Did humans domesticate plants or did they domesticate us?

Domestication is an ancient technology that has played a crucial role in our evolution as human beings, along with the development of language or culture of fire. When humans began domesticating plants and animals around 10,000 years ago, it ushered in a new era of humanity, allowing civilization and our modern world to flourish, not to mention our eventual population explosion.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that “the agricultural revolution was the greatest fraud in history”, and that plants such as wheat, rice and potatoes “domesticated Homo sapiensrather than the other way around.”

In a way, domestication consists of artificially controlling the evolution of an organism. The 19th century geneticist Gregor Mendel demonstrated this with pea plants. By selecting peas for breeding based on certain characteristics, such as pod height or shape, Mendel was able to slowly alter the genetics of the plants. This is similar to what anthropologists think ancient humans did with crops like rice and wheat, which didn’t entirely resemble the plants we eat today.

But experts don’t know exactly how it happened. In fact, some researchers have proposed that it was actually the opposite – that some plants domesticated humans, not the other way around. In his 2014 book “Sapiens: a brief history of mankind,“Historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that “the agricultural revolution was the greatest fraud in history” and that plants like wheat, rice and potatoes “domesticated Homo sapiensrather than the other way around.”

“Ten thousand years ago, wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small tract in the Middle East. Suddenly, in just a few millennia, it was growing all over the world,” Harari writes. Today “wheat has become one of the most successful plants in the history of the earth” and it is not by human intuition, but plant intelligence.

Harari’s book has been widely dismissed as “infotainment“which isn’t based much on scientific evidence, but it seems either way of framing domestication is oversimplified. Humans didn’t just domesticate plants, and plants didn’t just to domesticate humans. We have domesticated each otherby coevolution and mutualism, a symbiosis beneficial to the two organisms involved.

Most theories about the origins of agriculture assume “intentionality” – that humans supposed to produce varieties of corn or wheat that emphasize nutritional rewards. Rather, it may have arisen accidentally.

New research in the journal PLOS ONE presents a way to test this theory. Researchers from several universities across Europe, including the University of Cambridge, have proposed the human-plant coevolution (HPC) model, which generates a “great diversity of simulated trajectories and end-states” that could help explain how agriculture emerged in a number of different scenarios. . The authors hope that this model can be used to explain specific real-world cases, which can get extremely complicated because many experts agree that agriculture originated among humans. several times independently.

“In a subject like domestication and the origins of agriculture, where the archaeological record is incomplete both in space and time, and where real-world experiences are unrealistic, the use of modeling and simulation has become a useful alternative for testing hypotheses and building theory,” the authors write. “Few simulation models have considered coevolution as the central mechanism producing changes in plants and humans.”


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In other words, most theories about the origins of agriculture assume “intentionality” – that humans supposed to produce varieties of corn or wheat that emphasize nutritional rewards. It may have rather appeared accidentally, but as a 2021 article in the newspaper New Phytologist noted, evidence for either theory “remains elusive”. Perhaps coevolution needs closer examination.

The idea of ​​co-evolving with the plants that humans prefer to eat goes back at least 40 years ago. David Rindos, an archaeologist from Cornell University, described coevolution in his 1984 book “The Origins of Agriculture: An Evolutionary Perspective as the “unifying concept” which explains why man developed agriculture.

“Agriculture is not a particular adaptation to the environment, but a type of animal-plant relationship,” Rindos wrote. “Although imperfect, this definition emphasizes the two most important aspects of agriculture: that it is at least partially culturally transmitted and that it involves some type of relationship between people and their immediate environment, including plants that populate this environment.”

Nevertheless, the authors of PLOS ONE argue that this field of study “still lacks a unifying theoretical framework” and aim to remedy this by presenting a flexible model that can test various theories. This research is far from conclusive and it is not meant to be. Instead, the HPC model serves as a tool that others can use to disentangle speculation from fact.

We will never know for sure how and why ancient peoples began growing their own plants instead of hunting and gathering their food. But the human-plant coevolution model allows for better control of variables that may have facilitated the rise of agriculture, which could help explain why some theories are stronger than others.

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on the past and the future of agriculture