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Title: Hidden histories and ancient mysteries of witches, plants and fungi

item Dugan, Frank

Submitted to: American Phytopathological Society
Publication Type: Monograph
Publication Acceptance Date: 4/13/2014
Publication Date: 1/1/2015
Citation: Dugan, F.M. 2015. Hidden histories and ancient mysteries of witches, plants and fungi. American Phytopathological Society. 180 pp.

Interpretive Summary: Plant diseases have had a greater impact on the development of early agriculture than previously thought. Although it has been known for decades that stem rust of wheat and barley, and ergot on rye, had horrible consequences for early European agriculture, it has recently been shown that similar conclusions are warranted for stripe rust of wheat and barley, and for scald diseases of barley and rye. These diseases collectively made times of cereal scarcity and even famine more prevalent. In such times, people turned to legumes, especially vetches (even those used for fodder) as an alternative source of food, and to wild plants. Legumes were not part of the cultural package of Indo-European peoples of the Russian steppes, whose migrations into Europe were the source of most modern European languages and many cultural traits. Recent studies in paleoclimatogy have demonstrated that climate change rendered their steppes too dry for consistent legume cultivation. Proto-Indo-European (ancestor of most modern European languages) largely lacks words for legumes. But legumes were cultivated in the Balkans, and Pre-Greek (contributing words to ancient Greek) has several words for legumes. From the Balkans and the Mediterranean, legumes spread to the rest of Europe. The European peasantry, forced to wild plants in times of cereal scarcity resulting in large measure from the above diseases, acquired ethnobotanical expertise later transferred to early herbalists, botanists and physicians.

Technical Abstract: Convergent findings from archaeobotany, molecular genetics, paleoclimatology and comparative linguistics mandate revisions to agricultural history. Recent research has demonstated that stripe rust (agent: Puccinia striiformis) and scald (species in Rhynchosporium) moved into western and northern Europe subsequent to arrival of their hosts (barberry for stripe and stem rust; barley and rye for scald). Barberry is an alternate host for both stripe rust and, as has long been known, stem rust (Puccinia graminis). Barberry was a medieval import enabling rusts to expand radically on wheat and barley. Scald jumped to barley and rye from wild grasses in Scandinavia sometime subsequent to the spread of agriculture to that region. These events, and the previous spread of rye with its disease, ergot (containing mycotoxins), had dramatic and negative effects on agriculture and human health. Cereals became more frequently scarce or infested with toxins. In these times, people turned to legumes, especially vetches (which were drought- and disease-resistant), as alternative food. Although Indo-Europeans of the Russian steppes peopled western and northern Europe, thereby spreading Indo-European language and culture, legumes were not part of that cultural package because climatic change rendered the steppes unsuitable for legume cultivation. Words for legumes are rare to lacking in Proto-Indo-European but common in Pre-Greek, the latter reflecting cultivation practices in the Balkans. Legumes reached western and northern Europe via Mediterranean and Balkan sources. Resort to wild plants and fungi during times of scarcity of cereals created the ethnobotanical expertise of the European peasantry, knowledge later mined by herbalists, botanists and physicians.