Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology

pp 294-296

Apricot: Origins and Development

  • Alison WeisskopfAffiliated withInstitute of Archaeology, University College London Email author 
  • , Dorian Q. FullerAffiliated withInstitute of Archaeology, University College London

Basic Species Information

Apricot, sometimes known as Armenian plum (derived from a mistaken belief of an Armenian origin), is the common name of Prunus armeniaca L./Armeniaca vulgaris L. The name apricot derives from the Arabic al-birquq through Byzantine Greek berikokkia from Latin malum praecoquum – early ripening fruit. The Latin Prunus armeniacum is a reference to an early believed origin in Armenia, which is one of the places where these trees are wild.

Apricot is a deciduous tree up to 10 m with broad ovate leaves, self-fertile white – rarely pink – flowers produced singly or in pairs before the leaves in spring. Some cultivars are self-compatible while are others are self-incompatible. Wild forms are fully interfertile with cultivated populations. Apricots are grown for their large fleshy fruit, a drupe with glabrous or pubescent yellow to orange exocarp and a soft mesocarp. The endocarp is lignified and slightly grainy on the outer surface. There is a pronounced ridge along the ventral suture. The seeds or kernels produce laetrile (cyanide) in wild forms, and some cultivars are bitter to avoid predation (Zohary et al. 2012). In other cultivars, apricot kernels can be eaten in substitution for almonds, especially in China where they are commonly roasted to make them palatable (Simoons 1991). Apricot kernels are also used to flavor Amaretto liqueur and biscuits (van Wyk 2005).

Apricots are cultivated in temperate, subtropical and continental regions. They require cool weather for dormancy, and the trees can survive winter temperatures down to −30 °C, but the buds and flowers are not frost resistant. The fruit needs dry weather for maturation. Trees usually bear fruit the 4th or 5th year after planting.

Major Domestication Traits

Wild apricots have a disjunct distribution in the Caucasus region and in eastern Asia. These wild forms are characterized by smaller fruits and leaves and spiny branches (Lu & Bartholomew 2003; Gabrielian & Zohary 2004). In China, free-growing and possibly wild populations of a number of varieties are reported from hilly areas around much of northern and western China (Ningxia, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Nei Mongol, Liaoning, Jiangsu, Shandong, and Sichuan). A. vulgaris var. vulgaris is reported to occur in pure stands in the Illi prefecture of Xinjiang. While in China, these occur between 600 and 3,000 m elevation; in Armenia, they are found at 1,200–2,100 m only. Modern genetic diversity is suggested to have three centers of diversity (Yilmaz & Gurcan 1977; Maghuly et al. 2005), including one focused on the Caucasus, one on northwestern South Asia, Central Asia, and Xinjiang, and one on China. This strongly suggests that wild populations in Xinjiang and Armenia have contributed to cultivar diversity, although the origins of early cultivars may only have taken place in China.

Timing and Tracking Domestication

Archaeobotanically, apricots may be recognized from endocarp remains that differ from related tax (e.g., Fig. 1). Based around the Caucasus center of wild apricots are a number of early finds. These include archaeological evidence from the Eneolithic at Garni and Shengavit in Armenia (Arakelyan 1968), Eneolithic sites in the Ukraine ca 4,000–2,800 cal BCE (Zohary et al. 2012), and sixth and fourth millennia cal BCE sites in the Carpathian-Dniester region (Monah 2007). It is unclear if this indicates a formerly more widespread wild distribution or early translocation of cultivated trees.
Apricot: Origins and Development, Fig. 1

Illustration of endocarps (stones) of apricot (Armeniaca vulgaris), left, compared to the Japanese apricot (Armeniaca mume), right

In the East, archaeobotanical evidence points to origins of cultivars in Central China. It is difficult at this stage to separate stone remains of wild versus domesticated apricots in early assemblages. The earliest finds probably represent gathering, such as from Kuahuqao (6,000–5,400 BCE) in the Lower Yangtze region, alongside many wild nuts and fruits, including the related Armeniaca mume. Later in the Longshan period (after 2,500 BCE) and Bronze Age (second millennium BCE), there are several sites with apricot from Central China (Hosoya et al. 2010). The early history of apricot in China is intertwined with the mume apricot, or Japanese apricot, A. mume Siebold (syn Prunus mume), which today goes by the Chinese name mei distinct from xing used for true apricot. However, it is thought that mei might have originally referred to true apricots. A. mume is an important cultivar, especially in South China, Japan, Korea, northern Laos, and Vietnam. It is native to the slopes below 3,100 m in western Sichuan and western Yunnan (Lu & Bartholomew 2003). Disjunct wild populations are also reported from northern Taiwan. This species has sour fruits which are normally made edible through drying, salting, or pickling (Simoons 1991). True apricots may have been used in similar fashion, with sweet forms developing later (or even outside of China). The first finds of apricot beyond its Chinese wild distribution is in Neolithic Kashmir by or shortly after 2,000 BCE (Lone et al. 1993). Much later finds include late First Millennium BCE in Nepal (Knorzer 2000) and in the Sampula Cemetery in Xinjiang (Jiang et al. 2009).

Apricots reached the Mediterranean region late, probably as introductions from Iran and Armenia around the third century BCE. Within a few hundred years apricots were well established in Spain, Turkey, Greece, and Italy (Zohary et al. 2012). They were taken to the Americas by the Spanish in the fifteenth century (Yilmaz & Gurcan 1977).


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