Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The answers are hidden in history

Kristen Gremillion
“Somewhere in human history we seemed to have switched to a need to increase yields of crops,” said Kristen Gremillion, paleoethnobotanist and professor of anthropology at The Ohio State University.

Through fieldwork and the study of museum collections, Gremillion documents just that: the domestication of plants. The work - advanced by Bruce Smith, an anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution - allows researchers to look at patterns of variation and plant origins and determine how human behavior affected what was grown. Results come from the study of archaeological materials and ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis.

“I study remnant plant parts from archaeological sites - seeds and fruits mostly,” Gremillion said in a follow-up email. “Some of these I have excavated myself; others are part of collections that have been curated since the early 20th century.” 
 
Gremillion said findings from these excavation sites often had plant remains preserved by climatic conditions.

“There’s so much material,” she said.

Sunflower remains that are involved in the aDNA aspect of Gremillion’s work are housed at the University of Michigan’s ethnobotany laboratory and from the Webb Museum of Anthropology at University of Kentucky. Materials date back 2,000-plus years ago and come from Eastern Kentucky rock shelters’ dry deposits. 

Due to a focus on growing hybrid crops and increasing yields Gremillion said some domesticated plants have gone by the wayside.

“I think one of the most important things is … there are crops that have largely been lost,” she said. “These forgotten, lost crops -- they have better nutritional profiles.”

Through studying archaeological specimens and historic records, Gremillion is also able to determine how crops are shared or transmitted between human populations. Gremillion said her work with historic records is “more interesting and informative” than studies without them, and she’s able to look at what crops were accepted or rejected by populations. Because she studies shifts of crops and agricultural technologies between Native Americans and Europeans, dating back to 1492, most of the records Gremillion studies are travelers’ accounts of native life, published papers and correspondence of botanists and expedition records.

By comparing archaeological collections and records from various areas and time periods, Gremillion said patterns of domestication come about. And while she isn’t directly involved in the aDNA work done in the lab, Gremillion is excited what that type of analysis can contribute to agriculture research.
“The new part of it … that’s the missing piece of the puzzle,” she said. “It’s really exciting. That’s the cutting edge right now.”

Gremillion will speak at our September workshop, Stressors and Drivers of Food Security: Evidence from Scientific Collections. She plans to talk about crop histories and how genomic efforts can better support crops in future environments.

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