Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Obscure crops of 2011 and an obscure book

I am ever the fan of the obscure crop, the "lost crop", or the highly local. I have drawn attention previously to the forgotten oil-millet of Taiwan, and tef-- which is obscure to those less familiar with Ethiopian agriculture-- a couple of years ago. I thought it might be interesting as part of a end of 2011 review, to compile some of the more obscure crops that got archaeobotanical attention in publications this past year.

1. Abutilon theophrasti,  socalled "China jute" or velvetleaf, was reported in quantity from a Hungarian Late Neolithic site in a storage jar (5th millenium BC) by Medovic and Hovrath. This is the only archaeological evidence for its cultivation that I know of, and it highlights the mystery surrounding where this crop comes from. This species can grown for bast fibre, similar to jute, but fruits and seeds are also edible. This find tend to lend support to the hypothesis of an eastern Mediterranean origin rather than an in China with early dispersal to Europe before 4000 BC.

2. Argan (Argania spinosa)-- the argan oil tree (or "goat-turd oil" as I have often heard it called), has its first(?) archaeological record from Southern Morocco, published by Marie-Pierre Ruas Margareta Tengberg & al. in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany. They also provide an excellent ethnographical description (and photos) of the gathering and processing: fruit eaten by goats; stones cleaned out of goat droppings, and pressed for oil... one of the priciest oils out there (if not the most pricey). Hunting for unadulterated bottles of the stuff was a recurrent theme in the markets of Fez or Meknes when I was on excavation in Morocco some years ago.  Even small 50mL bottles, when you can find them, in London can set you back nearly 10 pounds. But its is a wonderfully distictive oil for salad dressing for, better, bread-dipping...

But for those into obscure and lost crops, a nice obscure book is Threatened Crop Sepcies Diversity by Korous Khoshbakht and Karl Hammer (a prolific researcher on crop diversity!). Actually published in 2010, in Tehran by Shahid  Behesti University Press, it is unlikely to turn up in your local book store (but there is a PDF to be found from an Iranian site). I was lucky enough to find one with a Christmas card from Prof. Hammer in my post a few weeks ago, a real holiday treat. What a gem, with short account on obscure wheats, from Triticum karamyschevii, to forgotten millets such as Digitaria sanguinalis, to farmer preserved plants such as the banana relative Musella lasiocarpa, which is apparently now extinct in the wild, but it remains in cultivation as a raw fibre material and pig fodder by ethnic minorities like the Yi. Moringa hildbrantii, an endemic of Madagascar, appear to survive only in hedges and planted fences as an ornamental and medicinal. It includes nice summaries of the extinct Silphium of ancient Libya, or the more recent extirpated domesticated forms of German Pellitory (Anacyclus officinarum) grown in parts of Europe, such as Germany, as a medicinal up to the 19th century, but apparently now extinct in its domesticated form, but survived by it likely wild progenitor A. pyrethrum. 

Nevertheless, other obscure and endangered crops are missing (such as  the oil-millet of Taiwan  or Khasi hills millet, Digitaria cruciata, or South Indian browntop millet, Brachiaria ramosa). Also missing are some of the archaeobotanically well-known lost crops, the striate emmeroid wheat of prehistoric Europe, first published by Jones et al 2000, for example, or the Bronze Age Greek oilseed forms of Lallementia (Jones and Valamoti 2005), or the domesticated sumpweed of North America, Iva annua var. macrocarpa, extinct from the native cultivars of the midwest by the time serious European records became available, but clearly recognized archaeologically (e.g. Yarnell 1972).

Loss of diversity of cultivars is undoubtedly a tragedy of our time, but it also is not entirely new; diversity of cultivars has been being gained and lost since agriculture began.

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