Home Reviews Book Reviews Zohary, D., Hopf, M., and Weiss, E. 2012. Domestication of plants in the old world, 4th edition.

Zohary, D., Hopf, M., and Weiss, E. 2012. Domestication of plants in the old world, 4th edition. 

Oxford: Oxford University Press. 264 pages. 

ISBN-10: 0199549060, ISBN-13: 978-0199549061 £55.00

The subsistence strategy of any society underpins the wider cultural organisation and rhythms. Within palaeoeconomic studies a lot of energy has been focused on locating and documenting the earliest evidence for the close relationship between humans and the crop plants that have since spread around the world dominating our modern diet, producing a wealth of data. This book aims to synthesise the published records of archaeological crop plant finds from Southwest and Central Asia, Europe and North Africa, marrying these records with information gleaned from the traditional methods of morphological taxonomic plant study, as well as the newer genetic investigations of the modern and related wild plant forms, to explore their various emergence and development as part of either the original Neolithic suite of crops or later domestication events.

The first edition of this key palaeobotanical reference text came out in 1988. In each of the further editions (1993, 2000) the huge expansion in the field of study, both botanical and archaeological, has necessitated the remit of the book to become gradually more focused both geographically (for example largely excluding Southern and Eastern Asian domestication to be covered by other authors elsewhere cf. work by authors such as Dorian Fuller) and apparently also a reduction in the suite of plants covered. Instead of merely creating a larger volume, this keeps it an approachable and useable text. This 4th edition was brought out in mid 2012 after considerable anticipation (at least for those of us who put off purchasing the previous paperback which had retained its value). Following the third edition and the death of Dr. Maria Hopf, Ehud Weiss has been added as an additional author to compliment Prof. Daniel Zohary.


Structurally the move of what used to be a concluding chapter in the earlier editions (Chapter 1 Current state of the art) to instead act as an introduction is a successful modification, giving a background to the main body, instead of throwing the reader in to the dense list like text relating to the particular species. However, in places sections of the text still sound as though they are located at the end of the book. The second chapter goes on to provide a brief description of the scientific techniques used in the investigation of ancient plant remains recovered and studied archaeologically, classical taxonomy, cytogenetics, molecular biology, the identification of wild populations and the dating of the domestication evidence.


The main body is arranged in chapters covering: cereals; pulses; oil and fiber producing crops; fruit trees and nuts; vegetables and tubers; condiments; dye crops. The pattern throughout is: the species is introduced, the wild ancestry discussed, and then archaeological evidence is listed and sometimes evaluated, the greatest differences coming between those largely annual plants reproduced by seed and the more conservative vegetative propagation of clones. As information is repeated for each species or subgroup, when reading through as a whole, the text can feel repetitive. However, this is necessary for the use of the text as a reference work, allowing the reader to skip to specific sections of interest without missing key information.

At least for the grain crops, many of the new references in this now increasingly fast moving area of study postdate the 2000 edition, demonstrating the need for the updated synthesis. Information on some of the fruits and vegetable crops is sadly lacking, though of no fault of the authors; it seems the work quite simply has been left undone or eludes clarification. Yet, despite the presence of new and re-evaluated archaeological sites, absolute direct dates on material and the advances in DNA mapping the authors claim that ultimately their conclusions from previous editions largely stand.

Chapter 10 is an even more unabashed list, summarising the key representative archaeological sites used in the crop chapters. The text is reduced largely to the site name, key references, and a list of the economic species and some key weeds with an estimation of abundance for the periods of interest. Again it makes the chapter an invaluable reference laying out the data from another direction, however, it is difficult to read and absorb merely for interest and consists largely of repeated information.

The appendices, including site location maps and a comparison of the various chronological period conventions used over this large and culturally diverse area, are positioned towards the end. This helps in navigation, although my inclination would have been to include them within the introduction as these aspects had been unclear earlier. On the whole, the pictures that go with the main body of text are clear and of a good quality, showing maps of specific species distributions, key morphological traits of the crops and some of their wild progenitors. Not all species are illustrated, the most space understandably being given to the grain crops, though it appears that some species that were illustrated previously have been dropped from this edition. Pictures usually depict seeds, as the most commonly identified archaeological elements. If space had allowed, it would have been positive to illustrate more frequently the growth habits of the plants to gain a wider understanding of their handling and modifications, but space in such a comprehensive work is of course at a premium. Spread through the text, the pictures would not be suitable to show the beginner in identification or differentiation alone but many are sources of and referred to in various teaching materials from a range of universities. Generally the images feel disjointed from the text and the titles are sometimes difficult to follow at a glance, yet all the key information is there. The addition of the colour plates is a pleasantly welcome addition, but not necessary to the overall success.

This will remain a key text for all those studying the evidence and processes of early plant domestication for many years to come. Doubtless it will require further revisions as new evidence comes to light, yet overall, this edition is an indispensible overview to a forever growing field.

Danielle de Carle

University of Sheffield

Last Updated (Wednesday, 19 December 2012 15:06)