Harlan II, day 1

From our man on the spot at Davis, Robert Hijmans.

It is only one day old, but the Harlan II symposium is the best I have been to for ages. That the subject is of some importance helps, of course. In his keynote speech, Jared Diamond called it nothing less than the most important event in the last million year of human history. Guess what, it has something to do with agrobiodiversity. It is plant and animal domestication, of course. Have a look at the program and you may understand that I am challenged to summarize the proceedings. But here are some impressions.

Domestication took a long time. Dorian Fuller summarized archaeological data to show that traits associated with domestication, such as non-shattering of grains, evolved slowly, over 1000s of years. Some speakers distinguished the initiation of cultivation from domestication. I had always thought of these two things as happening at the same time. But why not cultivate wild wheats, or rice? Benjamin Kilian showed data suggesting that wild einkorn was cultivated in Turkish parts of the Fertile Crescent. And Susan McCouch of Cornell University pointed out that, after 4000 years of cultivation, the common rice of West Africa, Oryza glaberrima is not domesticated yet: it still shatters. And I think there are many animal species that are not domesticated but that are nevertheless put to good use. Vicuña for example.

The question whether we domesticated plants or they domesticated us was not (yet) discussed, but there was reference to the self-domestication of dogs and cats. Robert Wayne showed that dogs were domesticated from Mediterranean grey wolves. But wolves are not very friendly to humans, how would you go about taming them? Wayne thinks that it was the wolves who approached our ancestors because they liked to eat the leftovers of their hunting parties. Over time, they may have lost some of their fear and aggression towards humans (obviously not realizing they would end up as chihuahuas). Likewise, cats may have approached ancient towns to catch some of the abundant mice in the granaries of the agricultural revolution.

Molecular biology rules. Remarkable progress is being made in analyzing the genetic make up of crops, the remains of ancient crops, and of crop wild relatives, to solve the puzzles of how our crops and domestic animals left their wild states. In some cases, this work leads to truly new insights in otherwise uncharted territory. In other cases, the molecular work confirms or refines insights that others had obtained from morphological, geographical, and archaeological data.

Even religion was invoked. John Burke explained that sunflower become a popular source of oil in Russia because it could be used during the Lent season, whereas all other sources of oil were on the black list of the Russian church. Gila Kahila Bar-Gal has put the insights from her ancient DNA work on archaeological remains of caprins (goat like creatures) to good use: she showed that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written on goat skin (not sheep). Unfortunately, there was also pieces of (wild) oryx skin — which is not kosher — but these were only used as wrapper; a relief.

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