The Cultural History of Plants

The Cultural History of Plants

The Cultural History of Plants

The Cultural History of Plants


The Cultural History of Plants is the most important book published on the spread and exploitation of plants in over a century. Written by acknowledged experts in their fields, this valuable reference will be useful for both scholars and general readers. It is both botanical and cultural, describing the role of plants in social life, regional customs, the arts and natural landscapes. There are over 1000 plant entries in the form of concise histories, 200 maps, and 600 black and white illustrations. The A to Z entries cover food and flowering plants as well as those used for textiles, perfume and drugs, and include bibliographic information. Appendices include lists of protected species, plant collection sites, a glossary and a chronology of plant migration.



Living in a global economy based on agriculture, we tend to forget that wild plant foods previously played a pivotal role in the evolution of the primates, including humans. Wild resources also continue to sustain some of the few surviving hunter-gatherer societies. Over the past millions of years, since the appearance of the first humans, hunter-gatherers have occupied a vast array of different climatic zones and habitats, learning to survive by utilizing a staggering variety of flora and fauna. The means by which they exploited natural resources influenced the forms of agriculture and animal husbandry that have emerged in different locations throughout the world. This chapter surveys the role plant foods have played in human evolution and culture from the appearance of the first primates to the beginnings of cultivation.

Primate Diets

It was the spread of the flowering plants that provided the springboard for primate evolution. By 65 million years ago, toward the end of the Cretaceous period, the Angiosperms (flowering plants) had already become well established, and broad-leafed, fruit-bearing trees began to dominate the vast forests that eventually covered much of the Earth.

Fossil fruits and seeds indicate that the inland forests seem to have been dominated by species related to today's sweet-sop, Annona squamosa, and sour-sop, Annona muricata, with mangrove and swamp palms in coastal regions. Early forms of pistachio, walnuts, and mango appear to have been present. Trees such as bay, cinnamon, magnolias, and black gum trees grew alongside palms, Sequoia conifers and climbing plants such as vines and lianas.

The birds had already adapted to this change by feeding on fruit and nectar from the flowering plants. The new plants meant that a wider range of food became available, and in greater abundance. It was a mutually beneficial relationship, in which the birds ate the fruit and thereby helped to distribute seeds on their bills and feet and by defecation. Insects already played an active part in this relationship by transmitting pollen from plant to plant in their search for nectar.

The primates were able to exploit this ecology to great advantage. Their immediate ancestors were in all probability insectivores and it may well have been the presence of insects that initially led them to adapt to a life in the trees. Birds' eggs too could have provided an additional

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