Rescuing seed’s heritage: looking for words to open the black box  

by | Oct 2, 2023 | Blog | 0 comments

There is a paradox between the centrality of cultivated seeds to guarantee human resilience and the scant historical knowledge available on these seeds. Since the Neolithic, domesticated seeds have been part of the daily life of diverse social groups in different geographies, becoming food, clothing, merchandise, housing, heating, ritual, or leisure. Thus, we believe that, historically, cultivated seeds have been essential for human survival.

However, the known historical traces of cultivated seeds are scarce and often indirect. The existing data allows us to understand general trends but can rarely provide the specific answers we need. What data can prove the importance of cultivated seeds at any given time and place? Which crops were the most important? There were forgotten crops? How did climate change affect what was grown in the past? Which seeds accompanied the movement of people and adapted to new geographies?

For scientists from different disciplines, one current challenge is identifying the seeds grown and consumed at any given time in specific places. This data is needed to analyse various current problems, such as assessing the long-term dynamics of agro-biodiversity, understanding the foundations of regional economic inequalities, tracing the local food heritages, or considering whether old seeds can be cultivated again.

Figure 1. A source mentioning wheat/trigo anafil, Herdade de Montinho, Sousel (South Portugal), 1595.

The ReSEED Project’s challenges

The work carried out since November 2018 by the interdisciplinary team of the ReSEED project is part of this search for new information. We have been looking for data that can both support plausible explanations of our shared past and contribute to the solutions we need today. The research has been focused on the Iberian Peninsula, one of the few regions on the globe that has historically demonstrated natural and human conditions to successfully cultivate a large number of different plant species from other continents. From the 15th century onwards, the Portuguese and Spanish have been protagonists in connecting the world. In a combination of surprise and ignorance, they brought back new seeds from other continents to cultivate in the European lands they knew so well. These experiments carried out by several generations of anonymous farmers, gardeners, and other curious people led to the construction of landscapes, agricultural systems, and food practices that we still appreciate.

To rescue the heritage of cultivated seeds, the ReSEED project team was focused on the legacy of written and oral words. The scarcity of the evidence has required cross-referencing sources with diverse origins. The research has explored handwritten or printed documents produced since the 15th century and the living memories of those who produced food: books written by various plant experts (pharmacy, cookery, botany, agriculture); handwritten records of the day-to-day activities of people and institutions (accounts and shopping lists from monasteries or hospitals, letters from families or scientists, etc.); dozens of interviews, carried out mainly in northern areas of Portugal and Spain, describing experiences and knowledge related to landraces and local foods.

Thus, the methodology adopted explored the spoken and written words, the words of the past and the words of today, the vernacular words, and the words of science. We were looking for mutual clarification of meanings, practices, and genes. The team realised that exploring each word is the key to opening the black box of landraces that have been feeding us for centuries.

Figure 2. An old farmer and his daughter, also a part-time farmer, in a small village in Bragança (North of Portugal), talking about wheat and rye production since mid-twentieth century. Fieldwork, April, 2022.

The mysteries of the vernacular names

Every crop we find in the garden or supermarket has a scientific name fixed since the end of the 18th century. For example, today, experts everywhere know the meaning of Zea mays L. However, local names for this crop are historically very numerous and diverse. In Portugal, it can appear in historical sources under the names of milho grosso, milho de maçaroca, milho zaburro or milhão. But, we still don’t know to what extent who made the records isn’t confusing the name of this new seed, first brought from the Americas by Colombus in 1493, with milho miúdo, milho painço or milho alvo given to different species, such as sorghum or millet, already cultivated for centuries in several Iberian regions. In Spain, the adoption of the vernacular name ‘maíz’ turns the trajectory of Zea mays L. easier to follow, at least in the areas where this word, coming from the original Aztec name of the crop, was adopted.

So, identifying the cultivated seeds requires the consideration of these local changing uses and meanings of each word. A rich history of vernacular or popular names, still used or already forgotten, which are worth knowing. The technical skills of the team members were essential in this search. Reading handwritten documents produced before the 19th century requires of palaeography training in recognising the moving alphabet styles.

Figure 3. Épi a grains de diverses variétés by Ang.ª Bottione -Rossi illustrator – 1836 – Royal Botanic Garden of Madrid, Spain – CC BY-NC-SA.

However, using words as keys to opening black boxes is more than just transcribing strange handwriting. It requires identifying the specific roots of each word. It is necessary to both return to the original language and trace cultural and geographic trajectories. That means entering “a world we’ve lost” with very different ethical values, and social practices. For these journeys crossing time and space, it is critical to have also a broad background, which for the members of the ReSEED team included their mother tongues and the others they were learning: a babel of words of Romanic origin that were called upon to interpret the written and spoken seeds words.

Several authors have noted, especially since the 19th century, that many of the difficulties in tracing the dissemination routes of the cultivated seeds are related to the vernacular names they have received. A jumble of transitory and changing names with subtle local meanings, which many experts considered useless. In fact, it can be difficult to make a connection between the seed as a biological entity and the local words that identify it historically. By collaborating with other sciences (archaeobotany, genetics, archaeology, agronomy, etc.) we realise that this situation can improve in the future with new research results.

Anyway, the research carried out as part of the ReSEED project has shown that vernacular names are a crucial key to rescuing the heritage of seeds and foods that are part of our common past. In many cases, they may even be the only key we still have.

Dulce Freire


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