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Domestication of Plants in the Old World - The

Origin and Spread of Domesticated Plants in
South-west Asia, Europe, and the Mediterr....

Book · January 2012


224 2,579

3 authors, including:

Ehud Weiss
Bar Ilan University


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Invasion Biology Analysis in Archaeobotany – Philistines Culture at Tell eṣ-Ṣâfī/Gath as a Case Study
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Current state of the art

The aim of this book is to review available informa- There is a scholarly debate as to whether agricul-
tion on the origin and spread of domesticated plants ture originated in several places across a wide area,
in south-west Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean including the Levant and northern Fertile Crescent
Basin. Two sources of evidence exist: firstly, infor- (e.g. Weiss et al. 2006; Willcox et al. 2008), or whether
mation obtained by the analysis of plant remains it evolved in only one part of the Fertile Crescent,
retrieved from archaeological excavations, where such as south-east Turkey (e.g. Lev-Yadun et al.
early archaeological contexts—namely Epipalaeo- 2000). Although current archaeobotanical data sup-
lithic/Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Age cul- port the first view, this critical question requires
tures—are the main source; and secondly, data more archaeobotanical and radiocarbon dating evi-
provided by living plants, particularly by the wild dence to support any definitive finding.
progenitors of domesticated plants. This chapter
presents the conclusions of the book as determined
Neolithic south-west Asian crop
from the combined information provided by these
two sources (relevant data and references will be
presented in the following chapters). The crops of early Neolithic agriculture in south-
west Asia are fairly well recognized. The most
numerous vegetable remains in early farming vil-
Beginnings of domestication
lages come from three cereals: emmer wheat
The first definite signs of domesticated plants in the (Triticum turgidum subsp. dicoccum), einkorn wheat
Old World appear in a string of Early Pre-Pottery (T. monococcum subsp. monococcum), and barley
Neolithic B (PPNB) farming villages that developed (Hordeum vulgare). Diagnostic morphological traits
in south-west Asia (Map 1) by ca. 10,500–10,100 (non-brittle ears, broad kernels) traceable in the
calibrated years before present (cal BP). Spikelet archaeological finds indicate that by 10,500–10,100
forks of emmer and einkorn wheat with telltale, cal BP, these domesticated annual grasses were
rough disarticulation scars (pp. XXX—XXX) pro- intentionally sown and harvested in a string of Pre-
vide the most convincing evidence that these cere- Pottery Neolithic B sites in south-west Asia. Emmer
als were already domesticated by this time, and in wheat and barley seem to have been the more com-
this area. The contemporary appearance of rela- mon crops. Einkorn wheat is somewhat less
tively plump kernels further supports this notion, apparent.
but cannot be regarded as a fully reliable indication Several grain legumes appear as constant com-
of the early stage of domestication. These remains panions of the cereals (see Map 2—Plate 6). The most
and further evidence of pre-domestication cultiva- frequent pulses in the early Neolithic south-west
tion suggest that the actual beginning of wheat cul- Asian contexts are lentil (Lens culinaris) and pea
tivation in this area should have been even earlier. (Pisum sativum). Two more local legume crops are
No convincing pre-PPNB domesticated plants have bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia) and chickpea (Cicer arieti-
yet been found. num). In contrast to the cereals, archaeological

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Asikli Höyük Cafer Höyük

10,500-10,000 BP
10,000-9,500 BP
Tel Abu Jarmo
9,500-9,000 BP
einkorn wheat Kissonerga-Mylouthkia +
emmer wheat
Tel Aswad
barley Yiftach'el

chickpea Jericho ‘Ain Ghazal

flax Ali Kosh

bitter vetch

0 100 200 miles

0 200 400km

Map 1 Archaeological sites in which the earliest south-west Asian domesticated grain crops were reliably identified.

remains of pulses usually lack morphological fea- eighth and seventh millennia BP sites in Greece and
tures by which initial stages of domestication can be Bulgaria. Signs that rye (Secale cereale) was a south-
recognized. Clear indications of lentil domestication west Asian Neolithic crop are much rarer. The ori-
appear at about 10,100–9,700 cal BP; and of pea, gin and early spread of the faba bean (Vicia faba) is
chickpea, and bitter vetch, at about 9,900–9,500 even less clear.
cal BP. Probably all four legumes were cultivated The plant remains from south-west Asian Pre-
somewhat earlier, either together with wheats and Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) sites reveal another fea-
barley or soon after the domestication of those cere- ture: as a rule, not a single crop but rather a
als. Finally, flax (Linum usitatissimum) belongs to the combination of cereals, pulses, and flax appears in
south-west Asian group of founder crops. It is these early farming villages. Moreover, the assem-
impossible to decide whether the material obtained blage seems to be similar throughout the Fertile
from Early Neolithic layers represents collected wild Crescent (see Map 2—Plate 6). In other words, a
flax or the remains of domesticated forms. Yet, as in common package of grain crops characterizes the
the case of the legumes both direct and circumstan- development of agriculture in this ‘core area’.
tial evidence indicates that by 9,900–9,500 cal BP, At almost the same time, signs of herding appear,
flax was already domesticated in south-west Asia. implying that sheep and goats had also been
Evidence for early domestication of additional brought under human control. Shortly after, cattle
plants in south-west Asia is much less convincing. and pig domestication took place (Zeder In Press
Grass pea (Lathyrus sativus) might have been such a 2011). Thus, an effective south-west Asian Neolithic
crop, yet the bulk of its early remains comes from food-production ‘package’ was formed, comprising

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60 Legened
einkorn wheat
emmer wheat
58 barley
71 62
2,500-2,000 BP
63 3,000-2,500 BP
3,500-3,000 BP
72 59 4,000-3,500 BP
4,500-4,000 BP
5,000-4,500 BP
5,500-5,000 BP
70 66 6,000-5,500 BP
69 6,500-6,000 BP
65 40 7,000-6,500 BP
56 53
68 7,500-7,000 BP
67 57 38 8,000-7,500 BP
39 21 8,500-8,000 BP
52,55 9,000-8,500 BP
73 35 37 9,500-9,000 BP
54 36 10,000-9,500 BP
51 10,500-10,000 BP
48 49 47
33 22
50 34 1
44 23
81 32 4
64 74
75 25
78 6
31 24
77 42 29
28 5
27 7
79 30 26
76 18

80 19 8
17 9 2

20 14



Scale 1:16,000,000 15
0 125 250 375 500 miles

0 250 500 km

Map 2 The spread of the south-west Asian Neolithic crop assemblage in Europe, west Asia, and north Africa. For details on the numbered sites,
see pp. XXX–XXX. These are the earliest sites in which domesticated grain crops were found, in each country.

vegetative crops as well as domestic animals. Basin are already well identified. The distribution
Indeed, the remains uncovered in south-west Asian areas and the main ecological preferences of most of
PPNB sites indicate a major shift in food practices. them are also well known. Comparison of this evi-
While in Epi-Palaeolithic contexts, gathering and dence with the archaeological findings reveals that
hunting of a wide spectrum of wild species is appar- with practically all early crops, the first signs of
ent, the PPNB farmers already appear to focus on domestication appear in the same general areas
domesticates as their principal source of food. A where the wild ancestral stocks abound today.
large proportion of the remains retrieved from these The geographic distribution of the wild progeni-
early farming sites belong to the crops mentioned tors of Neolithic grain crops is significant. Apart
above and domestic animals. There is also a sharp from flax and barley, the wild ancestors of the
quantitative and qualitative drop in the wild-species founder crops have a rather limited distribution.
intake. An important confirmation of this ‘package’ Wild emmer wheat and wild chickpea are endemic
concept occurred recently with the discovery of just to the Fertile Crescent. Assuming that their distri-
such an ensemble of plants and animals in Early bution did not change drastically during the last ten
PPNB Cyprus, although some of them were not yet millennia, the domestication of these crops could
strictly domesticated. only have taken place in this restricted area. Because
domesticated emmer wheat appears to be the most
important Neolithic crop throughout south-west
Wild progenitors
Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin, the
The wild ancestors of most of the food plants of confinement of its wild progenitor to the Fertile
south-west Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Crescent delimits the place of origin of this

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domesticated cereal. It also marks the rather 9,500–9,000 cal BP. By ca. 9,000–8,500 calBP, agricul-
restricted geographic area where Old World ture had already appeared in Crete and Greece. By
Neolithic agriculture could have originated. Wild the end of the ninth millennium BP, these crops
forms of einkorn wheat, lentil, pea, and bitter vetch were grown in Obre in Bosnia-Hercegovina and in
have a somewhat wider distribution, but all, includ- Jeitun in Turkmenia. Soon after, agriculture appears
ing barley, are centered in the Fertile Crescent; that as far west as Balma Margineda in Andorra, Spain,
is, the region in which the earliest farming villages and Sacarovca in Moldavia—and as far south as
have been discovered. Grotta dell’Uzzo in Sicily. By the second half of the
eighth millennium BP, the Linearbandkeramik
farming culture was already firmly established in
The spread of south-west Asian crops
loess soil regions throughout central Europe,
A most remarkable feature of south-west Asian extending to Poland in the east, to northern France,
Neolithic agriculture is its rapid expansion soon and Germany in the west. At the same time, early
after establishment in the nuclear area (see Map Neolithic farming villages appeared in south Spain,
2—Plate 6). The quality and quantity of available the Nile Valley, and in Chokh in Caucasia.
archaeobotanical evidence varies considerably from Substantial information on the age and spread of
region to region. Comprehensive information is early farming cultures is available for Europe,
available for most parts of Europe, but there is much where radiocarbon dating of sites exhibiting evi-
sparser and frequently incomplete documentation dence of early farming enabled the reconstruction
from Caucasia, Eastern Europe, and central Asia. In of the diffusion of agriculture. The evidence from
Africa, critical data on plant remains are available Caucasia, central Asia, and eastern Europe is much
only for Egypt (but a few current projects might add more fragmentary. Yet the finds retrieved from sites
vital data for north Africa). In spite of the uneven including Jeitun (p. XXX) demonstrate that the dif-
documentation, the following main features of the fusion of the south-west Asian crops towards cen-
diffusion of agriculture seem apparent. tral Asia happened relatively early, although it took
The spread of agriculture from its south-west longer to reach Transcaucasia and the Nile Valley.
Asian core to Europe and central Asia involves the All over these vast areas, the start of food produc-
species contained in the Neolithic crop assemblage. tion involved the same south-west Asian crops.
Map 2 (Plate 6) summarizes the information about
the six most important south-west Asian crops:
Availability of archaeological evidence
emmer wheat (including its free-threshing deriva-
tives), einkorn wheat, barley, lentil, pea, and flax. Any attempt to reconstruct the origins and diffu-
From the data presented in this map and in Chapter sion of agriculture in Eurasia and Africa must
10, it is evident that crops domesticated in the address the uneven archaeological record. As
south-west Asian core area were the initiators of already mentioned, plant remains of Europe, south-
food production in Europe, central Asia, and the west Asia, and the Mediterranean Basin provide us
Mediterranean Basin (including the Nile Valley). with a reasonable overview of the beginnings and
The earliest farming cultures in these vast regions development of agriculture in these major areas. In
always contain wheat and barley, with one, two, or contrast, the archaeobotanical evidence from cen-
more of the other south-west Asian founder crops tral and eastern parts of Asia and from eastern
frequently present as well. Europe is much less complete. It is very poor in
Establishment of the south-west Asian crop Africa north of the Sahara. Consequently, while the
assemblage in the Fertile Crescent and its spread early stages of food production in south-west Asia
both west (to Europe) and east (to central Asia and are relatively well documented, most founder crops
to the Indian subcontinent) was rapid (see Map are adequately identified, and the expansion to
2—Plate 6). From the first farming communities in Europe and west Asia are convincingly elucidated,
the ‘Levantine Corridor’ at ca. 10,500–10,200 cal BP, there are far fewer solid facts on crop domestication
it was found to cover the whole Fertile Crescent by and the development of farming in east Asia (Smith

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1998). However in the last few years, archaeobo- Its dry tubers were found in large quantities in
tanical findings in these agricultural domains have Egypt from pre-dynastic times on. The early
improved considerably. The history of crop domes- appearance of broomcorn millet, Panicum mil-
tication in the African Savanna belt is still largely iaceum, in the Caspian basin and the Czech
uncharted and we still know very little about the Republic (p. XXX) might indicate another local
evolution of the unique crop assemblage of this addition. However, since the archaeological evi-
region (Harlan 1992a). dence from central and east Asia is still inadequate,
The time and place of origin of the majority of the it is impossible to decide whether the Caspian P.
east and south Asian crops, and of practically all the miliaceum was added to the expanding south-west
sub-Saharan African crops, are yet not fully estab- Asian crop assemblage after it reached central
lished. In numerous cases, the wild progenitors Asia, or whether this cereal represents an east
have not yet been satisfactorily identified or they Asiatic domestication independent of the south-
are only very superficially known. However, critical west Asian diffusion.
archaeobotanical information has been assembled
on at least two principal crops; rice (Oryza sativa)
Beginning and spread of horticulture
and foxtail millet (Setaria italica). Their essential role
in the independent rise of farming in China is now Olive, grape vine, fig, and date palm seem to have
well documented. been the first principal fruit crops domesticated in
At present, our picture of crop-plant evolution in the Old World. Definite signs of olive and date-palm
Eurasia and Africa is unbalanced. While there is domestication appear in Chalcolithic Levant about
relatively reliable information on its development 6,800–6,300 cal BP. Indications of date-palm domes-
in the classical Old World, we are largely unin- tication are also available from contemporary lower
formed of events south and east of this area. We also Mesopotamia. We still do not know the extent of
know relatively little about the early interactions Chalcolithic horticulture. Except for the Israel-
between west Asia and the major agricultural prov- Jordan area, the archaeobotanical information from
inces in east and south Asia, and in Africa south of seventh–sixth millennia BP sites in the Levant is
the Sahara. still insufficient. The picture changes drastically in
the Early Bronze Age (first half of the fifth millen-
nium BP). From this time on, olives, grapes, and figs
Early domestication outside
emerge as important additions to grain agriculture,
the ‘core area’
initially in the Levant and soon after, in Greece.
Signs of additional domesticants start appearing These crops were subsequently planted throughout
soon after the introduction of south-west Asia the Mediterranean Basin. The extensive Bronze Age
agriculture to Europe, central Asia, and the cultivation of olives and grapes is indicated by the
Mediter-ranean Basin. Addition of some of these appearance of numerous presses and remains of
crops obviously took place outside south-west storage facilities for olive oil and wine. At the same
Asia, but they developed within the already estab- time, dates were domesticated on the southern
lished agriculture of the south-west Asian crop fringes and the warm river basins of the south-west
assemblage. The poppy, Papaver somniferum, pro- Asia, and they abound in the Nile Valley during the
vides a well-documented example of such domes- New Kingdom.
tication. Both the area of distribution of the wild Apple, pear, plum, and cherry seem to have been
poppy and the archaeological finds (p. XXX–XXX) added much later to Old World horticulture, as
indicate that P. somniferum was brought into definite signs of their domestication appear only
domestication in west Europe. It was added to the in the first millennium BC. Their culture is almost
south-west Asian grain-crop assemblage after the entirely based on grafting, so they could have been
latter’s establishment in western Europe. Chufa, domesticated extensively only after the introduc-
Cyperus esculentus, is another example of an early tion of this sophisticated method of vegetative
local addition, this time in the Nile Valley (p. XXX). propagation.

0001353724.INDD 5 10/18/2011 8:23:46 AM



Remains of fruit trees rarely show diagnostic ana- general area where, several millennia earlier, grain
tomical traits enabling archaeobotanists to distin- agriculture was successfully established in the
guish between fruits collected from the wild or Old World. Thus, during the sixth millennium BP,
those harvested from domesticated orchards. To a eastern Mediterranean Basin human societies
large extent, recognizing domestication in fruit belonging to the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age cul-
crops is based on circumstantial evidence, such as tures, were introduced to the use of copper and
the finding of fruit remains in areas in which the bronze, and they also mastered horticulture.
wild forms do not occur or on the quantitative anal-
ysis of artefacts associated with fruit products (e.g.
oil, wine). It is difficult, therefore, to determine the
initial stage of fruit crop domestication: in other This is the least-known group of domesticated food
words, it might well be that olive, grape, fig, or date plants of the Old World. Vegetable material consists
cultivation did not originate in the Chalcolithic almost entirely of perishable soft tissues, which
(sixth millennium BP), but was already active in the stand a meagre chance of charring and surviving as
late Neolithic (seventh millennium BP). archaeological remnants (p. XXX). Consequently,
Despite these uncertainties, the following have only few vegetable remains have been detected in
been confirmed: (a) the earliest definite signs of fruit excavations. The exceptions here are Egyptian and
tree domestication appear in the south-west Asia; Judean Desert caves. In Egypt, especially arid coun-
(b) horticulture developed only after the firm estab- try vegetables placed in pyramids and graves com-
lishment of grain agriculture; (c) as with grain crops, monly survived by desiccation, and show that
several local wild fruits were taken into domestica- garlic, leek, onion, lettuce, melon, watermelon, and
tion at about the same time; (d) domestication of chufa were cultivated in the Nile Valley in the sec-
fruit crops relied heavily on the invention of vegeta- ond and the first millennia BC. As amply described
tive propagation; (e) planting of perennial fruit trees by Keimer (1924, 1984), vegetable gardens consti-
is a long-term investment, promoting a fully settled tuted an important element of food production in
way of life; (f) soon after its successful establish- Egyptian dynastic times.
ment, horticulture spread from its original ‘core Beyond Egypt there are almost no early archaeo-
area’ into new territories in the Mediterranean Basin botanical finds of vegetable crops. However, early
and south-west Asia; and (g) after the introduction literary sources show that by the start of the second
of grafting (pp. XXX–XXX), the domestication of a millennium BC, vegetable gardens flourished not
whole group of ‘second-wave’ fruit crops became only in the Nile Valley but also in Mesopotamia.
possible. Furthermore, in both areas the crops grown were
Available archaeobotanical evidence of the more or less the same. The only major exception
beginning of fruit-crop domestication can also be was chufa which was restricted, almost entirely, to
supported by information on the wild relatives. Egypt.
Wild olive, grape vine, fig, and date are widely In summary, available evidence makes it clear
distributed over the Mediterranean and south- that by the Bronze Age vegetable crops were part of
west Asia. They have a wide geographic distribu- food production both in Lower Mesopotamia and
tion, so this by itself does not provide critical in Egypt. It is very likely that this geographic pat-
values for a precise delimitation of the place of tern is not accidental. In both regions, we are faced
origin of these fruit crops. Yet it is reassuring to with the dense human settlement of very arid envi-
know that forms from which domesticated clones ronments. Survival in these zones depends on utili-
could have been derived thrive in wild niches in zation of limited areas of irrigated or flooded land
the east Mediterranean basin. Therefore, evidence which is bordered by large, barren deserts. Areas
from the living plants complements the archaeo- with no vegetation have little to offer in the way of
logical finds. Most probably olive, grape vine, supplementary resources of green wild plants. This
date, fig, as well as pomegranate and almond, shortage invites human initiative. The early devel-
were first brought into domestication in the same opment of vegetable gardens might have been

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caused by such needs. It must be taken into consid- sibility of independent domestication of foxtail
eration that this picture is partly skewed by the lack millet in the west has not been ruled out yet. Hemp
of evidence in other regions. (Cannabis sativa) reached Anatolia and Europe
much later. Its remains appear (p. XXX) from the
eighth century BC onwards. Apricot (Armeniaca
Weeds and crops
vulgaris) and peach (Persica vulgaris) could have
Several Old World grain plants, oil producers, and been taken into domestication either in central
vegetables seem to be ‘secondary crops’; that is, Asia or in China (p. XXX); the domesticated pista-
they first evolved as weeds and were only later chio (Pistacia vera) must have originated in central
established as crops (p. XXX). Oat, Avena sativa, rye, Asia (p. XXX). The peach seems to have reached
Secale cereale subsp. cereale, and gold of pleasure, the Mediterranean Basin by the middle of the first
Camelina sativa, are well-documented examples of millennium BC. Apricot and pistachio arrived only
this mode of evolution under domestication. in Roman times.
Turnip, lettuce, carrot, beet, leek, and several other
vegetables are also very likely to have entered
(b) Warm-weather crops from south and/or
domestication through the same ‘back door’. The
east Asia
incorporation of secondary crops into Old World
food production seems to have happened rather A group of more tropical crops (sensitive to freezing
late, since definite signs of their domestication temperatures) that originated in south and/or east
appear in Europe and west Asia only in the second Asia, seem to have migrated into the south-west
and first millennia BC. Asia and the Mediterranean Basin from the Indian
subcontinent. Many of these cultigens were already
grown in India and Pakistan in the second millen-
Migrants from other agricultural regions
nium BC. Sesame (Sesamum indicum) is apparently
With few exceptions, the classical ‘Old World’ the earliest of these migrants (p. XXX). Undisputed
(south-west Asia, the Mediterranean Basin, and remains of this Indian oil crop already appear in
temperate Europe) received crops from other agri- south-west Asia in Iron Age (ca. 900–600 BC) con-
cultural regions rather late in its agricultural his- texts. The citron (Citrus medica) was grown in the
tory. Foreign crops that arrived in this area (in east Mediterranean basin (p. XXX) by the end of the
pre-Columbian times) fall into the following geo- fourth century BC. Asian rice (Oryza sativa) seems to
graphical groups (Zohary 1998): have arrived (p. XXX) in Hellenistic or early Roman
times. The cucumber (Cucumis sativus) might also
have been introduced (p. XXX) at the same time.
(a) Temperate climate crops from central
Finally, Old World cottons (Gossypium arboreum
and/or east Asia
and/or G. herbaceum) could have already spread
Broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum) and foxtail from the Indian subcontinent into the south-west
millet (Setaria italica) seem to represent the earliest Asia (p. XXX) during Roman rule. However, a fully
arrivals. The origin of P. miliaceum is not fully developed cotton industry appeared in this area
understood, but it was probably taken into domes- only in Early Islamic times.
tication in central Asia–north China (p. XXX). It An impressive introduction of Indian and south-
already appears in Caucasia and in central Europe east Asian crops was undertaken by the Arabs soon
in sites around the first half of the eighth millen- after their conquests (Watson 1983; Zohary 1998).
nium BP. S. italica, now recognized as a founder The Early Islamic diffusion (eightth–eleventh cen-
crop of north China agriculture (p. XXX), appeared turies AD) includes lemon (Citrus limon), lime
in central Europe in the first half of fourth millen- (C. aurantiifolia), bitter orange (C. aurantium), pum-
nium BP, some four thousand years later. For mil- melo (C. maxima), and indigo (Indigofera tinctoria)—
let, as well, the available information suggests all of which are discussed in this book. It also
arrival from the east (p. XXX). However, the pos- involves sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) and

0001353724.INDD 7 10/18/2011 8:23:46 AM



sugar extraction technology, banana and plantain (Sorghum bicolor), pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum),
(Musa cultivars), aubergine (Solanum melongena), and cow pea (Vigna unguiculata), seem to have
and taro (Colocasia esculenta (L.) Schott), although reached the Indian subcontinent already by the sec-
these crops are not surveyed here. ond millennium BC (Possehl 1998; Fuller 2000;
Manning et al. 2011). In contrast, only few arrivals
are recorded north of the Sahara. Domesticated sor-
(c) Warm-weather crops from Africa south
ghum, was grown in Egyptian Nubia from ca 100
of the Sahara
AD onwards (p. XXX), yet there are no signs of its
Although there are several good reasons to assume spread further north. Advanced durra-type sor-
(Harlan 1992) that indigenous agriculture was ghum cultivars appear in south-west Asia only in
already well developed in sub-Saharan Africa by Early Islamic times, and as Harlan and Stemler
1,000 BC (or even earlier), surprisingly few of the (1978) argue, they might have arrived not from
native African cultigens spread north into the Africa but from India. In addition, cowpea (Vigna
Mediterranean Basin. This is even more puzzling unguiculata) is known to have come from Egypt in
since several African grain crops, namely sorghum Hellenistic and Roman times (Germer 1985, p. 88).

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