Reinventing the wheel

by Luigi Guarino on October 21, 2007

More evidence of multiple independent domestication events. Previous work has shown such a pattern for rice in Asia and cucurbits in the America. Now it’s the turn of barley in Eurasia. A paper just out1 looked at both sequences of 5 genes and also morphological traits in a geographically widespread set of 250-odd landraces.2

The results suggest that the crop was first domesticated 10,000 years ago somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, from whence it spread to Europe, North Africa and Ethiopia (the material from Ethiopia was somewhat distinct, as has already been documented). However, there was apparently also a second domestication, much later. It occurred in the region encompassing southern Central Asia, the eastern Iranian plataeau and the edge of the Indian subcontinent, and it is material from here that spread eastward starting maybe 2,500 years ago, possibly along the Silk Road, to give rise to the barleys of India, the Himalayas and China.

This is not an unusual pattern in Eurasian agricultural biodiversity. Sheep and cattle DNA data also show “two highly divergent lineages that distinguish European and Asian types, indicating a second independent evolution of these livestock species outside the Near East.” Not unusual, but somewhat puzzling. As the barley authors conclude:

It remains unclear why different cultures sought to re-invent these domesticated species several times rather than simply obtain them through diffusion from other farming societies.

The authors of the barley study speculate that the second domestication happened either because of the transmission of knowledge, or as an independent innovation. I find the second option a bit hard to take. Could it be that the results of the first domestication effort were just not adapted to conditions outside the Fertile Crescent, or there was a barrier to their diffusion? Or maybe it was just a matter of pride for the inhabitants of the Iranian plateau to have their own agrobiodiversity?

  1. Saisho, Daisuke, Purugganan, Michael. (2007) Molecular phylogeography of domesticated barley traces expansion of agriculture in the Old World. Genetics. []
  2. From a Japanese university genebank. []

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Don October 21, 2007 at 4:53 pm

Why not both? Both transmission of knowledge (seeds and how to grow them) and subsequent building upon the new technology (irrigation, ,plants,seeds grown from the seeds) and finding other lineages to cultivate once the idea has been acquired by the culture. One wonders about hybridization also, between local grasses and the seeds.


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