Hermaphroditic grapes, corn diseases, & the debt we owe megafauna

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach world history. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


What people ate in the Bronze Age is pretty different from what we eat today, for a variety of reasons including climate change and international trade. Potatoes are so much more nutritious than native European crops that it may have caused a population boom, and brussel sprouts tasted disgustingly bitter as early as 20 years ago. So what did plant breeding look like thousands of years before GMOs became a thing?

Fun Facts

  • The first crops were domesticated in the Levant around 9500 BCE: emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, chickpeas, and flax.
  • Yams were domesticated independently on three different continents: Asia, America, & Africa.
  • In Mesoamerica, wild teosinte was domesticated to maize (corn) by 4000 BCE. A diet of too much maize, processed incorrectly, can lead to dietary diseases.
  • Although cotton is associated with Egypt in the modern day, it was actually domesticated in Peru by 3600 BCE.
  • Panama's coconuts show evidence of the founder effect and may be proof of pre-Columbian contact between Austronesian cultures and South American cultures.

Megafauna's Loss, Our Gain

Plants that evolved traits for long-distance seed-dispersal, including rapid annual growth, a lack of toxins and large seed generations, are more likely to survive in places where humans are around, selecting for plants we prefer. But now-extinct megafauna may have been the original impetus behind the adaptations. [Read More]

Cultivation Clues

When trying to figure out when different plants got domesticated, scientists look for different traits. In cereals, they look for a tough "central stem" (rachis), which impacts dispersal. With legumes and lentils, they look for the development of bigger seeds ("pulses"). [Read More]

The Sex of Wine

Grapes in the wild generally have male and female vines. But the process of domestication selected for the relatively rare genetic trait of hermaphroditism, which makes cultivation easier because vines with both functional pistils and stamens are easier to propagate. [Read more]

Sugar and the Cane

Sugarcane and some root vegetables were domesticated in New Guinea around 7000 BCE. Sugar led to the invention of plantations, which allowed for mass cultivation and drove the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It also made tea palatable enough for the European palate, creating an early energy drink that industrialization may not have been possible without. [Read More]


Sign in or become a Eleanor's Iceberg member to join the conversation.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.

You've successfully subscribed to Eleanor's Iceberg
Great! Next, complete checkout to get full access to all premium content.
Error! Could not sign up. invalid link.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Error! Could not sign in. Please try again.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Error! Stripe checkout failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Error! Billing info update failed.