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Why do we eat wheat? Co-evolution of people and plants in the Fertile Crescent

Project Description

Scientific importance:

60% of human calories come from wheat, rice and maize. These crops were domesticated 10,000 years ago during the Neolithic, and we have subsequently adopted very few new food plants. Ancient interactions between people and plants, therefore, played a pivotal role in influencing today’s diets.

Understanding how and why these particular plants were domesticated is also one of the biggest questions in archaeology. Theories about the origins of agriculture are based upon archaeological evidence of the plants exploited 10,000 years ago.

This project will enable new interpretations of the archaeological data by providing ecological evidence about the harvestable properties and habitat associations of each plant species.

Project outline:

This PhD project will evaluate the idea that the transition to agricultural subsistence was a co-evolutionary process involving interactions between people and plants. Ever since Darwin’s work on the topic, domestication has been studied as an important example of evolution, with questions surrounding the importance of deliberate breeding compared with the unconscious selection of domestication traits by people, and the action of natural selection under cultivation.

The student will use a quantitative ecological approach to critically evaluate two hypotheses about how Neolithic people selected plants to gather and cultivate:

H1) crop progenitors represent a more valuable resource than other wild species because they form higher yielding stands and produce larger harvestable units;

H2) crop progenitors and weed species are better adapted than other wild species to the fertile, disturbed conditions surrounding human habitation, and respond better to management via manuring, irrigation and weeding.

The student will test these hypotheses in the Fertile Crescent of Jordan via botanical surveys in the field, simple manipulations of marked field plots, and the use of herbarium specimens to measure plant traits and collect habitat descriptions. The work will involve collaboration with colleagues from Jordan and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Who are we looking for?

This interdisciplinary project will suit a motivated and enthusiastic student with interests in ecology, agriculture and human history. The work will involve significant field component working with collaborators in Jordan and periods of work in the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Group website:

Funding Notes

Fully funded studentships cover: (i) a stipend at the UKRI rate (at least £14,777 per annum for 2019-2020), (ii) research costs, and (iii) tuition fees. Studentship(s) are available to UK and EU students who meet the UK residency requirements.
This PhD project is part of the NERC funded Doctoral Training Partnership “ACCE” (Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment View Website. ACCE is a partnership between the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool, York, CEH, and NHM.
Shortlisted applicants will be invited for an interview to take place at the University of Sheffield the w/c 11th February 2019.


Milla, R., Bastida, J.M., Turcotte, M.M., Jones, G., Violle, C., Osborne, C.P. et al. (2018). Phylogenetic patterns and phenotypic profiles of the species of plants and mammals farmed for food. Nature Ecology and Evolution, 2, 1808-1817.

Cunniff, J., Jones, G., Charles, M., Osborne, C.P. (2017) Yield responses of wild C3 and C4 crop progenitors to sub-ambient CO2: a test for the role of CO2 limitation in the origin of agriculture. Global Change Biology, 23, 380-393.

Preece, C., Livarda, A., Wallace, M.P., Charles, M., Christin, P.-A., Jones, G., Rees, M., Osborne, C.P. (2015) Were Fertile Crescent crop progenitors higher yielding than other wild species that were never domesticated? New Phytologist, 207, 905-913.

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