Introduction to Vegetables

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Each tribe had grown this bean "always," meaning as far back as their folk tales could tell them. Many kinds of beans were known in the Old World, but for this particular one there were no descriptions or names in Old World languages until after 1492. During the 450-odd years since Columbus’s discovery of America, our American type of bean has become spread all over the globe and has long been grown in many lands-China, for example.

The Chinese have grown such a diversity of forms of this species that China has been designated by one authority as a "secondary center of origin or distribution." Nevertheless, other available evidence points to a strictly American origin.

Other American vegetable species, too, were so quickly scattered over the earth after about 1500 and were grown so extensively that for many years their American origin was overlooked. Some-peppers, for instance-were believed to be of 0riental origin.

Former confusion over the bean, the garden pepper, and the sweet potato show how easy it has been to lose sight of the hemisphere of origin of certain plants even within recent historical times. Imagine the difficulty of tracing back the history of Old World plants to the country of their origin after they had been shuttled about over Eurasia and parts of Africa for thousands of years!

Findings of Archeologists Help

The archeologists, too, have made their contributions to plant history. Ancient carvings, records in stone, ornaments, and decorated utensils describing or depicting food plants have been found in tombs and remains of dwellings in many parts of the world.

Even seeds of very ancient varieties of vegetables have been found. We should say "remnants" of seeds, because the life had long since gone out of them when found. Fragile shapes of matter that would crumble with little more than a touch were often all that remained. The seeds could be identified, but, contrary to recurring tales, they would not grow.

Many sincere persons have been victims of one hoax or another involving seeds alleged to have been found in an Egyptian tomb or some other very ancient repository. In the best of faith, enthusiastic recipients of such seeds have planted them, and then, amazed by their growth, shouted their discovery to the world.

On one occasion seeds of a grain were found in the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy. They were planted and they grew. This appeared to be a most unusual case until it was discovered that the seeds came from incompletely threshed straw of a recent crop used in packing the mummy for shipment.

Microscope Helps Show Corn’s Ancestry

In recent years the microscope has been used successfully in technical studies in heredity in trying to ferret out obscure characteristics of different species that may be native to different, regions.

It is now possible with some plants to confirm their supposed origin with reasonable certainty by the shapes of the chromosomes, those minute structures within the cell which are the seat of the hereditary mechanism of the plant.

For example, although maize almost certainly originated in South America, our North American types have chromosomes more like those of the maize of Central America than that of Peru.

Thus it appears that our North American kinds of corn are directly descended from Central American forms, which in turn are the result of prehistoric hybridization between South American maize and a closely related wild species of Central America having the same ancestor as maize.

This remarkable piece of genealogical detective work required many years of investigation by many men and a 315 page monograph to bring the whole story together.

Much human progress had been made even before history began. Some civilizations, including sizable cities, rose, flourished, and disappeared with only circumstantial evidence today as to what happened to them.

How were the people of those cities fed? What did they eat? Where did their food plants come from? Were those plants wild or cultivated? There must have been an agriculture, since cities cannot feed themselves on wild plants and game alone.

Agriculture, the purposeful rearing of animals and the cultivation of plants, began to develop in the last part of the Stone Age, along with man’s learning how to make pottery and how to sharpen tools by grinding instead of chipping.

Agriculture did not come about all over the inhabited parts of the earth at the same time. In some parts of the world there are primitive cultures, even today, that have developed little if any beyond the Stone Age.

Man’s first efforts at agriculture doubtless were directed to those plants which produced a good yield of palatable seeds that could be stored easily for food, or which produced large, fleshy, underground parts that would persist in the soil from one season to the next and could be dug up when wanted. Many highly perishable leafy vegetables and fleshy fruit vegetables came into cultivation later.

  Eastern Mediterranean Contributed Most

Of the eight or ten main centers of origin of vegetables and other economic plants, the lands about the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea and well inland are credited with the largest number of vegetables now grown in America. Among them are asparagus, beets, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, endive, kale, lettuce, parsley, parsnips, and rhubarb.

This area, from Asia Minor to Egypt, includes the world’s most heavily traveled corridor of prehistoric migrations and also a wide range of climatic and soil conditions.

We cannot be sure that all plants apparently originating there actually did so. Many kinds may have been carried there by migrants from farther east or north.

Several vegetables of supposedly primary origin in the Mediterranean, such as cabbage, lettuce, beets, and parsley, show other centers of origin or distribution in the Near East, and vice versa. Likewise, many kinds of vegetables show centers in both the Middle East and the Near East, such as peas, Indian mustard, carrot, onion, and muskmelon; or in both the Middle East and India.

The Mediterranean center, the Near East center, including the trans-Caucasus area and Mesopotamia; and the Middle East center, including Afghanistan and adjacent areas, tend to make a large geographic unit from west of the Himalayas to the Mediterranean.

Although there were barriers to movement of prehistoric peoples within this area, those barriers were less formidable than those to the east and south. The migrating peoples certainly carried seeds with them.

Early inhabitants of Mesopotamia, the non-Semitic Sumerians, had developed an advanced civilization, with important cities and trade with other lands, even before 4000 B.C., when most of the world was far less advanced.

Where they came from we don’t know, but they doubtless brought seeds of crop plants. By about 2750 B.C. they had touched the Mediterranean.

Then Semitic peoples from the west invaded Mesopotamia, and later the Aryans from the east shoved into it, each doubtless carrying seeds of their favorite food crops.

Still later the Aramaeans, a people from the northwest, invaded the country.

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