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Centers of Origin


Author: __Rachel Meyer__________________________ Date: __2.4.2012______________ Act. #____2___

Activity Description/Rationale

Estimated Time of Activity: 90 minutes

Goals: Process Skills, Content Knowledge, Attitudes:

Students are going to get familiar with the general global trends in domestication, and will learn the origin of many major food crops. They will form theories about how they got started.

Students will…

...become fluent in terms of mutation, adaptation, acclimatization. this to characteristics of food (both plants and animals)

...learn classic theories on crop domestication and evolution

...learn about the homework policy, the importance of class participation, organization, and independent initiative


Meyer, DuVal, and Jensen publication on food crops, including the matrix (supplementary information)

Computers optional if students need to look up more on their crops

Pre-Activity: (15 min)

Start with an informal question. An art historian is shown a piece of pottery by an antique vendor, and the pottery looks dusty and in the style of what could be from 1000 years ago. It has an image of a Mayan symbol with and a god surrounded by what looks like a sugarcane, a tomato, a chili pepper, and a lime. The art historian is asked if perhaps these plants were used to make a ceremonial dish or were just favorites for food at the time. As the art historian, how would you respond?

Have a discussion about the origin of crops. Are there certain parts of the world where a lot of plants were domesticated? What are some well-known centers? Students propose centers. Then ask if there are any centers where no plants have been domesticated for food?


Activity Instructions: (70 min)

  1. Students receive Meyer et al. paper.
  2. Assign groups of students to to following regions of the world: China, Near Oceania (around Malaysia), India, Mediterranean, Near East, Abyssinia (around Ethiopia), Amazonia, Central America, and Eastern North America.
  3. Have students search through the matrix and list all the food plants from their assigned region.
  4. Students then look up the domestication date for each food crop and try to determine what an ancient meal would be like.
  5. Students informally present their ancient meal (they can draw it too).


Drawing with labels of ancient meal from a center of origin of crops.



Watch student presentations of their ancient meals. Assign a grade for them based on their presentation and thought invested in the assignment.

Instructor’s Notes: 

Guiding questions for the preactivity: The Mayans 1000 years ago would only have had access to plants originally from the New World. Any guesses where all the plants are from?  (Answer: Sugarcane is from SE Asia, particularly, near Papua New Guinea, and citrus (lime) is from Asia. Tomato and chili are from Central America.) So do you believe the pottery is really that old?

To answer the second question, there are centers where innovation happened and for one reason or another, domestication occurred often. Maybe people experienced climate change and so foraging wasn't enough, or maybe a technology, like a mill, allowed them to start to use a lot of grass species at once. On the other hand, maybe some cultures remained nomadic pastoralists, and so never had to domesticate anything, or even more extreme, the climate was too cold or too hot to harbor plant life.

If you want, you can take this conversation to animals too. Dogs and chickens are great examples, see wikipedia pages on their history.

Ancient meals assignments may benefit by some internet research because students may not be already familiar with the plants. They can look them up online in this way.

When students share out, please have them say all the common names of the plants in their region so others learn what characterizes each region and learn all of the plants there, not just the ones in the ancient meal.