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Were Termites the World’s First Farmers?

A 25 million-year-old termite nest with the remains of a fungus garden preserved inside. Credit: H. Hilbert-Wolf

A 25 million-year-old termite nest with the remains of a fungus garden preserved inside. Credit: H. Hilbert-Wolf

By Eric Roberts & Christopher Todd

New trace fossils from the African Rift Valley reveal evidence for the origins of agriculture, not by humans but by insects.

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For the average person, the very utterance of the word “termite” calls to mind the tiny critters that eat away the timber supports of your home. However, this negative association ignores the fact that termites are actually among the most biologically diverse and ecologically important groups of insects. In fact, termites are responsible for as much as 90% of the decomposition of dry wood and nutrient recycling in certain ecosystems, and they have recently been recognised for their role in creating biodiversity and bioproductivity hotspots in African savannahs.

We have now stumbled onto a remarkable fossil discovery that highlights the evolutionary importance of these creatures while also providing an interesting parallel with human development. Over the past 15 years, our team of palaeontologists and geologists have been working in Tanzania, in a little studied portion of the East African Rift System in an effort to document the origin and evolution of vertebrates in Africa. This project, the Rukwa Rift Basin Project, initially focused on the discovery of new dinosaur fossils, but a series of unexpected discoveries pushed the project in many other weird and wonderful directions.

Among the highlights of this work was the discovery of previously unknown fossiliferous sedimentary deposits that helped us to better understand the timing and origin of the East...

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