“Ancient knowledge disappears when farmers stop planting certain species”

The long human history is irremediably marked by the moment when we began to cultivate agricultural products and when their diffusion became generalized. Knowing how we got there through the centuries and what we ate and grew brings us closer to the ancestors and their lives. Leonor P. Chocarro, a CSIC scientist, recounts some of her discoveries through archaeobotany.

Leonor Peña Chocarro, researcher at the CSIC’s Center for Human and Social Sciences, has just received Advanced Grant funding from the European Research Council (ERC), in the amount of 2.5 million euros over five years, for a new project on multiculturalism in the Iberian Region. This work and others he has directed help reconstruct the ways of life of past societies.

You have studied prehistoric agriculture as well as medieval and Roman agriculture, what does each of these stages bring?

I work actively on prehistoric agriculture, in particular on the beginnings of agriculture. With the new project, I will focus on much more recent eras like medieval times. These two periods offer very valuable data for understanding how agricultural practices have evolved over time, how the species that have been integrated into our agriculture have modified the diet of plants and, ultimately, culinary practices.

And to the knowledge of our societies?

These studies inform us of the close and variable relationships that have existed between human communities and the environment, of the management of plant resources and of the techniques and practices developed by human groups to overcome periods of crisis and scarcity. Past agricultures teach us about the resilience and adaptability of human societies to changing circumstances, as well as about sustainability and, of course, innovation.

agriculture, seeds, farmers, archaeology, botany, history, biodiversity, customsLeonor Pena Chocarro. / Photo courtesy of the author

Why do you mainly choose the seeds of these plants?

The study of archaeological seeds and fruits provides us with information about the use of plant resources by medieval communities, and, clearly, food is perhaps the most important use. So-called plant macro-remains — seeds, fruits or tubers — bear witness to the use of plants, not only to consume foods such as cereals, legumes, spices, oilseeds or the many wild plants that have been systematically used up to now. ‘nowadays. ; but also for ritual or craft activities: textile fibres, tinctorial plants, medicinal or poisonous plants.

How do we know what we ate from fossils?

We can approach the study of food from analyzes such as isotopic studies, but archaeobotany offers the most direct evidence of these uses, and the most detailed since from the seeds, if the conservation is good, one can identify even the specific species, allowing very detailed interpretations of the diet of plants of the past.

This work, which started with the help of the ERC Advanced Grant talks about multiculturalism in the Iberian region and agricultural consumption. What is the new thing you are going to study?

We intend to investigate the role of plants in the medieval world, with a particular focus on food, but not only. We will study the plant remains that have remained in archaeological sites, in contexts as diverse as domestic spaces, storage areas, latrines, etc. The possibility offered by the Iberian Peninsula to approach the study of the different communities that lived together in the same spaces – Christians, Arabs and Jews – is magnificent for investigating the differences between them.

What would be the most significant differences between these societies?

They refer not only to the use of certain species or specific combinations of crops in each crop, but also to the way food is prepared or the use of specific technologies, such as irrigation, to grow new plant species.

Where in the Iberian Peninsula will these surveys be carried out?

We will carry out a study of seeds, fruits and possible remains of food in at least 60 peninsular medieval sites, with a chronology between the s. VI and art. XI AD which allows us to see the plant species that are cultivated, or collected, and new additions throughout the Islamic period. This, in turn, will give us information on the management of the different production spaces: cultivated fields, orchards, forests, uncultivated spaces, etc. A significant aspect is represented by the study of the forms of storage at the time —silos, granaries, etc.— and, in particular, of the so-called granary caves linked to the Islamic world in which the preservation of plant remains is excellent. .

What technology do they use to bombard these ancient remains?

In addition to archaeobotany, we will use molecular techniques – analysis of isotopes or ancient DNA – to study questions related to the practice of irrigation or fertilization of crops (isotopes) and written texts. The team is multidisciplinary, with the participation of researchers from CSIC and various universities in the Basque Country, Lleida, Valencia, Oviedo and the Algarve.

He already has experience with ERC projects, as a previous study he funded focused on the origins of agriculture in the Mediterranean. What fruits did this journey in the past between the south of Spain and Africa bear?

In this work I was the main researcher and we studied such a fascinating subject as the origin of agriculture in the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa. It was a project that included different European and Spanish institutions and we approached the subject from different angles. We have succeeded in significantly advancing the knowledge of the beginnings of agricultural practices. We identify the species concerned, the agricultural technology used, and we place the peninsula and North Africa on the map of the countries where it is possible to approach this subject.

He also co-directed a macro-project on agriculture and innovation. What was it like participating in this work?

It was a very interesting project, in which I was co-director with a researcher from the French CNRS. We bring together here a very large group of European researchers and we approach the study of pre-industrial agriculture according to three axes: crops, techniques and agricultural landscapes from prehistory to the present day, based on case studies. It was very interesting because it allowed us to closely explore the permanence of very archaic agricultural systems, techniques and practices until the s. XX, both in Europe and on other continents.

Coming back to the present, how important is it to recover agricultural species that are on the verge of extinction?

I have worked a lot on the documentation of very old agricultural species which are still cultivated in a very minority way in our fields. Getting to know firsthand, from the actual farmers who maintained them, their stories, their management methods, their use, and all the knowledge associated with them, was a real privilege. This ancient knowledge, which inevitably disappears when farmers stop planting certain species because their use no longer makes sense in their economy, constitutes an immeasurable source of knowledge on the species themselves, on their adaptation to certain territories or ecosystems. , or their resistance to pests among others. . They are also a genetic resource of interest for more sustainable agriculture.

And those who have already disappeared?

In many cases, these species are kept in germplasm banks, but ancient knowledge is less protected.

How do you assess that in the Spanish ERCs the majority of the people leading these projects are women?

I think it’s a great result. In the case of the CSIC, the four successful researchers are women. I think it’s good news to see how our participation has gradually increased, as well as the success rate of projects led by scientists. A success worth celebrating!

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