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COMPAG Report Summary

Project ID: 323842
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: United Kingdom

Mid-Term Report Summary - COMPAG (Comparative Pathways to Agriculture: the archaeobotany of parallel and divergent plant domestications across world regions)

Agriculture has had important and long-lasting impact on human culture and the earth’s environments. Agriculture facilitated a nearly global shift to more sedentary lifestyles, a massive increase in human population levels, urbanism, state formation and with it the support of specialized crafts, leading to the diversification of material technologies, including ceramics, later metals and the modern proliferation of compounds and plastics that we see today. The Comparative Pathways to Agriculture (ComPAg) project seeks to examine the changing relationships between humans and plants that has led to parallel pathways towards the evolution of domesticated crops and agricultural systems across the globe. Agriculture is the outcome of convergent cultural evolution of food production based on different species in different regional environmental and cultural traditions. Crops themselves share many parallel adaptations, which botanists have long recognized as convergent biological evolution of a ‘domestication syndrome’. This project aims to look at both aspects of convergent evolution, cultural and botanical, by synthesizing, expanding and comparing archaeobotanical evidence from around the world, but with particular emphasis on Asia and Africa in the Old World.
ComPAg is pursuing four objectives. First, we are documenting the earliest agricultural packages in each region in terms of the economic components, including crops and major wild food resources. The hope is to escape the established narrative of the origins of agriculture, based on only a single, regional sequence (most-often for the Near East), and to be truly comparative. Second, we aim to reconstruct the earliest ecological systems of cultivation in these regions, including the evidence for developing weed floras. Third, we are quantifying metric and non-metric traits, such as seed length and thickness of crop species, to measure the process and rate of domestication. Finally, we aim to compare the circumstances of different crop domestications and regional transitions to agriculture. This we do by considering the archaeobotanical evidence in relation to socioeconomic variables of mobility, pastoralism, ecological zones and other aspects of the economic system.
The ComPAg project is working towards both integration and reanalysis of the considerable, but dispersed, data already present, as well as generating new data collected in the field. In working with existing data we are taking both a broad-brush and a study-in-depth approach of particular taxa. We have been compiling a georeferenced database of crop evidence across all of Asia and Africa, which presently includes more than 1800 site entries, allowing the tracking of domesticated crops, and crops undergoing domestication in time and space. Drilling down into the data of these sites we are compiling morphological data, when they are available, to look for evidence of change sin crops, such as grain size. In addition we have been collecting modern comparative specimens, more archaeobotanical samples in the field and studying in the laboratory these new archaeobotanical data. Project members have been working in the field in Benin, Turkey, Iraq, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China since the project began as well as studying archaeobotanical samples from Cyprus, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mali, Pakistan, Iran and the UK.. We have been focusing in particular on the domestication of major cereals, from pearl millet and sorghum in Africa, to Chinese rice and millets to wheat and barley, as well as pulses (Chinese soybean, Indian mungbean, African cowpea), flax, mustard, and melons. Our aim to characterize the domestication process in terms of morphological change in 32 species. Once the time span over which domestication took place is defined we can then consider how that domestication took place in terms of cultural and ecological conditions.
A truly global and comparative understanding of agricultural origins requires collaboration and expertise in many archaeological regions. Thus, in addition to our collaboration in various field projects, we are also hosting visiting researchers for short and targeted periods of joint research. So far, we have welcomed visitors from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, China, the USA, Italy, Ireland, Japan and Mexico.
Results from our project indicate that domestication episodes typically took around 3000 years, or 150 human generations. This means that the evolution of plants during domestication was not significantly different from evolution in general amongst wild species responding to environmental change. The only difference is that the nature of environmental change during domestication results from the modification of soils by humans and the new seed dispersal mechanism of human sowing. Intriguingly what we have found is the rate of change in domestication traits, for example increase in seed size, was remarkably similar across Near Eastern cereals and legumes, Chinese rice and soybean, Indian mungbean, and North American sunflower. Despite the fact that cultivation began at different times in different cultural environments, the effects of crop evolution were parallel.
Protracted evolutionary processes of individual domestications mean that many more parallel trajectories are likely, both from multiple starting points within a given species or amongst closely related species. This also means that what causes the beginnings of cultivation might differ from what sustained the process across millennia, or brought the domestication process to a close. There is already evidence that domestication in different regions began at different times and with different technologies or economies; some were sedentary, some were not, while some had pottery or livestock, others came upon these things only after crop domestication. As we progress in making the evidence for domestication episodes of different crops comparable, we will be able to return to some of the bigger questions, such as the role of Early Holocene climate change in some regions (north China, the Near East, the Neotropics), sedentism (the Near East, the Yangtze), seasonal mobility (the Americas, north China), or livestock keeping (west Africa, south India) as determining variables in the selection of early crops and the construction of the new societies based around agriculture.

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United Kingdom
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