Monday, August 19, 2013

how cereals tricked us

In my latest feature, out today, I looked at the origins of agriculture. People like to think that it was an invention in the sense that neolithic hunter-gatherers "invented" farming and found it more efficient so switched from food-finding to food production.

However, recent research has shown up a massive paradox in this narrative. For the people concerned, farming wasn't a better way to make a living than foraging. If anything, they had to work harder for less reward. Also, the feat of "domestication" wasn't a clever trick devised by early plant breeders. Rather, people harvested the grains they liked and took them home, and unwittingly exerted selection pressure that changed the species they ate.

When birds spread plant seeds by eating berries, we tend to credit the plant for recruiting the animals as helpers in their own reproduction. After writing this feature I arrived at the conclusion that the origin of agriculture was very similar. Barley tricked humans into spreading its seeds around the world.

Anyhow. Full story here:

The paradoxical evolution of agriculture

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 16, R667-R670, 19 August 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.08.001

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1 comment:

Allon said...

The article by Michale Gross in Current Biology 23(16)R668 is (1) about the origin of (agri-)culture and (2) about the domestication of wild species into crop species.

However, this narrative takes for granted that the domestication history of cereal crops is representative for other crop species as well.

For cereals it was the non-shattering trait that had a great impact. However for other species it was the absence of bitterness, or thorns, or seed-dormany (high and uniform germination) etc.

Research by Abbo et al (e.g. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07352689.2011.645428, http://aob.oxfordjournals.org/content/107/8/1399 and http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2012.12.024 ) is showing that non-cereal crops have not been grown prior to domestication.

Is domestication the result of unintended innovations during prolonged cultivation ? Or is agricultural knowledge a prerequisite to domesticate a crop species and to allow its cultivation.

Agriculture also emerged in other parts of the world with different crop species. So I wonder if our understanding of a cereal based agriculture can be extrapolated to other areas?

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