Origin of Food: The Journeys that Crops have Taken Around the Earth

Did you know that the brinjal first grew in India? | By Daniel Stone  
Crops Frutis
Fruits and vegetables have taken fascinating journeys to end up as the food we recognize on our plates today. Art: Emily M. Eng, NGM Staff.

Today’s fruits and vegetables are the result of millennia of trial and error in cultivation and selection. Early wild varieties of the world’s top crops evolved in geographic isolation, then spread via wind or floods or in the droppings of animals. Over time humans developed specific preferences, saved seeds, and experimented with growing conditions for desired foods. Geneticists call that process domestication. Farmers call it agriculture.

Most modern food crops don’t resemble their more primitive, less refined ancestors. Early strawberries weren’t as big and sweet as current varieties. Supermarket apples, which are clones, would be difficult to produce without grafting.

Finding a food’s origin is the work of sleuthing scientists. Using genomes and cultural records, they can trace a crop’s meanderings. “The evolution of a plant usually shifted once humans touched it,” says Paul Gepts, a University of California, Davis, plant scientist who studies the origin and evolution of beans and other crops. Using what they know of a food’s history, scientists can make what’s served on tomorrow’s plates even better.


The fruit originated in Mexico and Central America. Today three types grow, each in different conditions.


This plant is one of North America’s few native crops, its seeds often harvested for oil.


Wild grapes were domesticated only once, in the South Caucasus. Cultivars traveled around the world.


Originally from Central Asia, the fruit is thought to have first spread along the Silk Road.

Citrus Fruit

Today’s oranges and tangerines evolved from primitive mandarins and pomelos in East Asia.


The modern berry is a hybrid of two varieties, one from each of the Americas.


The fruit originated in the Amazon. European explorers are thought to have carried samples east.


Ethiopia grew the crop first. It traveled to Asia, Europe, then South America—where most is now grown.


Two varieties were domesticated in India and southern China. One spread east, the other west.


New Guinea had the first bananas. The primary modern variety is a clone from Southeast Asia.

Source: Paul Gepts

Appeared in the August 2015 issue of National Geographic Magazine as “Where Crops Grew First”.



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