The transition from a mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one of settled agriculture is arguably the most fundamental change in human development since the origin of the human species, and the major question is why hunter-gatherer populations abandoned this way of life in favour of an agricultural existence. A crucial element in this change is the evolution of the crops upon which agriculture is founded. This proposal seeks to understand the selective pressures driving the this evolution through an investigation of the key phenotypic traits associated with crop domestication, providing insights into the ways in which plants were changed by human exploitation, as well as non-human environmental factors. This research programme brings together experimental ecology, molecular biology, and archaeobotany to address the three key elements for understanding the selective pressures acting on early crop evolution: (1) the relationship between human and environmental pressures and plant ecological characteristics, (2) early genetic trait selection in crop plants, and (3) the temporal and spatial location of trait selection. DNA methods will be developed for establishing the order in which traits were selected during domestication, and experimental ecology will investigate the reasons behind plant trait selection, for example whether through conscious selection for increased seed size or unconscious selection for associated traits related to the competitive ability. Improved morphometric measurement of archaeobotanical material will permit precise pinpointing of the appearance of domestication traits, and so identify the primary selective pressures driving the evolution of crop plants in different time periods and geographic locations. We will take advantage of recently developed methods to open up new areas of investigation for future research into both the origins and subsequent development of agriculture, and its role in the emergence and maintenance of civilisation.
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