Revisiting the concept of the ‘Neolithic Founder Crops’ in southwest Asia

Amaia Arranz-Otaegui and Joe Roe, 2023. Revisiting the concept of the 'Neolithic Founder Crops' in southwest Asia. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany . doi:10.1007/s00334-023-00917-1


Zohary and Hopf coined the term ‘founder crops’ to refer to a specific group of eight plants, namely three cereals (einkorn, emmer and barley), four legumes (lentil, pea, bitter vetch and chickpea), and a fibre/oil crop (flax), that founded early Neolithic agriculture in southwest Asia. Zohary considered these taxa as the first cultivated and domesticated species, as well as those that agricultural communities exploited and eventually spread to Europe and other regions. As a result, these eight species soon become the hallmark of the Neolithic plant-based subsistence. However, the ‘founder crops’ concept was defined at the end of the 1980s, when the development of agriculture was considered a rapid event, and therefore, terms like domestication, agriculture and plant cultivation were used interchangeably in the literature. The aim of this paper is thus to revisit concept of the ‘Neolithic founder crops’. Through a critical review of the archaeobotanical evidence gathered in the last 40 years, we evaluate the relative contribution of the ‘eight founder crop’ species to the plant-based subsistence across different periods of the southwest Asian Neolithic. We conclude that multiple groups of ‘founder’ species could be defined depending on whether one seeks to represent the most exploited plants of the Neolithic period, the first cultivated and domesticated crops, or the species that agricultural communities cultivated and eventually spread to Europe. Improved understanding of Neolithic plant-based subsistence in general, and agriculture in particular, will be attained by moving beyond conventional narratives and exploring the evolutionary history of plants other than the original ‘founder’ species.

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