Walnuts and the first forest farms

AramcoWorld March/April 2017

This unnamed traveler would have been among countless merchants, pilgrims, soldiers and adventurers who journeyed the long stretches of the Silk Road network that spanned thousands of kilometers from China to the Mediterranean Sea between roughly 500 bce and 1500 ce. By foot and on donkeys, horses and camels, traders carried raw materials like ivory, commodities like spices and finished goods like metalwork, supplying one of the world’s first international systems of commerce. Segments of the road they followed wound through ethnic populations: Han Chinese in Xi’an, Sogdians in Samarkand and Arabs in Baghdad, for example.

And where these trader-travelers moved, it now seems, they planted the nutritious, portable, high-calorie, long-shelf life walnut. Scientists mapping both walnut forests and languages have discovered close relationships between the two along the major Silk Road routes, evidence that the spread of walnut trees was due at least as much—or more—to humans as to nature. Their work, published in 2015 in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, is changing the way archeologists look at the first cultivation of tree crops and offering insight into the future management of them.

“The story of the relationship between human history and tree crops is only beginning to be told,” says Keith Woeste, a research geneticist with the United States Forest Service’s Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center (HTIRC) and adjunct assistant professor of forestry at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Woeste was a lead member of a team of US and European researchers that undertook genetic evaluation of walnut species at 39 sites across Asia, from near Lake Van in Turkey to Taishan Mountain in northeastern China, near the city of Tai’an.

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Walnuts and the first forest farms

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