A new database of nearly 1,000 weeds peers into the past, present and future to predict the resilience of food systems amid the current climate crisis.
The 30-year collaborative project from archaeologists and ecologists looks at species of weeds growing in traditional agriculture across Europe, Asia and Africa.
The creators of the database, which is the largest of its kind, hope to use it to predict the future resilience of food systems during a time of climate change, drought and degradation of land.
The research, from the the Universities of Sheffield and Oxford, offers experts worldwide the opportunity to compare archaeobotanical data with ’traditional’ farming systems.
Their database catalogues the functional traits of weeds growing amongst arable cereal and pulse crops for all 928 species in Europe, Western Asia and North Africa.
The researchers aimed to be able to compare past and present farming systems through the weeds that grow alongside arable crops.
In doing so, scientists hope to be able to predict the future of agriculture together.
Plant ecologist Dr John Hodgson, who worked at what is now the University of Sheffield’s School of Biosciences, has been involved in the research since its inception in the 1990s.
He explained that exploring the weed database allows researchers to identify which species are vulnerable to changing conditions and which ones have the ability to adapt.
“The data gives archaeologists and plant ecologists a way to understand the past and predict the future together,” Dr Hodgson said.
“In modern-day agricultural environments, where crops are micromanaged and everything that is not wanted is removed, it can be difficult to monitor long-term changes to environments and plant species.
“So by investigating historical weed populations, instead of the crops, the data offers researchers a unique way to see what has been lost and gained over the ages.
“Analysis of the data allows us to look at what kind of plants have the ability to adapt to, or may be vulnerable to changing conditions in their habitats.
“The robust data from this years-long research offers the potential for understanding the resilience of food systems in a time of climate change, drought and degradation of land, and the exploration of a narrative for issues the world is facing today in terms of global food production.”
The database model aims to understand how low-input extensive farming and high-input intensive arable agriculture compare.
This offers a free resource for academics to understand the nature of crop cultivation at field research sites – including how much labor people were investing in agricultural practices at given times and what this may say about the sites and their inhabitants.
Glynis Jones, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, said the data has uncovered new insights about the history of agriculture and has even changed our understanding of the development of global farming.
“The aim of the project was to use relatively simple functional attributes of different plant species, that can be measured more quickly than expensive and time-consuming experiments, to give us some entirely new insights into historical sites,” Prof Jones said.
“We tend to assume agriculture started off in a non-intensive fashion and grew progressively more intensive over the ages.
“However, we have found Neolithic and Bronze Age sites that challenge this belief, small patches of land that were farmed intensively, using practices such as fertilising, watering and weeding crops like wheat or barley; places where there was a lot of human effort being put into the growing of crops.
“We also found that sites from the Iron Age and Roman period that encompassed more extensive areas were less intensively cultivated, so more crops may be grown but they would not be farmed as intensively as before as they covered larger areas.
“Whereas modern agriculture is characterised by encompassing both intensive and extensive agricultural practices.
“Our research has revealed to us the trends in arable agriculture over time and how farming practices have varied in different environments.”
The new weed database will form a key research resource for academics working in ecology and archaeobotany.
The work culminated three decades of research from current and previous academics at the University of Sheffield, leading to the creation of the new R package ‘WeedEco’ – which is open and accessible to all.
Elizabeth Stroud, from the University of Oxford, said: “The new publication for the first time makes these datasets and models accessible to anyone interested in the comparative study of past and present arable farming.
“This means that anyone from developer-funded or university-based archaeology, or from the plant science and ecology side, can engage directly with this research and conduct their own analyses.
“This work has shed new light on how a range of different societies through time produced their staple crops.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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