Diversity of Major Cultivated Plants Domesticated in the Near East

Our fathers planted gardens long ago… Whose fruits we reap with joy today; Their labor constitutes a debt we owe… Which to our heirs we must repay; For all crops sown in any land… Are destined for a future man. Arab Poet – Nizami


Alexander von Humboldt was probably the first author to refer to the question of origins of crops in his work Essai sur la Géographie des Plantes in 1807. Possible reasons for humans to have abandoned their hunting/gathering ways and settled down to the sedentary pastoral life of a cultivator have been discussed by several authors, among them Ucko and Dimbleby (1969), Harlan et al. (1976a), Zeven and de Wet (1982), Smith (1995), Harris (1996) and Diamond (1997).

Alphonse de Candolle, in his 1882 book Origine de Plantes Cultivées, was among the first to indicate regions where plant domestication may have taken place: China, Southwest Asia including Egypt, and Tropical Asia. In 1926, during the Fifth International Genetics Congress in Berlin, Vavilov expounded his theory of centers of origin of crop plants for the first time. The centers recognized by Vavilov were: China, India, Indo-Malaya, Central Asia, Near East, the Mediterranean, Ethiopia, Southern Mexico and Central America, South America and Chile. Vavilov continued to work on his theory until his death in 1943.

Harlan et al. (1976b) refer to the Near East as the “center of agricultural innovation” where barley was the first crop to be domesticated followed by wheat. Later the other ‘founder crops’ such as pea, lentil, vetch, faba bean, flax, tree and vine fruits were domesticated and the entire system moved out of the nuclear area together with an array of agricultural techniques. The system spread, moving along the shores of the Mediterranean and up the banks of the Danube River and down the Rhine, eastward to the Indus and northern India and southward across Arabia, the Yemen and into the Ethiopian plateau. It did not proceed further down into tropical Africa. It reached China in the second half of the 2nd millennium BC (Harlan et al. 1976b).

Arab geographers, authors of garden books and other writers from the 10th century AD onward tell about a countryside in the Islamic world that had changed significantly since ancient times (Watson 1983). The ‘new’ crops were mostly fruit trees, grains other than wheat and barley, and vegetables and several others. These introductions greatly increased the diversity of crops that appealed to different tastes. Watson (1983) gives a few examples of the diversity available at that time: the writer Al-Jahiz in the 9th century AD stated that there were 360 varieties of dates (Phoenix dactylifera) to be found on sale in the market at Basra in Iraq, while in the following century Ibn Rusta stated there were 78 kinds of grapes (Vitis vinifera) being grown in the vicinity of San’a (Yemen). Al-Ansari, writing about a small town in North Africa, stated that in the year 1400 AD there were 65 kinds of grapes, 36 kinds of pears, 28 kinds of figs, 16 kinds of apricots, and so on. The Arab conquests during the 7th and 8th centuries AD greatly facilitated the introduction of new varieties of crops in the Near East.

This paper focuses on the crop diversity of the above region, an important area recognized by most authors as one of the major centers of origins of crop plants and genetic diversity as well as innovation of agricultural techniques. However, this Vavilovian center overlaps in places with the Mediterranean Center and hence crops of the latter with wide distribution in the Near East are also included for comprehensiveness. Much of the information given here has been adapted from Zeven and de Wet (1982) and Vavilov (1992). Brief descriptions of selected major crops which have their greatest diversity and/or were domesticated in this region are given below in alphabetical order of their botanical families.

Diversity of Major Cultivated Plants Domesticated in the Near East – A.B. Damania

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