Harlan II, day 4

From a very tired and emotional Robert Hijmans. Previously….

No domestication without relaxation. Today was excursion day at the Harlan II symposium.  All to the Napa wineries you’d think, but no, there were not enough registrants for that.1 But there was a  tour of  the Charles Rick Tomato Genebank and a “Native Biodiversity and Plant/Pollinator Interactions”  tour, visiting field sites used by Claire Kremen’s group. But I had my own program. Before I get to that, which I will do in a separate post, allow me to make to parting comment on the Harlan II symposium.

On day 1, I mentioned that molecular biology rules. The increased understanding of the relatedness of populations of different crop taxa and their wild relatives is having a tremendous effect on our understanding of domestication and dispersal of agrobiodiversity. The flurry of recent papers on this subject has probably not escaped the attention of readers of this blog.

Be that as may, I should also have mentioned the explosion of archaeological data and analysis. Compared to 10 years ago, there are now many more late Pleistocene to early Holocene settlements that have been analyzed. This is providing a much more refined insight into early agriculture and domestication than was previously possible.

I do not know why there has been such an increase, all of a sudden. More people and money thrown at it, no doubt, but why now? At the same time, and perhaps not unrelated, there appears to have been an important increase in the sophistication of the methods used to study agricultural origins. Extracting charred starch particles from pot fragments or mortars. Determining minor differences in grain sizes to classify them as one type or the other. Tallies of bone sizes to determine whether the animals were hunted or farmed. And then there is the analysis of ancient DNA. And so forth. Not much Indiana Jones in it, but it is quite safe and more intellectually rewarding.

Most insights about agricultural origins still come from the Levant. While other areas are much less explored, they are also moving along. For many places and periods, we now have a good idea about what plants and animals were eaten. That is why we now know that there was a long transition from cultivation to domestication. This is why Dorian Fuller was able to show us graphs with changes in crop characteristics over time for multiple crops (wheat, barley, rice).

The origins of agriculture and the domestication process that took place about 10,000 yrs ago are fascinating and fundamental to the understanding of the history of humans. But domestication has never stopped, and will not stop, despite EU regulations. There are many other stories, from other regions, from other (not cereal) crops that have been much less explored.

Jared Diamond is convinced that no more crops or animals of major importance will be domesticated. He says that crop and animal domestication happened where there were species predisposed to be domesticated. We found them millennia ago. That is why agriculture originated where it did, and this is one of the reasons why some places are richer than others.

I wonder whether we can be more imaginative about what domestication could do to some wild plant or animal. We now know what it takes and can engage it what Melinda Zeder calls “directed domestication”. Perhaps something for an X-Prize.  A hundred million dollars for anyone who can develop a crop that is now insignificant (say less than 10,000 ha) to an area of at least 10 million ha. I agree that it is hard to image that  this will happen with staple food crops, but it is bound to happen with an energy crop.

Footnotes:
  1. Editor’s note: Excuse me? []

2 Replies to “Harlan II, day 4”

  1. Hmmm – Amaranthus? High-energy, high-protein seeds, grows on poor soil, juicy stems suitable for fodder or perhaps a vegetable. I’m not sure if it’s considered domesticated yet – if not, it might be.

    Below most people’s radar, I’m sure we’ll be “domesticating” or cultivating new varieties of bacteria for special purposes.

  2. Amaranthus is already pretty much domesticated in many places, for seed, and is heading that way for leaves too. Certainly I’ve grown named varieties, annd there was a lot of breeding in Hungary a while ago. Don’t have my notes to hand, alas.

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