Plant studies show where Africa’s early farmers tamed some of the continent’s key crops

As it was domesticated, the African yam got bigger, starchier, and more regular in shape.

Wheat and other plants that feed much of the world today were likely first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. But another early cradle of agriculture lay thousands of kilometers away, around West Africa’s Niger River Basin, a flurry of plant genomic studies is showing. Several of the continent’s traditional food crops got their start there: a cereal called pearl millet and Africa’s own version of rice. Now, a report out this week in Science Advances adds yams to the list of African crops domesticated thousands of years ago in that same area. A drying climate may have spurred the move to farming, says Yves Vigouroux, a population geneticist at the French Research Institute for Development (IRD) in Montpellier who led some of the new work.

The recent findings pinpoint the wild ancestors of some of Africa’s most important crops, highlighting reservoirs of genes that could be exploited to boost the productivity and disease resistance of the domesticated varieties, he adds. Such improvements could be life savers on a continent where population is expanding, and climate change threatens crop yields. “When we study evolution of crops across time, it helps us to see varieties [that] are more resilient,” says Alemseged Beldados, an archaeobotanist at Addis Ababa University. “It will help us single out better breeds.”

Generations of archaeologists have studied plant domestication in the Middle East as well as in Asia and the Americas. “But Africa has very much lagged behind,” says Dorian Fuller, an archaeobotanist at University College London. Plant fossils and farming artifacts are less likely to be preserved in Africa’s warm, moist environments, funding is scarce, and field research often faces political and logistical challenges. Continue reading…

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