Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The world’s oldest farmers

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

An international team of researchers has discovered the oldest fossil evidence of agriculture, not by humans, but by insects.

The team, led by James Cook University’s Associate Professor Eric Roberts, discovered the oldest known example of fungus gardens within fossil termite nests from the Great Rift Valley of Africa in 25 million year old sediments.

Fungus farming termite colonies cultivate fungi in gardens in subterranean nests or chambers, helping to convert plant material into a more easily digestible food source for the termites.

Assoc Prof Roberts said that scientists had previously used DNA from modern termites to estimate the origin of termite ‘fungus farming’ behavior back to at least 25 to 30 million years ago.

This has now been confirmed using the new trace fossil evidence from Tanzania, allowing researchers to more accurately characterise the timing and evolution of this behaviour, something thought to have significantly modified the environment and landscape.

Patrick O’Connor, professor of anatomy at Ohio University, added “This type of study emphasizes the need for integrating perspectives from the fossil record with modern approaches in comparative biology—it is a holistic approach to evolutionary biology and significantly informs our understanding of environmental change in deep time.”

Study co-author Associate...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.