Functional Traits Differ between Cereal Crop Progenitors and Other Wild Grasses Gathered in the Neolithic Fertile Crescent

ABSTRACT: The reasons why some plant species were selected as crops and others were abandoned during the Neolithic emergence of agriculture are poorly understood. We tested the hypothesis that the traits of Fertile Crescent crop progenitors were advantageous in the fertile, disturbed habitats surrounding early settlements and in cultivated fields. We screened functional traits related to competition and disturbance in a group of grass species that were increasingly exploited by early plant gatherers, and that were later domesticated (crop progenitors); and in a set of grass species for which there is archaeological evidence of gathering, but which were never domesticated (wild species). We hypothesised that crop progenitors would have greater seed mass, growth rate, height and yield than wild species, as these traits are indicative of greater competitive ability, and that crop progenitors would be more resilient to defoliation. Our results show that crop progenitors have larger seed mass than wild species, germinate faster and have greater seedling size. Increased seed size is weakly but positively correlated with a higher growth rate, which is primarily driven by greater biomass assimilation per unit leaf area. Crop progenitors also tend to have a taller stature, greater grain yield and higher resilience to defoliation. Collectively, the data are consistent with the hypothesis that adaptations to competition and disturbance gave crop progenitors a selective advantage in the areas surrounding early human settlements and in cultivated environments, leading to their adoption as crops through processes of unconscious selection.

Category: Papers Genetic diversity
Authors: Cunniff, J. et al.
Publication Year: 2014

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