World’s Largest Weed Database Permits Scientists to Study Global Agriculture’s History and Future


A new weed database that can help scientists understand how ancient agricultural systems were handled throughout history might shed light on how global events such as the climate crisis may impact the resilience of our present food systems.

The database is the conclusion of 30 years of joint study between archaeologists and ecologists at the Universities of Sheffield and Oxford. It catalogs almost 1,000 weed species that flourish in traditional agricultural systems throughout Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa. The findings have been reported in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany.

The open-access database, built and distributed by academics continuing the study project through the Oxford University Study Archive, allows scholars worldwide to compare archaeobotanical data to ‘traditional’ agricultural practices.

The database records the functional features of all 928 weed species that thrive in arable cereal and pulse crops. The goal of the experiment was to compare previous and modern agricultural practices using weeds that grow alongside arable crops.

Plant ecologist John Hodgson, who worked at what is now the University of Sheffield’s School of Biosciences, was involved in the study beginning in the 1990s. He stated, “The data enables archaeologists and plant ecologists to collaborate on understanding the past and predicting the future.”

“In current agricultural systems, where crops are micromanaged and everything that isn’t desirable is eliminated, it might be difficult to track long-term changes in habitats and plant species. So, by focusing on historical weed populations rather than crops, researchers may acquire a unique perspective on what has been lost and gained across history.

“Data analysis helps us to see what types of plants can adapt to changing conditions in their ecosystems and which are fragile. The rich data from this years-long investigation has the potential to comprehend the resilience of agricultural systems in the face of climate change, drought, and land degradation, as well as to explore a narrative for current global food production concerns.

The new package’s data models seek to understand how low-input (extensive) farming and high-input (intensive) arable agriculture compare, providing a free resource for academics to better understand the nature of crop cultivation at field research sites, including how much labor people were investing in agricultural practices at any given time and what this might say about the sites and their inhabitants.

Glynis Jones, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, stated that the data has revealed fresh insights into agricultural history and altered our view of farming’s global growth. She stated, “The goal of the project was to use relatively simple functional attributes of different plant species, which can be measured more quickly than expensive and time-consuming experiments, to provide us with completely new insights into historical sites.”

“We prefer to believe that agriculture began in a low-intensity state and gradually increased in intensity throughout history. However, we have discovered Neolithic and Bronze Age sites that defy this assumption, little areas of land that were actively cultivated, utilizing procedures such as fertilizing, watering, and weeding crops such as wheat or barley; locations where a great deal of human effort was put into crop cultivation.

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