A couple of papers discussed here and here (among other places: the chili pepper story in particular has been getting a lot of media coverage) describe how the minute, species-characteristic starch grains found in micro-crevices on stone tools and cooking utensils recovered from archaelogical sites are being used to study the domestication of crops as varied as maize, cassava and chilies in the Americas. The findings are pushing back the timing of domestication and suggesting that wet lowland areas were more important in the process than previously thought. Jeremy blogs on the chili angle at greater length here. No word on the past of cactus cultivation, at least in these papers, but this piece suggests its future may be troubled.
Are crop wild relatives (CWR) more trouble than they’re worth? There are certainly significant challenges involved in including them in breeding programmes, but you’d have thought that between the new molecular tools that are now out there, the greater numbers of CWR accessions in genebanks, and all the information about how useful CWRs can be, breeders would be falling over themselves to make those kinky inter-specific crosses. Well, according to a major review by our friends at Bioversity International (the outfit formerly known as the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute), the use of CWRs in breeding programmes has been steadily increasing in the past 20 years, but probably not as much as might have been expected. There’s been a number of papers recently on CWRs. This paper, also from Bioversity, looks at in situ conservation of CWR. Check out this for a discussion on the definition of the term, and, from some of the same people, there’s this overview of conservation and use of CWR, using a specific example. Here’s an example of conservation assessment and priority-setting for the wild relatives of the peanut. For a discussion of the possible effects of climate change on these species, see this.
Apparently, maize recovered from ancient burials in NW Argentina is genetically “almost identical” (whatever that means!) to the landraces still being grown in the area. I wonder if it was prepared in the same way too. This piece in the Washington Post certainly shows that maize culinary traditions are strong, and can go back a long way.
A new study tries to disentangle the mystery of the origin of the Etruscans by looking at the genetics of the cattle currently found in the area of central Italy which takes its name from that ancient civilization, Tuscany (or is it the other way around?). It turns out that, unlike cattle from other parts of Italy, cattle from the Etruscan lands shows genetic affinities with Anatolian breeds. According to the Italian researchers, the Etruscans came to Italy from Turkey, and they did so by sea. I wonder if it will be possible to recover DNA from the remains of ancient Etruscan cattle…
The sweet, juicy fruits of the marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea) are widely eaten in the miombo woodlands of southern Africa, and are also used to make the delicious Amarula Cream liqueur. But it’s not just people who like them: elephants will walk a long way for a marula feast. This piece looks at some of the evolutionary consequences.