The Origins and cultural history of the Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L.): genomics, archaeology and botany

THE ORIGINS AND CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE OPIUM POPPY (PAPAVER SOMNIFERUM L.): GENOMICS, ARCHAEOLOGY AND BOTANYOn Tuesday 4th June, the Algarve Archaeological Association (AAA) will be presenting two lectures, in English, by Dr Hugo Oliveira from ICArEHB (The Interdisciplinary Centre for Archaeology and the Evolution of Human Behaviour), University of Algarve. The first lecture will be at 2.30pm at the Museu do Traje in São Bras de Alportel, the second lecture will be at 6pm at the Convento de São José in Lagoa.

Hugo Oliveira will be talking about the Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L.) which was one of the most important species in history, (in)famous for its mind-altering and painkilling properties. Its relevance for the modern world persists when we consider the opioid epidemics in the USA and the geopolitics of illicit drug production and trade. Surprisingly, very little is known about its origins. ArchMinoan Poppy Goddess, Heraklion Musuemaeological and botanical studies suggest it was the only major crop domesticated in Neolithic Europe and one of a few species cultivated for multiple purposes (i.e. narcotic properties, medicinal, seed oil and culinary).

Contested visual attestations places its first appearance in Sumerian and Minoan cultures, and yet the earliest poppy remains were discovered in western Mediterranean sites such as La Marmotta (Italy) and La Draga (Spain), dated to 5610-4717 BCE. These were associated with the first farmers of the Cardial pottery culture. Almost immediately afterwards, poppy seeds are also found in Linear Pottery Culture (LBK) sites in Central Europe (5200-5000 BCE). This temporal proximity between poppy cultivation in the LBK and Cardial cultures is intriguing. One hypothesis is that the poppy was a weed of wheat and barley, introduced all over Europe by Anatolian farmers. Alternatively, it was initially domesticated in the western Mediterranean and moved into the LBK region, following existing networks. The subsequent routes of diffusion of poppy cultivation during late prehistory and classical antiquity remain unclear.

Here, we present the results of a research consortium between the University of Algarve, the National Natural History Museum of Paris and the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. The combination of genomic analysis, novel radiocarbon dating methods and geometric morphometry of seed remains, is uncovering the origins of this iconic plant species.

Dr Hugo Oliveira is an associated researcher at ICArEHB. He has a degree in Biology from the University of Minho, Portugal and obtained his masters and PhD degrees in Archaeology at Cambridge University, UK. His research focuses on the origins of plant domestication and the history of agriculture, combining crop genomics, archaeology, archaeobotany and conservation of heirloom varieties. He has investigated the origins and spread of wheat, barley, rye, lentil, fava beans and is currently working on the prehistory of Opium poppy, oats and Ethiopian domesticates such as tef and finger millet.

Non-members are welcome to attend AAA lectures for a 5-euro admission fee, with all money raised by the AAA being used for archaeological grants and speakers.

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