Prehistory came with the discovery of crop plants, and it remains the most important heritage from that era. It all started with the origins of the ancient grains (specifically rice, maize, wheat, and sorghum) and pulses (lentil and sesame), domesticated in the Neolithic times. Domestication of ancient Mediterranean fruits (specifically pomegranate, olives, date, grape, sycamore fig, and fig) came during the Late Neolithic and Bronze Ages in the period between 6000 and 3000 BCE.
Domestication of fruits like banana, citrus, stone fruits (peach, almond, plum, cherry, apricot), and different pomes (pear, apple, medlar, quince) was done in East and Central Asia. It did not get to the West until much later on. Domestication for fruits and nuts like pecan, kiwi fruit, blackberry, and blueberry was done only as recently as the 19th and 20th centuries.
Some well-known fruits have not even been domesticated in the modern era, including Brazil nut, durian, lingonberry, and pitaya.
Origin, Domestication and Early Culture of Fruit Crops in the Fertile Crescent
Researchers believed that a 2nd Neolithic Revolution that happened with the Bronze Age between 6000 and 3000 BCE triggered the concept of settled agriculture. Fruit culture is believed to have commenced during the same period, which needed a long-term dedication and commitment to a specific land portion.
To illustrate, a fruit orchard of olive or date can remain in good shape for more than 100 years. One of the reasons fruit culture remained vibrant is that it creates a deep bond between human beings and the land.
Details on the ancient origins of the concept of fruit culture can be seen from the archeological remains of fruits and countless pictorial and documented proofs. The people of Egypt and Mesopotamia had entire art cultures around fruits. Many sculptures and paintings found in monuments and tombs of Egypt depicted all kinds of fruits.
Archaeologists also stumbled upon Sumerian written records dating from the 3rd millennium BCE showing how fruits were cultured at that time. There is also other scientific documentation suggesting that fruit culture, as against collection, originated between 4000 to 3000 BCE. The earliest image proof of fruit growing is a one-meter tall alabaster vessel called the Uruk vessel.
It was discovered in the Jemdet Nasr levels in Basra, Iraq, and it dates back to about 3000 BCE. The image on the lower portion of the base showed water, sesame, barley, domesticated animals, and people carrying containers of fruits as offerings to a goddess. The depiction of fruit trees like the date palm has also been seen with Egypt’s pre-dynastic drawings.
The development of the fruit culture in the Fertile Crescent region was concentrated in two main areas. These include the Nile valley culture in Egypt and the Euphrates-Tigris civilization in Mesopotamia. Later on, there were fruit species and cultivation techniques from places like India, Persia, Turkey, Greece, and China. By the classical period, fruit culture in places like Rome and Greece were already highly sophisticated.
The Rise of Horticulture
The growing of fruits is more complicated than the regular planting of herbaceous annuals like pulse crops or cereals. Tree crop culture involves a long-standing set of activities that are specific for the particular fruit species. These activities are broad. They include choosing the best and most unique clones, constant irrigation, especially in dry regions, vegetative propagation (involving grafting, cuttings, and offshoots) alongside pruning and training. Others include harvesting, pollination, storage, and processing.
Growing fruits is an activity that continues throughout the year. There has to be the creation of an orchard as a prelude to fruit production, which in itself can take years. There has been the inclusion of techniques like growth regulators, control of pests and diseases, usage of dwarfing rootstocks, biotechnology, perennial storage, and protected cultivation. Fruit growing has come a long way.
The origin of fruit growing during the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods happened only because of species selection, as seen in Egypt with the indigenous date palm. The same thing applies to pomegranate, fig, grape, olive, and the sycamore-fig in the Mesopotamian region.
Another thing that made fruit growing possible is vegetative propagation. Even though many fruit species can be sourced from the seed (except for seedless clones), it is inefficient. An overwhelming proportion of fruit species are involved in cross-pollination so they end up becoming heterozygous.
This way, open-pollinated seedlings will have a heterogeneous mix of different kinds of fruits, much of which will not be of the same quality as the chosen clone. As a result, most fruit cultivation depends on vegetative propagation of particular phenotypes (the best clones) followed by improvement via the elite clones’ recombination.
Genetic Modification and Cultural Factors in Fruit Domestication
Fruit crops have a specific set of well-known characteristics, and there are only a few exceptions to this. Sweetness or acidity (taste) is one of these in regards to fruits. People prefer fruits that taste sweet, and it is believed that the sweet taste is a trait linked with the natural selection for seed dispersal done by mammals.
Scientists later gained more understanding as genetics became more advanced. Today, plant genetics have allowed researchers to isolate the desired traits of fruits and do away with the unpleasant characteristics. With techniques like polyploidization and interspecific hybridization, scientists have been able to reproduce fruit crops.
Aggressive research into the breeding patterns of crops driven by an increase in global demand has led to more resilient fruit species. Fruit growing will undoubtedly continue as it is a significant source of nutrition to humans and animal populations. What is certain is that science will keep playing an increasingly more substantial role in this form of agriculture. From the humble domestication of fruits from the Nile Valley to today’s advanced plant labs, the growing of fruits has indeed come a long way.