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.