How Plants Domesticated People
Research by Fatimah Jackson, Ph.D.
Fatimah Jackson is Professor of Biology and Director of the W. Montague Cobb Research Laboratory at Howard University
On December 4, 2013, Dr. Jackson presented her research at the SciCafé at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, elaborating on how plants continue to chemically manipulate human biology and behavior, essentially domesticating humans.
Fatimah Jackson, Ph.D.
Plants are potent chemical arsenals, often full of bioactive compounds that can alter human metabolic processes, influence the patterns of human variation, affect the structure of our social interactions, and modify our biological evolution.
The interrelationship of flowering plants with mammals began 84 million years ago and was mediated through the diversification of insects. Insects were able to feed on the flowering plants, assist in plant pollination, and become a food source for the early mammals, allowing them to survive and become increasingly varied.
The primates were some of the earliest mammals. Humans, as members of the Order Primate, intensified our connection to plants 10,000 to 12,000 years ago with plant domestication. Plant domestication meant that humans became increasingly committed to a small group of specific plants, increasing their exposure to certain bioactive compounds.
The specific plants varied by geographical region. We are now beginning to understand how humans and their domesticated plants have coevolved, each influencing the development of the other. My research focuses on the cyanogenic glycosides in cassava (Manihot esculenta), a popular pan-tropical root crop.
Human intervention in the plant’s biology has resulted in changes in the size of the root, its chemical composition, and alterations in the height of the plant. Upon ingestion, cyanide compounds in this plant can change human red blood cells, alter human metabolic biology, and adversely influence the malaria parasite.
These changes can alter the survival of human consumers, with beneficial effects in certain environments. In this way the biology of the plant influences the biology of local human consumers. In the case of cassava, the effects of the plant compounds on humans exert a major influence on human survival.
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