Fruits of Eurasia: Domestication and Dispersal (FEDD)

One of the most heavily disputed topics linking the biological and social sciences is the domestication of plants and animals. Much of this discourse, however, has centered around a select handful of organisms that have dominated scholarship. For plants, these heavily studied cases include wheat, barley, and rice; for animals, prime examples include sheep, goat, and cow. Dr. Robert Spengler’s ERC-funded project, Fruits of Eurasia: Domestication and Dispersal (FEDD), steps beyond the heavy focus on cereal crops in domestication studies, to look at long-generation perennials, notably fruit and nut trees. Archaeobotanical and genetic studies illustrate that these plants followed a very different pathway towards domestication, and their early cultivation represented new concepts of land tenure and farming knowledge among people.

FEDD is a large-scale international collaboration, comprising researchers from across three continents, who are carrying out projects in archaeology, ecology, plant biology, and history. Senior scholars are working with postdocs and graduate students to understand human/plant interactions through time. The team seeks to identify the origins of some of the most familiar fruits in your kitchen and to better understand the processes of evolutionary change that resulted from human interaction. Interestingly, many of these tree crops appear to originate in the mountains of Central Asia and are tied into the ancient Silk Road trade routes as a vector or dispersal. Dr. Spengler and his team are exploring the mountain foothills of Inner Asia sampling archaeological sites dating from the late Pleistocene to the Mongol conquests. They are using a multidisciplinary approach to identify the ancient cultivation and eventual domestication of these trees along these ancient trade routes. Ultimately, the FEDD team is tracing the route that the fruits on your table took to arrive there.

Fruits from the Sands

Many of the most familiar fruits, nuts, grains, and spices in your kitchen can trace at least part of their story back to the ancient Silk Road.

Photo of two modern fruit vendors in the Green Bazaar in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The legacy of the Central Asian fruit vendors goes deep back into history and has shaped the foods that we all eat today.

With the Islamic expansions, the merchants of the Silk Road stretched across North African, into southeast Asia, and across Southern Europe. The legacy of these ancient merchants can be seen in the food we all eat today. In this photo, a fruit vendor in the Central Square in Marrakesh, Morocco, is selling the same varieties of dried fruits as the merchants in Almaty. The ancestors of both vendors were likely selling these fruits in these markets a millennia ago.

On the extreme eastern end of the Silk Road, in the ancient dynastic capital, Xian, China, fruit vendors sell many of the same fruits as seen along the entire road.

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