Ancient crops for a sustainable future

The properties of pulses have been known for centuries. In his Rerum Rusticarum (37 BC), the ancient Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro recommended to plant legumes in poor soils as they do not require many nutrients. According to Varro, these crops offered not only immediate returns in the form of grains, but they also enriched soils for subsequent crops. 

Pulses, however, are far older than the Roman Empire. These crops are inextricably linked to the first civilizations which developed in the Fertile Crescent during the Neolithic age as well as to the origins of agriculture.

Thanks to a temperature increase during that era, as well as to the region’s abundant water and other natural resources, groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers learned how to grow crops and how to domesticate animals, becoming the first settled farmers in history. Agriculture had started.

From then on, farmers continued to cultivate some of the most important crops, including pulses and cereals, and to raise livestock such as sheep, goats and cows. Among the first major pulse crops grown, are faba beans, chickpeas, peas and lentils. Although beans and cowpeas were also domesticated in ancient times, they in turn were grown in Latin America and Africa.

As a staple food, pulses played a crucial role in ancient diets. Compared to other crops, they were easy to store thanks to their long shelf life– refrigeration did not exist! - and proved to be a key ally against famines.

Pulses, as we know them today, evolved from their ancestors through farmers’ genetic selection. This is confirmed by the fact that domesticated pulses present features which cannot be found in wild varieties: thinner peel; increased seed size; lack of dissemination (i.e. pod shattering) and seed dormancy mechanisms (i.e. germination inhibition); determinate growth habit (i.e. seeds germinate all together).

Let’s take a walk through the history of the major pulse crops.

Faba beans (Vicia Faba)

Faba beans are among the world’s most ancient crops. During the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron ages, they played an important role in spreading agriculture throughout Eurasia and North Africa, along with other pulses and cereals. They can be found in numerous archaeological deposits.

Peas (Pisum sativum

Peas also belong to one of the oldest domesticated crops. Archaeological evidence dates its existence back to 10 000 BC to the Near East and Central Asia. During the Stone and Bronze ages they spread to Europe and the Mediterranean and then to India in 200 BC.

Chickpeas (Cicer arietinum) 

Chickpeas originated in an area located between the southeast of Turkey and the western part of the Fertile Crescent. They were domesticated around 7 000 BC. This is the reason why chickpeas are culturally bound to the Middle East and Asia, and why they are a basic constituent of Asian diets.

Lentils (Lens culinaris)

Lentils were also domesticated in the Fertile Crescent – in what today is Iraq. As far back as 8 500-6 000 BC, archaeological evidence confirms the existence of lentils. Just like chickpeas, lentils are a basic constituent of Asian diets.

Cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata)

Cowpeas, as we know them today, originated in Sub Saharan Africa but the origin of wild varieties has been traced to southern Africa. Although today cowpeas are cultivated throughout the world, they are still an important component of traditional intercropping systems in the dry savannahs of Sub-Saharan Africa due to their high shade tolerance. Ever since their domestication, they have been culturally bound to this region.

Common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris)

The genus Phaseolus originated approximately 7 million years ago. Wild forms of common beans can be found from northwestern Argentina to northern Mexico. Among the main food crops, common beans show the greatest rate of variation. They were a basic constituent of various Native American groups’ diets and are currently one of the most important crops in the Americas.

Lupine (Lupinus)

Lupinus is regarded as one of the most diverse genus in the legumes family. It is crucial for its very high protein content – up to 45%- and for its versatility, ranging from human nutrition to forage. The two main varieties domesticated by ancient civilizations are part of two geographically isolated groups: White Lupine, (Lupinus albus) of the Old World group and Andean Lupine (Lupinus mutabilis) of the New World group.

As it emerged from this brief historical overview, pulses have been one of the key drivers of civilization. Life as we know it today would not have been possible without these small but powerful allies.

But the role of pulses is far from over. They not only contribute to food security and good health, due to their high nutritious value, but they also increase biodiversity and provide an important contribution to climate change adaptation and mitigation. Even though they have been around for centuries, pulse crops will play a fundamental role in our sustainable future.

References: A. M. De Ron (ed.), Grain Legumes, Handbook of Plant Breeding 10, Springer Science+Business Media, New York 2015