Tracing the Apple From Wild Origins to Best-Selling Fruit

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Horses eating wild apples in the Tien Shan Mountains. These domesticated horses demonstrate the process of seed dispersal that wild apple trees evolved to support millions of years ago, when large monogastric mammals such as these were prominent across Eurasia. (Artur Stroscherer)

(CN) – A recent study takes a deep dive into the history of the humble apple, yielding some remarkable information on one of the world’s most well-known fruits.

The study, published in Frontiers of Plant Science, examines data from a range of historical and archeological sources to better understand the timeline of the apple. With the data they discovered the origins of its domestication and its remarkable journey through history.

Researchers found the apple was originally spread by ancient megafauna – large animals – which made it possible for the apple to be found in temperate climates around the entire globe. They also found such dispersal allowed the fruit to more easily evolve over the last several thousands of years.

At one point, at least four distinct apple types came together to form the common apple we know today. Researchers believe this hybridization was made possible by trade activity on the Silk Road, a series of trade routes that connected Asia and Europe. As multiple types of apples were traded, they slowly merged on a genetic level and became easier to domesticate.

Robert Spengler III, study author and director of the paleoethnobotanical laboratories at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, suggests much can be learned of plant domestication by studying the history of the apple.

“I see the apple case study as a wonderful contribution to our boarder understanding of plant domestication. The results of this study demonstrate that there were very different pathways towards domestication for different plants,” Spengler said.

He also notes part of what makes this research so significant is its study of trees and not annual grasses such as wheat and rice. He suggests research on “the domestication of trees has largely been ignored. As scholars dive deeper into the narratives for these other crops, it is becoming clear just how complicated the process of evolution under cultivation is.”

Spengler hopes this research will shed some light on not just our understanding of the apple, but our overall outlook on how people impact organic life as well.

“Ultimately, the story of one of the most charismatic fruits tells us a lot about human history and the interaction of people with the organisms around them,” he says.

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