Introduction to Vegetables

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In 539 B. c. the Persians took over.

Thus there was a gradual crossing and recrossing, infiltration and transportation of peoples from west, north, and east that can be traced vaguely for thousands of years.

Peoples, animals, and doubtless plants, as well as ideas, religions, and cultures, became distributed. So it is not surprising that many species have more than one center of development and that it is not possible to say finally which center developed first.

About the time the New Stone Age man of the Near East was pushing to the eastern Mediterranean, in the third millennium B.C., he was also moving through Asia Minor, across the Dardanelles, along the coast of the Black Sea, and into the Danube Basin of Europe. His arrival appears to have coincided with the first agriculture in eastern Europe.

The plants first cultivated in Europe are Asiatic in origin, and archeological finds indicate that their culture in Europe is less ancient than in the Near East and middle Asia.

Migrations into the Aegean and middle Mediterranean, both by water and by land, further distributed a large number of Asiatic plants into southern Europe.

Early peoples of the Near East either dominated or influenced the whole of Eurasia in prehistoric times, and indirectly, therefore, the rest of the world. Recent botanical evidence of western Asiatic origin of so many of our present vegetables is accordingly in no conflict with the archeological evidence of the rise of civilizations all over the globe.

Plant Immigrants from the Orient

The Far East has given the world more cultivated plants of all kinds than has any other large area. Among these are many vegetables now grown in America, including various mustards, radishes, Chinese cabbage, soybeans, cucumbers, eggplant, and cowpeas.

The Chinese center of plant origins, chiefly in central and western China, was the most prolific, and that of middle and eastern India next. While Malaya and Indochina have contributed many economic plants, few are classed as vegetables and none is important in America.

Despite the evidence of contact between China and western Asia in prehistoric times, there is less evidence of diffusion of plants back and forth between China and middle Asia than between the Mediterranean and middle Asia. Geographic barriers have tended to keep isolated these cultural and biological areas of China, seat of one of the oldest continuous cultures now in existence.

Abundant evidence of late Stone Age man has been found in China. He lived in rude villages, hunted, fished, farmed, had domestic animals, and presumably used several of the vegetables cultivated today.

India has contributed many of the world’s cultivated plants, but of these only three are important as vegetables in America: cowpeas (black-eyed peas), eggplant, and cucumbers.

In the hazy prehistory of India there is far less evidence of numerous large migrations of peoples and cultures-and plants-than in the areas to the west. This may be one reason why the numerous vegetables and related crops originating in India are not more important outside India today. Africa has contributed only two vegetables common to us, okra and watermelons, and Australia not a single one.

New World Enriched Old’s Larder

Perhaps the least ancient, but not the least important, agricultural civilizations were developed in the New World, chiefly in mountain valleys of Central America and in the Andean and neighboring areas of South America.

These civilizations had developed so recently and had been so completely isolated from Eurasian and African cultures that they had made no evident contributions to Old World agriculture, arts, customs, thought, or racial composition before Columbus.

Very soon, however, after the voyages of Columbus and the Spanish explorers, the world was enriched by many important new food plants from the Americas, including maize, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, squash, common beans, and lima beans.

By the time of the early American explorations, Eurasian civilizations were highly developed, with means of travel and methods of disseminating ideas and goods. Thus the finding of valuable New World food plants was followed by their world-wide exploitation at an almost explosive speed. Within a couple of hundred years many American plants, previously unknown elsewhere, were becoming important foods on every continent.

Archeological and racial evidences suggest that man first reached the Americas far back in the Stone Age by slow migration from eastern Asia. He came either by way of a land bridge then connecting Asia and North America where the Bering Strait now narrowly separates Alaska from Soviet Russia, or by rafts or skin boats across that strait.

At that stage of his development man was no farmer. He subsisted by hunting, fishing, and harvesting whatever food the wild plants might offer him. It is thus improbable that this early migration involved any transport of Asiatic species of plants to America.

After untold generations this thin stream of man had trickled along the length of North America, through Central America, the Isthmus of Panama, and ultimately the full length of South America. Groups stayed behind along the way, as in Central America, and ultimately evolved distinct tribal* characteristics and cultures. Others pushed on toward somewhat different destinies.

As these American Indians in different regions-even in the two different continents-became better adjusted to the environments into which they were going, they learned to take advantage of and even to depend upon the wonderfully productive native plants that they found in their respective parts of the Americas.

Two distinct civilization centers developed, and both became main centers of origin of our present important native crop plants. One was in Central America, the other on the slopes and plateaus of what is now southern Peru, Bolivia, and northern Chile.

The Central American area was probably mainly dependent first upon beans, sweet potatoes, squash, and pumpkins, while the early Andean people grew maize, potatoes, and tomatoes. Before the white man reached the Americas, however, further diffusion of the people had rather thoroughly distributed most of the crops over those parts of all the Americas where they could be grown successfully.

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