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This blog provides a forum for presenting and discussing the latest findings relating to the ancient Indian Ocean, from archaeology, molecular genetics, historical linguistics and other disciplines. It takes a long-term view of the Indian Ocean region, exploring the processes that shaped its cultures, societies and environments from the Pleistocene to the historical period.

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Thursday, 21 February 2013

Crop translocation modes and motivations

A few months ago, some of the SEALINK project members, put out a paper in World Archaeology, "Old World Globalization and the Colombian Exchange: comparions and contrast." While this paper is ostensibly a critique of the paper a year early by our colleagues in Cambridge (Jones & al Food Globalization in Prehistory), that is really only a starting point for a conversation of how and why crop spread at apparently quite early dates. While Jones et al propose that one mechanism was a desire for calories, i.e. a need to produce more staple foods, with a preference for easy to grow crops, we have taken issue with this suggesting instead that in many cases, perhaps in most cases, initial translocation of crops was small scale, experimental, and unlikely to have been of much subsistence importance. There are a few evidential problems we have catalogued, like dubiously early (Neolithic) dates for millet or buckwheat in Europe that  really are not supported by recent systematic archaeobotanical work in Europe. This paper also includes an updating mapping of the eastward spread of wheat and its associates (barley, but also lentil, pea, etc.) into China and India. This aspect of the paper I have noted on the archaeobotanist blog, in relation to the eastern extensive of crop spread from the Near East. However, it is the contrasts between India and China, which I think are most interesting. The Near Eastern crops as a group were much more important in India, although gradually and with distance this became less the case, while in the China it is only wheat at arrives early and it really appear unimportant. Indeed historical sources point to its importance arising in much later periods. While both region get wheat at around the same time (later 3rd millennium BC), the patterns of uptake are very different, implying differing social motivations. This leads to what I consider the most important part of the paper, the start of a discussion of how we should classify crops, in terms of value, both social and economic, and how crops change in value with time and context. Thus one culture staple crop is another culture exotica or cash crop, and where a crop fall in this schema, whether available in bulk or rare, locally or imported, changes over time. We would like to see this as the start of a new way thinking about how foodstuffs and crops fit into the borader patterns of social interaction both locally and long-distance.

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