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The migrations of farmers July 12th, 2020 by

Last week I wrote about the migrations of our hunter-gatherer ancestors out of Africa. By 10,000 years ago people had colonized Eurasia, the Americas, Africa, Australia and the large islands near Southeast Asia without developing agriculture. What happens next is described in the second half of Peter Bellwood’s First Migrants.

Complementary studies by archaeologists and plant geneticists give a good picture of early agriculture in various parts of the world. Food plants such as wheat, barley, chickpeas, peas and lentils, were cultivated rather than gathered from the wild around 9,500 years ago, starting in the Fertile Crescent. People also kept cattle, sheep and goats.

Crop plants varied by region, as agriculture began to spread, depending on which food plants occurred naturally.

Center of origin Some key species domesticated
Fertile Crescent
(Middle East)
Wheat, barley, chickpeas, peas, lentils, cattle, sheep, goats
China (Yellow &
Yangtze River Basins)
Rice, broomcorn millet, foxtail millet, soy, pigs
New Guinea Highlands Taro, bananas, sugar cane
Sub-Saharan Africa
(north of the rainforest)
Pearl millet, African rice, sorghum, yams
Andes Potatoes, sweetpotatoes, other roots and tubers, llamas, alpacas
Southern Mexico Maize, beans
Eastern USA Sunflowers, other crops (now mostly lost)

Bellwood argues that ancient farmers spread their languages and their crops together, across large regions. As farming produced more food per hectare of land than hunting and gathering, populations of agrarian peoples grew, and within a few centuries began to expand into the lands of their hunter-gatherer neighbors. Over thousands of years, farming peoples colonized much of the world, before states or grand civilizations appeared. Along the way farmers absorbed at least some of the native peoples they met. When a language is spread over a large area, it can eventually break up into several different languages. Each generation makes small changes in their speech, which accumulate over the centuries, evolving into different languages.

Starting in the Fertile Crescent, speakers of Indo-European languages took their wheat, barley, peas, sheep, goats and cattle to cover most of Europe, Persia and eventually Northern India.

As many as six language families began in what is now China and spread from there to most of East Asia.   Most spectacularly, one of these language families, Austronesian, was spread by farmers who took boats from the Asian mainland to Taiwan, then to the Philippines, and on to the Bismarck Archipelago. In the islands of Southeast Asia, the Austronesians abandoned rice cultivation in favor of the fruits and roots domesticated in New Guinea. Armed with double-hulled canoes and a deep knowledge of navigation, the Austronesian speakers then went on the settle the Oceanic Islands from Polynesia in the east to Madagascar in the west, bringing bananas to Africa fifteen centuries ago.

On the other hand, some crops have spread from one neighboring group of people to the next, without the mass movement of people and languages. Maize, for one, was domesticated in southern Mexico, and spread north, into the southwestern US by 2100 BC, as the seed of this high-yielding crop was spread from one group to the next. Yet in many cases, ancient farmers did migrate across large areas, taking their native languages, and their familiar crops with them.

Further reading

Bellwood, Peter 2013 First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Merrill, W. L., Hard, R. J., Mabry, J. B., Fritz, G. J., Adams, K. R., Roney, J. R., & MacWilliams, A. C. 2009 The diffusion of maize to the southwestern United States and its impact. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.106(50), 21019-21026.

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Our African ancestors July 5th, 2020 by

Ancient humans migrated out of Africa three times. The first “Out of Africa” as archaeologist Peter Bellwood explains in First Migrants, was about 2 million years ago, long before our own species, Homo sapiens, had emerged. But one of our ancestors, Homo erectus and other, related species entered Southwest Asia from East Africa, and settled in most of tropical and temperate Eurasia. They walked completely upright, made stone tools and hunted and gathered for a living. They had small brains, just 500 to 900 cc, half the size of ours (about 1500 cc). H. erectus also lacked the imagination which inspires humans today. Homo erectus never invented boats to reach the islands and it’s not clear if they could make clothing to keep warm.  

Out of Africa 2 occurred around a million years ago. A second human species migrated from Africa, Homo heidelbergensis, which eventually evolved into the famous Neanderthals of Europe (Homo neanderthalensis). Another branch of Homo heidelbergensis stayed in Africa, where they eventually evolved into Homo sapiens

Out of Africa 3 was sometime between 200,000 and 130,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens, fully modern humans, left Eastern and Southern Africa to conquer the Earth. It was a humble start, with just a few people. Estimates vary, but there may only have been as few as 10,000 breeding adults on the whole planet.

By this time, modern humans almost certainly spoke fully expressive languages: they could no doubt argue, bend the truth, and describe their dreams. We don’t know the words they used to give flight to their thoughts, since their languages are lost in time. Long before people had started to till the earth, from 130,000 to 50,000 years ago, these hunter-gatherers had replaced the Neanderthals, with just a bit of genetic mixing in Eurasia. Humans on most continents derive some two to four percent of their genes from Neanderthals. Modern Africans are largely free of Neanderthal genes.

Homo sapiens settled all of Africa, Eurasia and Australia. Periodic ice ages with lower sea levels created land bridges to Britain, Japan, and many of the islands of Southeast Asia. These modern humans had the imagination to invent boats, and they crossed a stretch of 70 km of open sea to reach New Guinea and Australia.

Before 16,000 years ago people had mastered cold weather survival, almost certainly sewing sophisticated clothing from animal hides, using bone needles that have been found in archaeological sites. By then, some had reached the Eurasian Arctic and crossed the wide Beringia Land Bridge into Alaska. By 11,000 years ago, people were already hunting guanacos in southern South America. People had either walked down the South American coast or taken boats.

Boats were also crucial for reaching the islands of Melanesia, as far east as the Solomon Islands.

So, before humanity ever started to farm, our ancestors had reached almost every inhabitable spot on Earth, with the exception of the Eastern Pacific, which came much later. By 10,000 years ago, modern humans had migrated vast distances from Africa, settling all the continents, from the tropics to the Arctic, except for Antarctica.

By 10,000 years ago our ancestors could paint great art, carve ivory figurines, and invent tailored clothing. Their art included naturalistic representations of animals, but also dots, lines, half-circles and other abstract symbols, suggesting that they also had complex language. When their imagination got the better of their sense of caution, our ancestors would also walk or sail over the horizon.

There were only slight genetic differences between populations. In colder latitudes, where people wore fur suits most of the time, they struggled to synthesize enough vitamin D from the sun. Evolution selected for lighter skin, to help folks get their vitamins. Other than that, white skin doesn’t mean much more than the ability to get a sunburn.

From prehistory we learn that Africa was the cradle of humanity. The early modern humans were creative, thoughtful and widespread yet still relied on hunting and gathering for food and other essentials. Next week I will discuss the second half of First Migrants, which covers early agriculture and the movements of the first farmers.

Further reading

I’ve taken most of this material, especially the outline of prehistoric migrations from:

Bellwood, Peter 2013 First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

I’ve also been inspired by some recent books that document how most of humankind’s genetic differences are literally skin deep, while our common humanity goes all the way to our core.

Mukherjee, Siddhartha 2016 The Gene: An Intimate History. Penguin Books: Haryana, India.

Zimmer, Carl 2018 She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity. New York: Dutton. 656 pp.

The village hunter June 28th, 2020 by

I recently ran into our village hunter, Pol Gielen, which is always a good occasion to get to know the village history a little better, and to learn about the changing challenges of hunters and farmers alike. In our village, Erpekom, in north eastern Belgium, with only 300 odd citizens, Pol Gielen is one of the two people allowed to hunt on the village grounds. The license has been passed on from generation to generation. While hunting in Europe is a centuries-old occupation, it has not always had the same social relevance.

The first hunting laws stem from the time of William the Conqueror, the Norman King who reigned England from 1066 until his death in 1087. A decade earlier, William allied himself with Flanders, now part of Belgium, by marrying Matilda, daughter of Count Baldwin of Flanders. William was a fervent hunter who loved being in the woods, observing animals, yet he despised the common people. A peasant caught hunting could be thrown into prison or, just as likely, publicly executed. For centuries to follow, hunting became a stylized pastime of the aristocracy.

In contemporary Europe, hunting is no longer confined to the rich. While hunting licenses are to ensure that only well-trained persons are allowed to hunt, the right to hunt is also linked to the duty to care for all animals listed in the hunting laws. For various species, such as deer, wild boars, hares and pheasants, hunters and authorities have to develop plans, detailing, how many animals may or must be killed during the hunting season. Some pest species, such as pigeons, can be shot with little restriction.

In an earlier blog, Bullets and birds, I wrote how pigeons can be a real challenge for organic farmers, who do not use seed that the factories coat with chemicals to repel birds, and how local hunters can come to the rescue if need be. My recent encounter with Pol, our village hunter, showed me how changing pesticide regulations in Europe continue to influence the relationships between hunters, farmers and the environment.

In 2018, the European Commission banned three neonicotinoids (synthetic nicotinoids, toxins originally derived from tobacco). The ban covers all field crops, because these pesticides harm domesticated honey bees and wild pollinators. Neonics, as they are commonly called, are often coated onto seeds to protect them from soil pests. These pesticides are systemic, meaning they spread through the plant’s tissue. The toxin eventually reaches pollen and nectar, where it harms pollinators. According to a study by Professor Dave Goulson in the UK, most seeds and flowers marketed as “bee-friendly” at garden centres, supermarkets and DIY centres, like Aldi and Homebase, are contaminated with systemic pesticides. In fact, in his study in 2017 70% of the plants contained neonics commonly including the ones banned for use on flowering crops by the EU. Birds, bees, butterflies, bats and mammals are indiscriminately poisoned when they forage on contaminated plants.

The dramatic decline of bees and other pollinators due to the use of neonics and other pesticides is threatening the sustainability of the global food supply. Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of global food, 71 are pollinated by bees.

To further reduce the negative impact of agriculture on the environment, more restrictions have been imposed because of mounting evidence that pesticide-coated seed are also harmful to birds, including partridges, a favourite game bird for a thousand years that has now become a rarity. Apart from subsidies for installing and maintaining hedgerows around farmers’ fields to serve as food and nesting habitat for birds, the European Commission recently banned methiocarb, a toxic insecticide used as a bird repellent, often used to coat maize seed.

With the new EU regulations limiting seed coatings, conventional dairy farmers got worried that birds would damage their maize crop, and have begun looking for alternatives. That is the reason why one of our farmer neighbours decided to call upon Pol, the village hunter. It was on his way back from that farmer that I ran into Pol when he said: “Well, the farmer asked me to come and shoot pigeons, but I told him: ‘I would be happy to help you, but where do you want me to hide, you have removed all the hedges in your fields!’”

Regulations to curb the indiscriminate and dangerous use of pesticides on seed and in fields must go hand in hand with other measures, such as promoting hedgerows that fulfil important ecological functions for birds and pollinators. Also, environmentally-friendly alternatives could be further investigated and promoted. Green, innovative technologies, such as clay coating, is likely to become increasingly important. Clay is perceived by insects and birds as soil and offers a natural protection of the seeds. The clay can even be enriched with other natural additives to repel birds and insects.

Hunting has come a long way in the past 1,000 years. No longer the pastime of kings, hunting can be part of an enlightened programme to manage bird pests, without the use of chemicals, while saving the bees.

Further reading

Goulson, Dave. 2017. Pesticides in “Bee-Friendly” flowers. www.sussex.ac.uk/lifesci/goulsonlab/blog/bee-friendly-flowers. Original research describing in detail the pesticides was published in the journal Environmental Pollution, May 2017 and can be found here: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749117305158  

Malone, Katy. 2018. Beeware! ‘Bee-friendly’ garden plants can contain bee-harming chemicals. https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/beeware-bee-friendly-garden-plants-can-contain-bee-harming-chemicals/

Stokstad, Erik. 2018. European Union expands ban of three neonicotinoid pesticides. Science, April 27.

The European Green Deal: https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en

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Achojcha: An Inca vegetable June 21st, 2020 by

Ver la versión en español a continuación

The achojcha is a member of the squash family, green and crunchy and just the right size to fit in the palm of your hand. It grows vigorously as a vine and will smother a tree, if you let it.

The achojcha has an edible skin and is hollow inside, like a balloon, with striking black seeds. It needs little care. It can grow back every year from seeds that were accidently dropped the year before, sprouting with the summer rains, and bearing fruit in the autumn. With irrigation it will grow pretty much year-round.

The book Lost Crops of the Incas estimates that the achojcha was domesticated 9000 years ago. Ancient peoples loved it enough that the pre-Colombian ChimĂș people of Peru made effigy pots in honor of the little fruit.

We have grown achojcha in our garden in Cochabamba, Bolivia for years, and it’s a popular vegetable with smallholders. The achojcha is high-yielding and sometimes we have a basketful of fruit left on the vine which we can pick during the Andean winter. Even when we abandon the fruit until the end of the season, it simply wilts, and we have yet to see any diseases or insect pests on it. There is only passing reference to a virus in achojcha. I have seen mites on achojcha in the valley of Comarapa, further down the Andes, where pesticide abuse is common.

The achojcha is still a poor person’s food in Bolivia. It is not sold by that bedrock of middle-class cuisine, the supermarket, but you can buy achojcha from street venders. The achojcha does enjoy a certain following. If you search for it on the Internet you will find several recipes. Home cooks in South America sometimes stuff the achojcha with cheese, or with rice and meat, before battering it with egg and frying it. The versatile fruit can be stewed or eaten raw in salads. 

As Paul argued in last week’s blog, farmers should be encouraged to produce for the local market. While governments and donors have a responsibility to invest in generating new knowledge in support of agroecology, a transition towards more sustainable food systems will also require re-educating consumers on the importance of preparing the fruits and vegetables that fit best into the local agroecology.

Further reading

CĂĄrdenas, Manuel 1989. Manual de Plantas EconĂłmicas de Bolivia. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro.

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. National Academies Press.

.Related blog stories

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Make luffa, not plastic

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Scientific and other names

The achojcha is called caigua in the northern Andes. Its scientific name is Cyclanthera pedata.

A couple of unconvincing English names are “stuffing cucumber” and “slipper gourd.”

Acknowledgement

As always, thanks to Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for excellent comments on a previous draft. Thanks also to Eric for his stunning picture of the achojcha seeds.

LA ACHOJCHA: HORTALIZA INCA

Por Jeff Bentley, 21 de junio del 2020

La achojcha es un miembro de la familia de las calabazas, verde y crujiente y del tamaño justo para caber en la palma de tu mano. Crece vigorosamente como una parra y ahoga a un årbol, si se lo permites.

La achojcha tiene una cåscara comestible y es hueca por dentro, como un globo, con llamativas semillas negras. Necesita poco cuidado. Puede volver a nacer todos los años a partir de semillas que se cayeron accidentalmente el año anterior, brotando con las lluvias de verano, y dando frutos en el otoño. Con la irrigación crecerå año redondo.

El libro Lost Crops of the Incas estima que la achojcha fue domesticada hace 9000 años. A los antiguos les gustaba tanto que el pueblo chimĂș precolombino de PerĂș hizo ollas efigies en honor a la pequeña fruta.

Hemos cultivado achojcha en nuestro huerto en Cochabamba, Bolivia, durante años, y es una hortaliza cotizada entre los campesinos. La achojcha es rendidora y a veces nos queda una canasta llena de fruta en la parra hasta despuĂ©s de cosecharla por meses. Incluso cuando abandonamos la fruta hasta el final de la temporada, simplemente se marchita, y todavĂ­a no hemos visto ninguna enfermedad o plaga insectil en ella. SĂłlo hay una referencia pasajera a un virus en la achojcha. He visto ĂĄcaros en la achojcha en el valle de Comarapa, mĂĄs abajo en los Andes, donde el abuso de pesticidas es comĂșn.

La achojcha sigue siendo el alimento de los pobres en Bolivia. No es vendido por ese cimiento de la cocina burguesa, el supermercado, pero puedes comprar achojcha de los puestos en la calle. La achojcha tiene su pĂșblico. Si lo buscas en Internet encontrarĂĄs varias recetas. Los cocineros caseros de SudamĂ©rica a veces rellenan la achojcha con queso, o con arroz y carne, antes de rebozarlo con huevo y freĂ­rlo. Esta fruta tan versĂĄtil puede entrar a la sopa, o cruda en ensaladas. 

Como Paul argumentó en el blog de la semana pasada, se debe alentar a los agricultores a producir para el mercado local. Si bien los gobiernos y los donantes tienen la responsabilidad de invertir en generar nuevos conocimientos en apoyo de la agroecología, la transición hacia un agro mås sostenible también requiere reeducar a los consumidores sobre la importancia de preparar las frutas y verduras que se adapten a la agroecología local.

Para leer mĂĄs

CĂĄrdenas, Manuel 1989. Manual de Plantas EconĂłmicas de Bolivia. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro.

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. National Academies Press.

Otros relatos de este blog

Eating bricks

Make luffa, not plastic

Forgotten vegetables

Agradecimiento

SinĂłnimo y nombres cientĂ­ficos

La achojcha se llama caigua en el norte de los Andes. Su nombre cientĂ­fico es Cyclanthera pedata.

Como siempre, gracias a Paul Van Mele y Eric Boa por sus excelentes comentarios sobre un borrador anterior. Gracias también a Eric por su impresionante imagen de las semillas de achojcha.

Eating bricks June 14th, 2020 by

In Belgium we have an expression: “all Belgians are born with a brick in their stomach”, meaning that all citizens aspire to build their own house someday. But when bricks are literally eaten, something has gone seriously wrong.

Some 25 years ago, during one of my first projects in Sri Lanka, news came out that chilli powder was mixed with ground up bricks. Some crooks were trying to make a dishonest profit. Ground chilli and powdered bricks are of a similar colour and consistency. Few buyers taste the chilli powder when they buy it, and as chilli is typically added to sauces, never eaten straight, a cheating dealer supplying to regional or international markets for customers he would never see again at times could get away with such a scam.  

Fortunately, in Europe we have a long history of food safety standards, regulations and government institutes safeguarding the quality of the food that enters the market and ends up on our plates. But such systems are absent, dysfunctional or just getting started in many developing countries.

Yet many developing countries have an advantage when it comes to food safety: short food chains. Control measures on food safety are less important when one relies on short food chains. In Sri Lanka, for instance, I used to patronize spice gardens where urban people would stock up on black pepper, chilli or cardamom. Over the years the customers would establish a relationship based on trust with the family running the spice garden. Even in the markets, most vendors know their regular customers, and would never risk selling them a fake product. Suppliers are motivated to sell high-quality products to their valuable, steady customers.

I had forgotten about this incidence of adulterated chilli until recently. While reading the book The True History of Chocolate, I was struck by one particular paragraph on food adulteration. Cacao had spread from Latin America to Portuguese, Spanish, English and French colonies across Africa and Asia in the 19th century.

In 1828, the Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten took out a patent on a process to make powdered chocolate with a very low fat content. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and entrepreneurs in England and America established their first companies to make chocolate for the masses. For centuries, chocolate had only been known as a foamy drink, consumed mainly by the royalty, aristocracy and clergy.

Already in 1850, the British medical journal The Lancet mentioned the creation of a health commission for the analysis of foods. According to the journal suspicions about the quality of the mass-produced chocolate proved correct: in 39 out 70 samples, chocolate had been adulterated with red brick powder. Similar results were obtained from samples of chocolate seized in France. The investigations led to the establishment of the British Food and Drug Act of 1860 and the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872.

A similar trend took place in the milk industry.

In Belgium, starting in 1900, machines were deployed to scale up butter production. Just two years later, the Belgian farmers’ organisation, the Boerenbond (Farmers’ League) decided to employ food consultants to check the administration, hygiene and quality of the dairies. In 1908, the Boerenbond established a food laboratory which it deemed necessary to help curb the increase in butter adulteration.

Now, more than a century later, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed once more the vulnerability of a globalised food system with long supply chains. Slightly more than 50% of all food produced in Belgium is exported, including milk. As the demand from China dropped, this left farmers unable to sell dairy, meat and potatoes. Belgian dairy cooperatives also struggled to have sufficient packaging material, as this relied on imports of certain materials.

Such troubles are triggering people to rethink how to make our food system more sustainable. For a long time, food safety regulations were assumed to be the main pillar of a safe food system, but the pandemic has revealed that the complexity of a global food system makes it prone to breaking down, leaving producers and consumers vulnerable. Over the years, overly rigid food safety standards in Belgium have discouraged farmers from adding value to their own produce and selling it on their farm. Triggered by the crisis, the Belgian Minister for Agriculture, Denis Ducarme, has just reduced the stringency on food safety control for farm-made cheese. More will hopefully be done in the near future to encourage farmers to process and sell food on their farm. In these short food chains, farmers will be motivated to make clean, healthy products.

The food in Europe is reasonably safe and healthy, but Covid-19 has shown us how modern food systems are fragile. Burdensome regulations oppress smallholders until they are not even able to make a cheese for their neighbours. By investing in shorter food chains, we can make our food systems more resilient, and bring back the distinctive flavours of local foods.  Shorter, more adaptable food chains will build trust, while leaving the bricks to those who are building houses.

Further reading

Belgische Boerenbond. 1990. 100 Jaar Boerenbond in Beeld. 1890-1990. Dir. Eco-BB – S. Minten, Leuven, 199 pp.

Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 280 pp.

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