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Analysis of plant, animal and human remains from Portus, the maritime port of Imperial Rome, has reconstructed for the first time the diets and geographic origins of its inhabitants, suggesting a shift in food resources following the Vandal sack of Rome in AD 455.

Source: Diet at the docks: Living and dying at the port of ancient Rome

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New scientist.com

By Michael Le Page

Did ancient Egyptian children compete to see who could spit seeds the furthest as they ate watermelons? It seems likely, because thanks to some DNA detective work we now know for sure that the ancient Egyptians ate domesticated watermelons with sweet, red flesh.

The wild watermelons found in parts of Africa are nothing like the domesticated varieties. They are small, round and have white flesh with a very bitter taste due to compounds called cucurbitacins. There’s long been debate about when and where they were domesticated, with some suggesting it took place in south Africa or west Africa.

However, pictures on the walls of at least three ancient Egyptian tombs depict what look like watermelons – including one that looks strikingly like modern varieties (pictured below). And in the 19th century, watermelon leaves were found placed on a mummy in a tomb dating back around 3500 years.

When botanist Susanne Renner at the University of Munich, Germany, learned about these leaves, she realised their DNA might reveal what the ancient melons were like. She also discovered that some of the leaves had been sent to the famed botanist Joseph Hooker, then head of Kew Gardens in London. “It was my love of the old literature,” she says.

We’ve been enjoying watermelons for thousands of years
age fotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Mark Nesbitt at Kew gave Renner’s team a tiny sample of one leaf. He had trouble opening the display case containing the leaves, she says, as it had not been opened since the leaves were first placed in it in 1876.

The ancient DNA was then sequenced by Renner’s colleague Guillaume Chomicki, now at the University of Oxford. The team were only able to get a partial genome sequence, but it includes two crucial genes that reveal what these melons were like. “We were so lucky,” says Renner.

One of these genes controls the production of the bitter cucurbitacins. In the 3500-year-old melon, there was a mutation that disabled this gene, meaning it had sweet flesh just like modern varieties.

The other gene codes for an enzyme that converts the red pigment lycopene – the same pigment that makes tomatoes red – into another substance. This gene was also disabled by a mutation, meaning lycopene accumulates and the fruit would have red flesh.

What the team can’t tell from the partial sequence is how large the melons were and whether they had an elongated shape or round shape. But one of the ancient Egyptian pictures shows what appears to be an elongated melon, so it seems farmers had bred watermelons with most if not all of the key features at least 3500 years ago.

The DNA also reveals that the ancient melon was closely related to a sweet watermelon with white flesh still grown in the Darfur region of Sudan. That suggests the watermelon was first grown by farmers in this region and the use of the plant then spread northwards along the Nile, with further improvements like red flesh occurring along the way.

 

Watermelons are depicted on the walls of at least three ancient Egyptian tombs
Courtesy of Renner, Perez-Escobar,Silber,Nesbitt,Preick,Hofreiter,Chomicki

 

 

Genome-wide analyses of 41 ancient sub-Saharan Africans answer questions left murky by archaeological records about the origins of the people who introduced food production — first herding and then farming — into East Africa over the past 5,000 years.

Source: Ancient DNA illuminates first herders and farmers in east Africa

Wild apples

 

 

Recent archaeological finds of ancient preserved apple seeds across Europe and West Asia combined with historical, paleontological, and recently published genetic data are presenting a fascinating new narrative for one of our most familiar fruits. The apple was originally spread by ancient megafauna and later as a process of trade along the Silk Road. When previously separated varieties came into contact, hybridization and grafting allowed for the development of the varieties that we know today.

Source: Exploring the origins of the apple

New discoveries made at the Klasies River Cave in South Africa’s southern Cape, where charred food remains from hearths were found, provide the first archaeological evidence that anatomically modern humans were roasting and eating plant starches, such as those from tubers and rhizomes, as early as 120,000 years ago.

Source: Earliest evidence of the cooking and eating of starch

 

 

MONTPELLIER, FRANCE—Science Magazine reports that a recent genetic survey shows that yams, a key crop in African agriculture, were first domesticated in the Niger River basin. A team led by France’s Institute for Research and Development plant geneticist Nora Scarcelli sequenced 167 genomes of wild and domesticated yams collected from West African countries such as Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon. They found that yams were domesticated from the forest species D. praehensilis. Researchers had believed yams may have been domesticated from a different species that thrives in Africa’s tropical savanna. Previous genetic studies have shown that African rice and the grain pearl millet were also domesticated in the Niger River basin. The finding that yams were first farmed there supports the theory that the region was an important cradle of African agriculture, much like the Fertile Crescent in the Near East. To read about recent research into ancient microbial DNA, go to “Worlds Within Us.”

 

Source: Genetic Analysis Shows Yams Domesticated in West Africa

A network of fish ponds supported a permanent human settlement in the seasonal drylands of Bolivia more than one thousand years ago, according to a new study published May 15, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Gabriela Prestes-Carneiro of Federal University of Western Para, Brazil, and colleagues.

Source: Ancient fish ponds in the Bolivian savanna supported human settlement

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