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Food Globalisation in Prehistory

Final Report Summary - FOGLIP (Food Globalisation in Prehistory)

Each of today’s major food species is distributed worldwide. While much of that food globalisation has resulted from modern trade networks, it has its roots in prehistory. By the end of the second millennium BC, the south west Asian crops, wheat and barley, were in several parts of China, and Chinese millets and buckwheat were in Europe. There was a parallel exchange of crops between South Asia and Africa.

There are some striking features of that early phase of food globalisation, features that relate both to the crop plants themselves and to the societies that utilized them. A series of later episodes of globalisation, from the Classical period onwards, involve exotic fruits, vegetables and spices. The earlier phase, however, is manifest in evidence for staple sources of grain starch, the cereals, and the ‘pseudo-cereal’ buckwheat.

The FOGLIP project employed the latest developments at the interface between archaeology and genetics to establish when and how that early globalisation of staple foodstuffs happened, what it meant for human societies in very different parts of Eurasia, and what it meant for the plants upon which they relied for food.

During the first half of the project, we undertook archaeological excavations in Central Asia, to gather both crop remains and skeletal remains for dietary analysis. We complemented these with analyses of skeletal samples from museum stores. During the second half, we focused on laboratory analyses of these. Alongside that research, we gathered land-races (crops sown from family-based stores, rather than from any commercial markets) of principal crops involved in this early episode of food globalisation, and carried out a range of genetic studies.

Our research has assembled a detailed picture of the interaction between prehistoric Eurasia rural communities that interconnected much of that vast land-mass through neighbour-to-neighbour movement of food resources. Those early interconnections involved semi-mobile communities grazing their animals along a series of montane corridors, and raising crops, particularly in foothill locations. The FOGLIP has both charted a number of these pathways across Eurasia, and also brought to light the incremental evolutionary changes in the crops themselves, as they were taken into completely novel environments.

In time, that network of interconnections led to suites of crops, local and exotic, that in combination could generate crop regimes well suited to reaching unprecedented heights in the heart of Eurasia, and allow to intensive exploitation of the valley bottoms of Eurasia’s great rivers. The latter formed the ecological foundation of several of Eurasia’s most celebrated ancient civilisations.