The Evolution of Agrobiodiversity: Experimental and Archaeological Approaches

Natalie G. Mueller, Postdoctoral Researcher, School of Integrative Plant Science, Cornell University


Agrobiodiversity is a priceless but threatened resource. It took over 10,000 years of evolution under human management and selection to create the many varieties of crops and crop relatives that are available today, and many of these only exist in seed banks. While extant crop diversity is impressive, there is increasing evidence that many more crops and useful variants were lost in antiquity. Moreover, our knowledge of the practices and circumstances that tend to increase agrobiodiversity is limited and there are fewer and fewer living communities where this process can be studied. I use two case studies from my current research in eastern North America and Kenya to illustrate that the archaeological record, coupled with experimental methods, has an untapped potential to reveal lost crops and practices, as well as the social conditions that create and support agrobiodiversity. These are pressing concerns in an era of ecological knowledge loss, global climate change, and population growth.