Nav: Home

Barley heads east

July 18, 2018

The emergence of agriculture is one of the most important transitions in the development of human societies, as it allowed the establishment of settled communities, specialization of labour and technological innovation.

One centre of agricultural origins is the Near East, where barley was domesticated around 10,500 years ago, along with wheat and a number of other crops. Archaeological evidence shows that barley cultivation spread to its ecological limits in Europe, North Africa, and Central, South and East Asia, over a period of approximately 6,000 years.

New results published in PLOS ONE today show that different types of barley, suited to different end uses, ecological conditions and cropping regimes, spread via a variety of routes across Eurasia. In many cases, these routes of spread are backed up by archaeological and archaeobotanical evidence.

According to lead author Dr Diane Lister, researcher at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, "These results are based on the genetic analysis of living crops - traditional farmers' varieties known as 'landraces'."

"These landraces were mostly collected during the early 20th century and are maintained in what are known as 'germplasm' collections around the world, with many landraces having precise geographical coordinates recorded. Numerous studies have shown that, remarkably, landraces can preserve an ancient and local genetic signature of the initial spread of farming during prehistory, and this is beautifully illustrated in this current study."

The results indicate that the different eastward routes of spread of each barley population were distinct from each other in a number of ways, reflecting human choice of particular attributes or the effect of environmental adaptation. These different routes include ones to the north and south of the Iranian Plateau; through the Inner Asian Mountain Corridor in Central Asia, possibly connecting up to the Chinese section of the Silk Road; a high altitude spread on the southern edge of the Tibetan Plateau; a high latitude spread through the northern steppe; two distinct spreads into Japan; and a maritime route from South Asia. Previous research has provided increasing numbers of direct radiocarbon dates enabling the different routes to be dated.

Lister describes further, "One barley population is widespread, particularly around the coastlines. This population may have travelled eastwards via a maritime route from South Asia, via Southeast Asia. This particular population is made up of winter-sown varieties of barley, which are thought to be important in rice-growing areas of East Asia, where a crop of rice is commonly grown in the summer months, and barley adapted to winter-sowing regimes can be planted after the rice harvest. The development of multi-cropping practices during prehistory is thought to have greatly increased productivity and stability, enabling more complex societies to develop."

"Another barley population predominates on the high Tibetan Plateau. This barley has a naked grain, making it a particularly attractive staple, as it doesn't require the pearling process that hulled barley requires for human consumption. Along with the herding of yak, this naked type of barley is an essential for the Tibetan way of life, and their importance are clearly seen in the offerings of naked barley grains and yak butter in Tibetan Buddhist temples around the region. The staple carbohydrate eaten by the Tibetans is tsampa, made from roasted naked barley flour and mixed with salty Tibetan butter tea."

Previous research carried out through the Food Globalization in Prehistory project at the University of Cambridge showed that barley cultivation appeared in the Chinese Tibetan Plateau 4,000 years ago, and is thought to have been of essential importance in colonizing the 'roof of the world'. Some scholars have questioned whether this barley was a product of a local domestication of a wild ancestor separate from those in the Near East. This current study also looked at the genetic relationship between landrace barley, it's wild progenitor, and weedy varieties. The results show that is unlikely that barley was domesticated in this region, and that 'wild' barleys on the plateau are probably weedy derivatives of cultivated barley.

What does this mean for today? Lister concludes, "Barley is an extremely hardy crop, able to grow in regions where other crops are unable to grow, and is an important staple in such environments. Understanding the spread of its cultivation during prehistory, and the various factors that affected its establishment in different regions of Eurasia, will contribute towards our understanding of climate change and its current and future effects on agriculture."
-end-


University of Cambridge

Related Tibetan Plateau Articles:

Six million-year-old bird skeleton points to arid past of Tibetan plateau
Researchers from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have found a new species of sandgrouse in six to nine million-year-old rocks in Gansu Province in western China.
Huge bacteria-eating viruses found in DNA from gut of pregnant women and Tibetan hot spring
University of Melbourne and the University of California, Berkeley, scientists have discovered hundreds of unusually large, bacteria-killing viruses with capabilities normally associated with living organisms.
The growing Tibetan Plateau shaped the modern biodiversity
The growing Tibetan Plateau since the Cenozoic has shifted the life's history by changing the regional geography and global climate; however, little is known about the details of the process.
The reasons behind aerosol pollution over the eastern slope of the Tibetan Plateau
The aerosol optical depth over the eastern slope of the Tibetan Plateau (ESTP) is extremely large -- and even more so than some important industrialized regions and deserts, which is the result of a combination of human activities and natural conditions.
Millet farmers adopted barley agriculture and permanently settled the Tibetan Plateau
The permanent human occupation on the Tibetan Plateau was facilitated by the introduction of cold-tolerant barley around 3600 years before present, however, how barley agriculture spread onto the Tibetan Plateau remains unknown.
Feeling heat on the roof of the world
The Tibetan Plateau, also known as the 'roof of the world,' is getting hotter.
Continent drift and plateau uplift drive evolutions of Asia-Africa-Australia monsoon and arid regions
Monsoon and arid regions in the Asia-Africa-Australia realm occupy more than 60% of the total area of these continents.
Tibetan plateau first occupied by middle Pleistocene Denisovans
A joint research team led by CHEN Fahu from the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and ZHANG Dongju from the Lanzhou University reported their studies on a human mandible found in Xiahe, on the Northeastern Tibetan Plateau.
First hominins on the Tibetan Plateau were Denisovans
So far Denisovans were only known from a small collection of fossil fragments from Denisova Cave in Siberia.
Simulating clouds over the Tibetan Plateau to improve weather forecasts
Australia's Bureau of Meteorology and the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences have carried out studies on the spatial and temporal distribution and simulation of cloud over the Tibetan region.
More Tibetan Plateau News and Tibetan Plateau Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.