CO-PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORFerran Antolín (Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Berlin, Germany)
DURATION4 years (2022-2025)

Project Description.

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L.) was one of the most important plants in history. (In)famous for its narcotic and painkilling properties, its seeds and oil are also consumed in many culinary cultures. Opium, morphine and heroin are but a few of the substances derived from its latex. From the ‘Poppy Goddess’ figurine in Minoan Crete to “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground, passing through the 19th century Opium Wars, this plant has shaped Eurasian history and culture. Even today, the opioid crisis in the US and opioids being used to fund terrorism are key societal issues. The opium poppy has provided humanity with her best weapons against pain. However, we haven’t found a way to harvest those benefits without the personal and social side-effects of opiates: mind-alteration, illegal trade, development of tolerance and addition.

Surprisingly, its geographical origin, wild progenitor and role in prehistoric societies remain speculative. It was probably the only major crop domesticated in Neolithic Europe and one of a few species cultivated for various purposes (i.e. recreational drug, medicinal plant and a source of food and oil). The DOPE project assembles a multi-disciplinary team to resolve the question “What is the origin of the opium poppy?”. We will address three specific issues: Q1: WHICH species was the opium poppy’s wild progenitor? Q2: WHERE was it domesticated? Q3: HOW did its cultivation spread?

We will sequence the genomes of wild and cultivated poppies from all over Eurasia. This will allow us to identify the species’ wild progenitor and the place(s) where it was first cultivated (Q1). We will conduct flotation in key Neolithic sites in South Portugal to assess if the poppy was present throughout the whole Western Mediterranean (Q2). It will also provide the first systematic study of Neolithic plant-use at the far-west edge of the Mediterranean. Geometric morphometric analysis of the shape of archaeological and modern poppy seeds (wild and cultivated) will offer a temporal and spatial snapshot of the whole process of domestication and spread (Q3). We will also determine changes in shape and size over time that will inform about the domestication trend. We will carry out direct radiocarbon dating of poppy seeds from key Neolithic sites all over Europe providing a reliable temporal framework for its cultivation throughout Europe (Q2 & Q3).

We will use this species as a study-case for the role of oilseed crops in the Neolithic. Narratives on early farming have been based on food staples (i.e.: cereals, legumes) whereas crops cultivated for other purposes remain unaddressed. And yet the poppy is found in the two main European Neolithic cultures – the Cardial and Linear Pottery Culture (LBK) – suggesting it had great importance for early farming communities throughout Europe. Moreover, if it is shown that the poppy was indeed domesticated in the West Mediterranean, it will illustrate the ability of Europe’s first farmers to extend beyond their SW Asian crop package and cultivate valuable native species.

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