Human Ecology

, Volume 45, Issue 2, pp 189–203 | Cite as

Evolutionary “Bet-Hedgers” under Cultivation: Investigating the Domestication of Erect Knotweed (Polygonum erectum L.) using Growth Experiments

  • Natalie G. MuellerEmail author


Evolutionary “bet-hedging” refers to situations in which organisms sacrifice mean fitness for a reduction in fitness variance over time. Germination heteromorphism is the quintessential and most well understood bet-hedging strategy. It has evolved in many different plants, including the wild progenitors of some crops. Erect knotweed (Polygonum erectum L.), an annual seed crop, was cultivated in Eastern North America between c. 3000–600 BP. By c. 900 BP, cultivation had produced a domesticated subspecies with greatly reduced germination heteromorphism. Field observations and greenhouse experiments suggest that cultivation eliminated the selective pressures that maintain the bet-hedging strategy in erect knotweed, while humans also directly selected for seeds that germinated reliably and for seedlings with rapid early growth. The protection provided to erect knotweed under cultivation explains the domestication syndrome that has been observed in some archaeological assemblages. Dormancy provides seeds a means of escaping adverse conditions in time, while dispersal provides an escape in space. Farmers relaxed selective pressures that maintained dormancy in erect knotweed by acting as seed dispersers, spreading disturbance-adapted plants to predictable and protected environments, and by saving and exchanging seed stock. Experimental data also indicate that adaptive transgenerational plasticity may have been working against the expression of domestication syndrome in this case.


Domestication Evolutionary bet-hedging Erect knotweed Experimental archaeology Eastern agricultural complex North America 



I would like to acknowledge and thank the many people who contributed to this project by helping me access collections or populations under their care: Alan Brant, Paul and Nancy Krautman, Michelle Berg Vogel, Jim Solomon, George Yatskievych, Rusty Russell, Bruce Smith, Mary Suter, Mary Simon, George Crothers, David Pollack, Jack Rosen, Jane Buikstra, Jason King, Kris Gremillion, Wayna Adams, Neal Lopinot, Michael Meinkoth, Dee Ann Watt, John Kelly, Bill Green, Caitlin Rankin; and by sharing their knowledge with me and discussing these ideas: Michael Dyer, Gayle Fritz, Logan Kistler, Liz Horton, Kelsey Nordine, and Andrew Flachs. I would also like to acknowledge Nancy Asch Sidell, David Asch, and Sonia Sultan, three researchers whom I have never met but whose meticulous research inspired and greatly improved this project, and Marti Mueller for her careful editing and thoughtful questions. Support for this project was provided by the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the Lynne Cooper Harvey Fellowship in American Culture Studies at Washington University.

Compliance with Ethical Standards


This research was funded by US National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant #58292.

Conflict of Interest

The author declares that she had no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

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

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