Sunday, 16 September 2012

What's in a name?

No matter where in the world you live, chances are you've eaten "pulses" some time in the last week. These foods, otherwise known as "food legumes" or "grain legumes," have been a part of the human diet since at least 11,000 BC; they were first collected by hunter-gatherers and were then domesticated and cultivated by early farmers. Popular pulses include peas, field beans, lentils, and chickpeas; their relatives bitter vetch and grass pea were also once commonly eaten. These foods provide nutrition not only to humans, but also to livestock and even depleted soils; they can be used as feed, forage, silage, haylage, and "green manure."

(A selection of pulses. Image courtesy of GES Commodity.)

For Aleksandar Mikic, a researcher at the Serbian Institute of Field and Vegetable Crops, the story of pulses is, in many ways, also the story of modern humans. These plants were likely a vital source of nutrition to the ancestors who dispersed across Europe, bringing with them the cultures that gave rise to those we know today. One part of those cultures is language; experts believe that well over 300 different languages have emerged on the European continent, all descendents of a common ancestor known as Proto-Indo-European. Although researchers are not entirely certain where Proto-Indo-European speakers came from, it is likely that they dwelt in the Pontic-Caspian steppe from 4500 BC--after which they radiated out across the rest of the continent, taking with them both their crops and their way of speaking.

In order to try to understand the paths that migrants might have followed, as well as the preferences of different groups for particular species of pulse, Mikic performed a massive literature search investigating the etymologies of all words associated with pulse crops and leguminous plants. He targeted all languages spoken in Europe, including those in the Albanian, Armenian, Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic, Indo-Iranian, Italic, and Slavic branches. All told, he sorted through sources associated with approximately 5 dozen current languages, as well as the ancestral forms that gave birth to them. This allowed him to compile a massive list of words indicating "pea," "lentil," "field bean," and other lesser-used pulse crops.

(The Pontic-Caspian steppe. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

The different "offspring" languages of Proto-Indo-European had different numbers of root words, as well as root words with different emphases. The Indo-European language family, for example, had the greatest number of original pulse crop root words. On the other hand, Uralic languages--such as Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian--tended to borrow pulse words from their neighbors. The meanings of the roots highlight how pulses were perceived by our ancient ancestors. The Proto-Indo-European root that eventually gave rise to our modern word "bean," for instance, indicated "swollen" or "swelling," and is clearly a description of the bean pods. One Proto-Uralic root word denoting "pea" roughly translates as "hole, cavity" and "a wooden vessel," and seems to refer either to the process of plucking peas from the pod, or to the empty pod that remains once this has been done.

Overall, the prevalence of pulse-related roots throughout Europe indicates that species such as the pea, lentil, and field bean were not only well known, but also farmed, by our early ancestors. Although this had already been suggested by archaeobotanical evidence, Mikic's study provides additional support for this theory. The current work also suggests that human-pulse relationships were not the same everywhere. For example, the words for "lentil" and "field bean" in the Uralic languages tend to derive from roots meaning "pea," indicating that the pea was the initial pulse of choice among ancestral Uralic tribes. On the other hand, Caucasian languages tended to put a more even emphasis on "pea" and "field bean," with very few words uniquely indicating "lentil."

(Example of one of Mikic's etymological maps. Lens culinaris is the lentil, while Vicia faba is the field bean. The root word "*bhabh-" has one of the largest numbers of derivatives, and means "swollen" or "swelling"--clearly referring to the plant's morphology. This is the word that ultimately gave rise to our modern term, "bean." Image courtesy of PLoS ONE.)

By placing etymological information on top of geographical maps of the European continent, Mikic was able to create "routes" of linguistic evolution; these likely reflect the physical routes taken by both our early ancestors and their agricultural products. The bulk of migrants appear to have taken their languages with them, rather than arriving in their new homes and adopting native ways of speaking. In fact, natives often picked up the migrants' newly introduced phrases, and both groups of people passed these words on to their ancestors. Mikic is quick to point out that migration is only one of a number of different mechanisms driving genetic, ethnic, and linguistic development of diverse cultures; all the same, his maps provide fascinating insights into the establishment of the Europe that we know today.

While some people might consider Mikic's work to be a bit esoteric, it it actually a valuable contribution to multiple fields. Plant matter tends to degrade relatively quickly, which means that archaeobotanists have available to them only a limited number of samples for analysis. Words, however, are "remarkably well-preserved in both morphology and meaning," and can therefore help fill in the gaps left by a spotty artifact record. An improved understanding of crop evolution can help researchers who are interested in preserving rare ancestral traits and breeding variants that are likely to do well in particular climates; this genetic and evolutionary information is also valuable for those seeking to better understand biodiversity. Similarly, these sorts of studies are also interesting to those who study ancient humans, not only because these data can reveal genealogical patterns that can be useful in medical research, but also because they highlight the relatedness of diverse peoples now scattered across an entire continent. Mikic hopes that his work--which he considers only a preliminary report--will inspire collaborations among researchers from multiple fields.

Mikic, Aleksandar. 2012. Origin of the words denoting some of the most ancient Old World pulse crops and their diversity in modern European languages. PLoS ONE 7(9):e44512.

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