Saturday, 9 December 2017

Buckwheat origins remain elusive

Harriet Hunt and colleagues have provided a new critical assessment of data and potential data on origins of the buckwheats (Fagopyrum esculentum and F. tartaricum) in a Vegetation History and Archaeobotany article. Buckwheat is an important carbohydrate crop at high elevations in Asia, as well as parts of Japan and Europe, but it has remained quite elusive archaeobotanically.

It is absent from the many large charred seed assemblages in central China, or the charred and Fagopyrum identifications as distinct from many other Polygonaceae. Even if we accept all identifications of Fagopyrum, there are several wild taxa in this genus that will have nothing to do with the cultivtion of the crop. They consider how reliable stratigraphic dating controls are for many of pollen sequences, but even so, pollen never allows for the direct dating nor direct association with human activities that archaeobotany does.
waterlogged assemblages of the Lower Yangtze. In the Indian Himalayas where it is traditionally an important crop, finds have been few, restricted to later First Millennium BC and medieval finds in Nepal. The new review by Hunt et al has compiled evidence from archaeobotanical macro-remains, a few reported based on apparent archaeological starch remains, and the many more reports from pollen diagrams. They take a threshold of fairly high quantities in pollen diagrams, but less clear is whether one can always rely on

Distribution of wild Fagopyrum species (Campbell 1997, IPGRI)
One of their key conclusions is that the past distribution of wild Fagopyrum species, including the wild progenitor of F. esculentum, was more widespread. Extending further north, even to the north of Sichuan. This certainly seems plausible and could support a domestication in Sichuan north of where modern wild populations (in NW Yunnan) have tended to suggest domestication. They point to a few pollen cores from Shaanxi and Gansu apparently 5000 years old or more, as perhaps relating to early cultivation-- although the absence of grain finds in these regions which have had considerable archaeobotanical sampling in recent years surely calls into question the paper's tentative conclusion that cultivation had begun before 5000 BP.  Another problem with many of these pollen cores is the reliability of dating. For example, the pollen sequence at Xishanping, which was collected through an archaeological sequence, has a number of inverted radiocarbon dates, suggesting reworked residual materials, but the short (and old) chronology followed by Hunt et al. removes the out of sequence dates-- which would make sense if this were a lake core with constant sedimentation, rather than a sequence 5 varied archaeological layers. A safer, and archaeologically logical reading of the original stratigraphy (see raw data in Li et al 2007) date makes the buckwheat pollen occurrence only slightly older than 3000 BP. (The short chronology also implies that wheat was present at this Gansu site before 2600 BC, which does not fit with the accumulated evidence on wheat's arrival in Gansu (as noted already in a previous blog), especially AMS dates (see Stevens et al 2006).

A more critical reading of the dates in the sequence of the earlier pollen cores find little support for any substantial quantities of Fagopyrum pollen before around 4000 years ago, so I stand by previous inferences of domestication taking place around this period. Nevertheless from the Second Millennium BC onwards, some archaeological seeds of Fagopyrum, possible supported by starch finds points to cultivation of this crop, with a focus on west Central China and southwest China, consistent with early dispersal around the eastern front of the Tibetan plateau. Nevertheless with central and eastern China, the lower reaches of the Yellow and Yangtze basins buckwheat appears to have been absent, from macro-remains (and supported by early Chinese written sources). In this regard some of the apparent pollen reports from natural cores in the Lower Yangtze seem unlikely to represent cultivation. Despite being clearly present among the crops known in early Tibetan languages (and many related Burmic languages), and having likely been loaned from a Tibetan language into Chinese since the Han dynasty period (see Bradley 2011), buckwheat remains elusive in Asian archaeology.

This new paper by Hunt et al. provides a solid starting point for new research on buckwheat origins, with a thorough compilation of pollen and archaeobotanical evidence (in China)long with some critical thinking on the rather limited genetic data.

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