On sorghums and cultures

by Luigi Guarino on September 20, 2014

Our friend Dr Ola Westengen just sent us this post on a paper that he’s just had published. Keep it up, Ola, and thanks.

In a new study published in PNAS this week we stand on the shoulders of Jack R. Harlan et al. and take a molecular approach to test some interesting hypotheses on the factors shaping diversity in sorghum. In the book Origins of African Plant Domestication, from 1976, Harlan and Stemler summarized findings from their Crop Evolution Laboratory at Illinois University and proposed that the five basic “races” of sorghum identified were associated with language distribution in Africa: “Guinea is a sorghum of the Niger-Congo family, kafir a Bantu sorghum. Durra follows the Afro-Asian family fairly closely, and caudatum seems to be associated with the Chari-Nile family of languages” (p. 476). This kind of crop-language co-distribution would be in support of the contested farming-language co-dispersal hypothesis (by Diamond and Bellwood). Genetic studies have hitherto not directly explored the molecular support for this sorghum-language co-distribution hypothesis — maybe because such studies have found “little correspondence between races and marker-based groups” (Billot et al.).

We let go of the race concept and based on molecular markers we modelled the population structure in a panel of 200 ICRISAT accessions with a broad geographic origin. We identified a pattern that is in strong support of the notion that sorghum diversity and ethnolinguistic groups are associated in Africa. We identified three major sorghum populations: a Central population co-distributed with the Nilo-Saharan language family; a Southern population co-distributed with the Bantu languages; and a Northern population distributed across northern Niger-Congo and Afro-Asiatic language family areas.

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A case study of the seed system of the Pari people, a group descending from the proposed first Nilo-Saharan sorghum cultivators, living in today’s South Sudan, provides a window into the social and cultural factors involved in generating and maintaining the pattern seen at the continental scale. We show that the age-grade system, a cultural institution important for the expansive success of this group in the past, governs the traditional sorghum seed system in a way that maintains the Pari sorghum landraces as a metapopulation. Thus, we can make Harlan and Stemler’s words as ours: “It has been our observation that the races of sorghum are intimately associated with the cultivators who grow them.”

So Harlan et al. are our main references, but how did we start thinking along these ethnolinguistic lines in the first place? Well, like many others in the community we regularly read this excellent blog.


Baobab booze, anyone?

by Luigi Guarino on September 19, 2014

Sure, making tasty tipples from local, neglected crops is nice, but has anyone tried with baobab?

photo (27)

Maybe a factsheet would help?


Sure, vodka is nice, but why not use your indigenous culture’s recipe for hard liquor?


Image borrowed from here.


A modest suggestion for tef value addition

18 September 2014

Sure, tef is nice, but can you do this with it? Was going to say 'Only in America…' but then I saw on back is made in France. Quoi?? #NewAgeBooze pic.twitter.com/g0SK2jXPT3 — Nigella Lawson (@Nigella_Lawson) September 14, 2014

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Move over quinoa, it’s tef time.

17 September 2014

Not much to look at, but if you squint hard you can read the label: teff.1 The Food Programme from BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme to this ancient Ethiopian grain, new darling of “the health-conscious Western world”. And if quinoa had you worried about the impact you might have on poor farmers who […]

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Brainfood: Space peppers, Stunting stunting, Wild passion infusions, Welcoming millet, Georgia pears, Portuguese beef, Adaptation in Niger, Olives in Sicily & Jordan, Vigna diversity

15 September 2014

Isolation and detection of differential genes in hot pepper (Capsicum annuum L.) after space flight using AFLP markers. Space flight resulted in some new traits. Addressing chronic malnutrition through multi-sectoral, sustainable approaches: a review of the causes and consequences. Many causes, many consequences, many things that could be done. Too complicated? Here’s a ray of […]

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Brainfood: Tea cores, Amazonian domestication, Sicilian remedies, Odisha wild veggies, Insect biomass, Energy crops, Adoption, Field size, Rye diversity, Crab breeding

8 September 2014

Worldwide core collections of tea (Camellia sinensis) based on SSR markers. From 788 to 192 doesn’t seem like a great deal. Crop Domestication in the Amazon. The first arrivals were not just hunter-gatherers. Plant genetic resources and traditional knowledge on medicinal use of wild shrub and herbaceous plant species in the Etna Regional Park (Eastern […]

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A honey of a marketing opportunity

7 September 2014

We visited Mida Creek in Watamu on the Kenya Coast last week. It’s a tidal inlet which boasts 8 of the 9 species of mangrove found in the western Indian Ocean, plus lots of birdlife. The Mida Creek Conservation Community is a local community umbrella group consisting of 11 sub-groups, all of whom are engaged […]

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Unusual nyama to choma

7 September 2014

Kenyans do love their nyama choma, and it’s usually goat meat that’s involved. Usually, but not always. There’s also the somewhat offbeat on offer on occasion. And the downright unusual.

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