parts of the world?
Some answers are now emerging from a surprising source: DNA extracted from skeletons at Ain Ghazal and other early settlements in the Near East. These findings have already challenged long-held ideas about how agriculture and domestication arose.
What’s more, the new data are showing that early farmers would leave a tremendous mark. People from Ireland to India trace some of their ancestry to people who began growing barley and wheat in the Near East thousands of years ago.
“It’s a part of the story of civilization that we’re just beginning to understand,” said Iosif Lazaridis, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School.