Peachy keen: ancient pits reveal origin of peach domestication

Mon Sep 8, 2014 11:43am EDT
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By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Peaches fresh from the tree or in treats like pie, jam and ice cream have been enjoyed by people for a long, long time. But, until now, it was not clear just how long it has been.

Scientists said on Monday an analysis of well-preserved ancient peach pits traces the domestication of this sweet fruit back at least 7,500 years to China's lower Yangtze River Valley in the vicinity of Shanghai.

Indeed, peaches were among the first tree fruits to be domesticated as early human societies embraced horticulture, the study indicates.

"There is a long history of peach cultivation in China," said one of the researchers, Yunfei Zheng of the Zhejiang Provincial Institute of Relics and Archaeology in Hangzhou, China, noting that China still leads the world in peach production.

The researchers compared peach pits, also called stones, from six Chinese locations, covering a period of roughly 5,000 years. An analysis of pit size from each location showed that peaches were growing steadily larger as time passed in the Yangtze valley, illustrating that people there had been domesticating this fruit.

It took perhaps 3,000 years before the domesticated peaches came to look like peaches grown now. Peach pits, almost indistinguishable from today's, date back about 4,300 to 5,300 years, the researchers said.

Gary Crawford, a University of Toronto Mississauga anthropology professor who took part in the study published in the journal PLOS ONE, said there were many reasons why the peach tree was a good candidate for domestication.

It is relatively quick maturing - producing fruit in just two to three years - as well as being responsive to breeding for size and sweetness, among other qualities.   Continued...

Attendants carry trays of peaches as they prepare for a reception marking the 61th anniversary of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in this September 30, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Jason Lee/Files