Today's watermelon isn't what it used to be — literally. Tomatoes, wheat, corn, and most other crops grown now have been domesticated by humans over tens of thousands of years. We have artificially selected the plants we eat to taste milder and be more bountiful.
A textbook example is Brassica oleracea, a single species that includes kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage, all through artificial selection.
The rapid domestication of crops poses a problem for people who want to understand pre-modern societies. If the Romans weren't talking about our kind of wheat when they used a word for wheat, what were they talking about? A paper published Wednesday in the journal Trends in Plant Science suggests that biologists should start looking in a surprising place: artwork.
The two Belgian co-authors argue that artwork depicting food can augment the picture that traditional methods like literature analysis and paleobotany create of past societies' diets. They term their project #ArtGenetics, and they propose that biologists, art historians, and museum-goers team up to catalogue foods spotted in artwork and compare their morphologies to what we see today.
Not every artist has embraced naturalism — recording things as they appear in front of you, true to form — so the co-authors suggest that roses be used as positive, non-food controls. We've kept good track of how they've been domesticated, and many varieties that were grown hundreds of years ago are still grown today. This way, a rose depicted naturalistically can add credibility that another plant featured in the artwork was represented as the artist saw it. Through #ArtGenetics, the co-authors hope that we can catch glimpses of premodern societies through their artists' eyes.