Vegetation History and Archaeobotany

, Volume 26, Issue 3, pp 313–327 | Cite as

Documenting domestication in a lost crop (Polygonum erectum L.): evolutionary bet-hedgers under cultivation

  • Natalie G. MuellerEmail author
Original Article


This study uses morphometrics and digital image analysis to document domestication syndrome in an annual seed crop, Polygonum erectum L. (erect knotweed), which was cultivated by Native Americans for c. 2,500 years in eastern North America. This plant is one of several seed crops referred to as the Eastern Agricultural Complex, a pre-maize agricultural system that supported societies in a core area centred on the central Mississippi valley for millennia. The extinct domesticated subspecies P. erectum ssp. watsoniae N. G. Muell. described here, exhibits some classic markers of domestication, including larger fruits and reduced germination inhibitors in comparison to its wild progenitor. Domesticated P. erectum also exhibits greatly reduced germination heteromorphism. Germination heteromorphism is the classic example of evolutionary bet-hedging in plants: wild P. erectum sacrifices maximum fitness per generation for a reduction in fitness variance over many generations. It does so by producing two different types of fruits: ones that germinate immediately in the spring after they are produced (smooth morphs), and ones that remain in the soil seed bank for one or more growing seasons before germinating (tubercled morphs). Tubercled morphs allow populations to recover after adverse events. Under cultivation, the selective pressures that maintained this strategy were relaxed as humans saved seeds and created predictable microenvironments for seedlings, resulting in homogenous harvests and reliable germination for ancient farmers.


Domestication Morphometrics Eastern Agricultural Complex Origins of agriculture Evolutionary bet-hedging 



Mary Suter of the University of Arkansas Museum, Mary Simon of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, Rusty Russell of the National Herbarium, and Jim Solomon of the Missouri Botanical Garden graciously granted me access to the collections under their care. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation. I would also like to thank Gayle J. Fritz, Lee A. Newsom, and two anonymous reviewers for their many insightful comments and critiques, which have greatly improved this manuscript.

Supplementary material

334_2016_592_MOESM1_ESM.doc (76 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 76 kb)


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyWashington University in St. LouisSt. LouisUSA

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