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History of Carrots - A Brief Summary & Timeline

Chapters in the history rooms:
 
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 History Part 1 - A Brief Timeline

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 History Part 2 - Neolithic to AD 200 - Origins and development

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 History Part 3 - AD 200 to 1500 - From Medicine to Food

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 History Part 4 - 1500 to 1700 - Evolution and Improvement in the Renaissance

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 History Part 5 - 1700 to date - Science & Enlightenment - the modern carrot evolves

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 History of Carrot Colour - Explores, in some detail the theories of the road to domestication and the origin of Orange Carrots

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 History in WW2 - Takes an in depth look of the role of carrots in World War Two, reviving its popularity

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 Illustrations of Carrot in Ancient Manuscripts and Early Printed Books


Brief Carrot History and Timeline

Wild carrot appears in many temperate regions of the world, far beyond its Mediterranean and Asian centres of origin where this plant displays great diversity. Almost certainly those ancient cultures in these regions used wild and early forms of the domesticated carrot as a herb and a medicine before they were used as a root vegetable in the conventional sense of that term today. It is also quite likely that the seeds were used medicinally in the Mediterranean region since antiquity (Banga 1958). There is good genetic evidence that wild carrot is the direct progenitor of the cultivated carrot (Simon 2000). Selection for a swollen rooted type suitable for domestic consumption undoubtedly took many centuries.

Carrot domestication transformed the relatively small, thin, white, heavily divided (forked or sprangled - spread in different directions) strong flavoured taproot of a plant with annual biennial flowering habit into a large, orange, smooth, good flavoured storage root of a uniformly biennial or “winter” annual crop we know today. Modern carrot breeders have further refined the carrot, improving flavour, sweetness, reducing bitterness and improving texture and colour. There have also been significant improvements in disease and pest reduction resulting in ever increasing yields.  Flavour, nutritional and processing qualities are also uppermost in the minds of modern breeders.


Both the wild and the cultivated carrots belong to the species Daucus carota. Wild carrot is distinguished by the name Daucus carota, Carota, whereas domesticated carrot belongs to  Daucus carota, sativus.

The Carrot has a somewhat obscure history, surrounded by doubt and enigma and it is difficult to pin down when domestication took place. The wide distribution of Wild Carrot, the absence of carrot root remains in archaeological excavations and lack of documentary evidence do not enable us to determine precisely where and when carrot domestication was initiated.

Over thousands of years it moved from being a small, tough, bitter and spindly root to a fleshy, sweet, pigmented unbranched edible root. Even before the introduction of domesticated carrots, wild plants were grown in gardens as medicinal plants.

When carrot is grown in favourable conditions the roots of successive generations enlarge quickly. So the evolution of cultivars with enlarged roots can easily be explained, but what has puzzled historians is why it took so long for the modern cultivated, edible carrot to appear. The clue is that, although evidence of wild carrot seeds have been found in pre-historic cave dwellings and Greek and Roman records they were only used in medicinal applications and not for consumption of the root, as a food.

Unravelling the progress of the peregrinating carrot through the ages is complex and inconclusive, but nevertheless a fascinating journey through time and the history of mankind.

The Wild Carrot is the progenitor (wild ancestor) of the domestic carrot (direct descendent) and both still co-exist in the modern world.  Wild Carrot is indigenous to Europe and parts of Asia and, from archaeological evidence, seeds have been found dating since Mesolithic times, approximately 10000 years ago. One cannot imagine that the root would have been used at that time, but the seeds are known to be medicinal and it is likely the seeds were merely gathered rather than actually cultivated.

Wild carrot has a small, tough pale fleshed bitter white root; modern domestic carrot has a swollen, juice sweet root, usually orange.   Carrots were originally recorded as being cultivated in present day Afghanistan about 1000 years ago, probably as a purple or yellow root like those pictured here.  Carrot cultivation spread to Spain in the 1100s via the Middle East and North Africa. Purple, white and yellow carrots were brought into southern Europe in the 14th century and were widely grown in Europe into the 16th Century. Purple and white carrots still grow wild in Afghanistan today where they are used by some tribesmen to produce a strong alcoholic beverage. Over the ensuing centuries, orange carrots came to dominate and carrots of other colours were only preserved by growers in remote regions of the world.

Nature then took a hand and produced mutants and natural hybrids, crossing both with cultivated and wild varieties. It is considered that purple carrots were then taken westwards where it is now known, through modern genetic research, that yellow varieties were developed to produce orange. Then some motivated Dutch growers took these "new" orange carrots under their horticultural wings and developed them to be sweeter, consistent and more practical. Finally we have the French to thank for popular modern varieties such as Nantes and Chantenay, with credit to the 19th century horticulturist Louis de Vilmorin, who laid the foundations for modern plant breeding.    It's a long story..................... 


Overview -

The time frame and geographic region(s) of the first cultivation of carrots are unclear. Vavilov (1992 , pp. 337–340) identified Asia Minor (eastern Turkey) and the inner Asiatic regions as the centers of origin of cultivated carrot and noted Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan) as being “the basic center of Asiatic kinds of cultivated carrots” where “wild carrots … practically invited themselves to be cultivated”.

As observed by the presence of carrot seed at prehistoric human habitations 4000 to 5000 years ago ( Newiler, 1931), it is speculated that wild carrot seed was used medicinally or as a spice ( Andrews, 1949 ; Brothwell and Brothwell, 1969).

Carrot was cultivated and used as a storage root similar to modern carrots in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and perhaps Anatolia beginning in the 10th century (Mackevic, 1932 ; Zagorodskikh, 1939). On the basis of historical documents, the first domesticated carrot roots were purple and yellow and recorded in Central Asia, Asia Minor, then in Western Europe and finally in England between the 11th and 15th centuries ( Banga, 1963 ). Interestingly, orange carrots were not well documented until the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe ( Banga, 1957a , b ; Stolarczyk and Janick, 2011 ), indicating that orange carotenoid accumulation may have resulted from a secondary domestication event.

The cultivated carrot is believed to originate from Afghanistan before the 900s, as this area is described as the primary centre of greatest carrot diversity (Mackevic 1929), Turkey being proposed as a secondary centre of origin (Banga 1963). The first cultivated carrots exhibited purple or yellow roots. Carrot cultivation spread to Spain in the 1100s via the Middle East and North Africa. In Europe, genetic improvement led to a wide variety of cultivars. White and orange-coloured carrots were first described in Western Europe in the early 1600s (Banga 1963). Concomitantly, the Asiatic carrot was developed from the Afghan type and a red type appeared in China and India around the 1700s (Laufer 1919; Shinohara 1984). According to this history, it makes sense to envisage that colour should be considered as a structural factor in carrot germplasm.

Root types of these early carrots were categorized as yellow or purple and a flavour difference coincided with the colour. In Persia and Arabia, yellow carrots were generally regarded as more acrid in flavour and less succulent than purple carrots (Clement-Mullet 1864).

Morphological characteristics lead to a division of the cultivated carrot (Daucus carota subsp. sativus) into two botanical varieties: var. atrorubens and var. sativus (Small 1978).

Var. atrorubens refers to carrots originating from the East, exhibiting yellow or purple storage roots and poorly indented, grey-green, pubescent foliage. Var. sativus refers to carrots originating from the West and exhibiting orange, yellow or sometimes white roots, and highly indented, nonpubescent, yellow-green foliage (Small 1978). Many intermediate variants exist between these two types.
 

Summarised Timeline of Cultivated Carrot (documentary evidence)

Time Period

Location

Colour

Pre-900s

Afghanistan and vicinity

Purple and yellow

900s

Iran and northern Arabia

Purple, Red and yellow

1000s

Syria and North Africa

Purple, Red and yellow

1100s

Spain

Purple and yellow

1200s

Italy and China

Purple and red

1300s

France, Germany, The Netherlands

Red, Yellow & White

1400s

England

Red & white

1500's Northern Europe Orange, Yellow & Red

1600s

Japan

Purple and yellow

1600s

North America

Orange and white

1700s

Japan

Orange and Red

Sources - Rubatzsky and Banga. Also Carrot Museum's Curator research material Reference material is here.

Notes: Red was often confused with purple.  Orange carrots may have been around well before 1100 - see here. The above listing is a "best guess" as there is much conflicting evidence.

Carrots were also probably White throughout these periods, often confused with Parsnips (also white). There was (and still is!) enormous confusion when trying to sort out the individual histories of carrots and parsnips. The Latin name for the parsnip genus is thought to come from, meaning "food". This would further explain the historical confusion of the two vegetables, as well as offer a testament to how important they both were in the ancient diet.


Early evidence

Fossil pollen from the Eocene period (55 to 34 million years ago) has been identified as belonging to the Apiaceae (the carrot family). 

Almost five thousand years ago, carrots were firstly cultivated in the Iranian Plateau and then in Persian Empire. Western and Arabic literatures along with the studies by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reveal that carrots were originated in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. It should be noted, however, that there were no Afghanistan or Pakistan in those olden days and the Iranian Plateau (a term which covers Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran) must be considered as the land of origin for carrots.

The Carrot Field of Iran

The Carrot Field of Iran

There is a specific place in present day Iran that is called as the Carrot Field or Carrot Plain (in Persian: Dasht-e Haveej د شت هویج ). That Field may be an evidence for the long standing historical record of carrot recognition and cultivation in Iran. The Field is located in Afjeh village near Lavasan, a city north east of Tehran the capital of Iran. Presently, the farming activities in the Carrot Field are reported as various crops (but not much carrots) and fruits (mostly Cherry گیلا س ).

Very early evidence of the consumption of carrots (seeds) has also been found in prehistoric Swiss lake dwellings (Brothwell and Brothwell, 1969). It is said that the cultivated and edible carrot dates back about 5,000 years ago when the purple root was found to be growing in the area now known as Afghanistan. Temple drawings from Egypt in 2000 BC show a purple plant, which some Egyptologists believe to be a purple carrot. Egyptian papyruses containing information about treatments with seeds were found in pharaoh crypts, but there is no direct carrot reference. The Carrot Museum has visited several tomb paintings in the Valleys of Luxor and some images are compelling. It known that ancient Egyptians did use other members of the Apiaceae family (carrot) including anise, celery and coriander. None of these plants would have been used as root crops, but were rather leaf, petiole or seed crops.. Several books on the subject make conjecture about this but there is never proper documentary evidence that the Egyptians grew or ate carrots..

Many colourful varieties were later found in Asia and there is also evidence of their use in Greece during the Hellenistic period. However, it is not known whether or not the Egyptians or Greeks cultivated a very edible plant or if they only grew wild carrots for their seeds. Mostly they were used medicinally. It likewise found a place as a medicinal plant in the gardens of ancient Rome, where it was used as an aphrodisiac and in some cases as part of a concoction to prevent poisoning.  Mithridates VI, King of Pontius (120bc-63bc) had a recipe including Cretan carrots seeds, which actually worked!

Carrots were said to be recognized as one of the plants in the garden of the Egyptian king Merodach-Baladan in the eighth century B.C, once again there is no documentary evidence for this although many plants shown on the clay tablets held in the British Museum remain to be identified.

The Carrot was well known to the ancients. Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40-90ad) catalogued over 600 medicinal plant species during his first century travels as a roman army doctor and accurately describes the modern carrot.   The Greek herbal of Pedanios Dioskurides, latinized as Pedanius Dioscorides (20–70 CE), is entitled Peri Ylis Ialikis (PYI) and latinized as De Materia Medica, On Medical Matters. It was written about the year 65. It was destined to be one of the most famous books on pharmacology and medicine but is also rich in horticulture. This non-illustrated work contained descriptions of about 600 plants, 35 animal products, and 90 minerals emphasizing their medicinal uses. The  Greek Herbal of Dioscorides: Illustrated by a Byzantine in A.D. 512, refers to Orange Carrot - Dioskorides Codex Vindobonensis Medicus Greacus - Staphylinos Keras - The cultivated carrot-pictured right.

Dioscorides wrote "Ye root ye thickness of a finger, a span long, sweet-smelling, edible being sodden [boiled]. Of this ye seed being drank...and it is good for ye [painful discharge of urine] in potions, and for ye bitings and strokes of venomous beasts; they say also, that they which take it before hand shall take no wrong of wilde beasts. It cooperates also to conception, and it also being [diuretic], both provoketh [poison], and being applied; but the leaves being beaten small with honey, and laid on, doth cleanse rapidly spreading destructive ulceration of soft tissues." (Mitch, 1998).

Carrot was mentioned by Greek and Latin writers by various names, but it was Galen (circa second century A.D.) who called it Daucus to distinguish the Carrot from the Parsnip.  Carrot and parsnip have often been confused in historical references and in many cases were interchangeable, as those early carrots which were "dirty white" were very similar (in looks at least) to parsnip.  They are of course from the same family. In classical and mediaeval writings both vegetables seem to have been sometimes called pastinaca yet each vegetable appears to be well under cultivation in Roman times. Since in many cases only the written word exists, if the Medieval writer called the plants "pastinaca", it is difficult to know if they were referring to carrots or parsnips.

Throughout the Classical Period and the Middle Ages writers constantly confused carrots and parsnips. This may seem odd given that the average carrot is about six inches long and bright orange while a parsnip is off white and can grow 3 feet, but this distinction was much less obvious before early modern plant breeders got to work. The orange carrot is a product of the 16th and 17th centuries probably in the Low Countries. Its original colour varied between dirty white and pinkish purple. Both vegetables have also got much fatter and fleshier in recent centuries, and parsnips may have been bred to be longer as well. In other words early medieval carrots and parsnips were both thin and woody and mostly of a vaguely whitish colour. This being the case, almost everyone up to the early modern period can perhaps be forgiven for failing to distinguish between the two, however frustrating this may be for the food or agriculture historian.  See separate page showing illustrations from ancient manuscripts.

The name Carota for the garden Carrot is found first in the Roman writings of Athenaeus in 200 A.D., and in a book on cookery by Apicius Czclius in 230 A.D.

After the fall of Rome, a period often referred to as the Dark Ages, carrots stopped being widely seen (or at least recorded) in Europe until the Arabs reintroduced them to Europe in the Middle Ages around 1100. Scribes continued to reproduce and embellish previous manuscripts, rather than observing and representing the existing contemporary native plants.

The third book of Dioscorides the Greek – Roots -  sets out an account of roots, juices, herbs, and seeds — suitable both for common use and for medications.  The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides: Illustrated by a Byzantine in A.D. 512. gives an illustration of an orange carrot, probably the first depiction and certainly well before other illustrations in the 16th century. (modern translation here)


Domestication

The purple carrot existed in Central Asia for several centuries before it was brought west by the Arabs in about the 10th century.

Modern research has shown that there are two distinct groups of cultivated carrots from which the modern orange carrot derives, these are distinguished by their root colours and features of the leaves and flowers.

Eastern carrot (anthocyanin) - identified by its purple and/or yellow branched root, grey green leaves which are poorly dissected and an early flowering habit. Eastern carrot was probably spread by Moorish invaders via Northern Africa to Spain in the 12th century. It is considered that the purple carrot was brought westward as far as the Arab countries from Afghanistan (where the purple carrots of antiquity are still grown).

Western carrot (carotene) - identified by its yellow, orange, white or red unbranched root and yellowish green leaves more clearly dissected and slightly hairy. It is thought that Western carrots originated later in Asia Minor, around Turkey and could have formed from a mutant which removed the anthocyanin (purple colour).

The origin of the cultivated carrot is clearly acknowledged to be purple and in the Afghanistan region mainly because it was known to exist there well before reliable literature references or paintings gave evidence of Western carotene carrots. It is thought the carotene carrot was domesticated in the regions around Turkey. The precise date is not known but thought to be before the 8th century.

The purple carrot spread into the Mediterranean in the 10th century where it is thought a yellow mutant appeared. The purple and yellow carrots both gradually spread into Europe in subsequent centuries. It is considered that the white carrot is also a mutant of yellow varieties.

Orange carrots derived from yellow forms, and then from human selection and development, probably in the Netherlands. It is now proved through modern genetic study that humans made selections from a gene pool involving yellow rooted eastern carrots.

Some scholars think that orange carrots did not to appear until the 16th century, although there is a Byzantine manuscript of 512 ad, and an 11th century illuminated script, both of which depict an orange rooted carrot, and suggesting it was around long before (see photo above). (see here for more detailed history of orange carrot)

After the fall of Rome, gardens and vegetables are rarely mentioned again until 795 ad, when King Charlemagne included carrots in the list of plants recommended for cultivation in the Frankish empire covering western and central Europe.

It is known that purple or red and yellow carrots were cultivated in Iran and Arabia in the 10th century and in Syria in the 11th.
By the 12th century carrots were reported in Spain, followed by Italy in the 13th, France, Germany and Holland by the 14th century.  English sightings occur in the 15th century.

Throughout the Medieval writings, carrots are confused with parsnips. When Linnaeus created scientific names, he called carrots Daucus carota and parsnips Pastinaca sativa, so the two are clearly different. Before Linnaeus, however, Pastinaca sativa was used for both plants.

Fuchs in 1542 described red and yellow garden carrots and wild carrots, but names them all Pastinaca (Meyer Trueblood and Heller 1999).

Gerard (1633) uses the English name carrot, but calls it Pastinaca in Latin: Pastinaca sativa var. tenuifolia, the yellow carrot and Pastinaca sativa atro-rubens, the red carrot. Gerard distinguishes parsnips from carrots and calling the parsnip Pastinaca latifolia sativa and P. latifolia sylvestris. Gerard notes the name similarity and is dissatisfied with it. He gives daucus as a name for carrot in Galen, but notes that many Roman writers called it pastinaca or other names.

The plants were not confused on purpose, but since we have in many cases, only the written word, if the Medieval writer referred to "pastinaca", it is impossible to know if they were carrots or parsnips. There was rarely any mention of colour or taste which would have helped the modern researcher to distinguish the two plant relatives.

Many 16th century herbalists made reference to the cultivation and use of carrot roots and seeds, including its efficacy against the bites of venomous beasts and a whole manner of stomach ailments. (Carrots in Herbals/Herbalists here  - Ancient Manuscripts page here)

The Spanish introduced the carrot on the island of Margarita, off the coast of Venezuela, in1565.

North America, particularly the parts that would become the Thirteen Colonies, got its carrots somewhat later, with the arrival of the first English settlers in Virginia in 1607.  When the English moved into Australia in 1788, carrots were with them there, as well. (History of carrots in the USA here.)

The modern orange carrot was developed and stabilised by Dutch growers in the 16-17th century, evidenced from variety names and contemporary art works. (Art pages start here). A tale, probably apocryphal, has it that the orange carrot was bred in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century to honour William of Orange. Though the orange carrot does appear to date from the Netherlands in the sixteenth century, it is unlikely that honouring William of Orange had anything to do with it!   Some astute historian managed to install the myth that the arboriculturist's work on an unexpected mutation was developed especially to give thanks to King William I as a tribute to him leading the Dutch revolt against the Spanish to gain independence from Spain. There is no documentary evidence for this story!

The purple carrots being consumed at the same time, not only stained cookware and appeared quite unsightly, they did not taste as good as orange carrots, and so the orange rooted varieties came to dominate the culinary world.

Whatever the origins, the Long Orange Dutch cultivar, is commonly held to be the progenitor of the orange Horn carrot varieties (Early Scarlet Horn, Early Half Long, Late Half Long). All modern, western carotene varieties ultimately descend from these varieties. The Horn Carrot derives from the Netherlands town of Hoorn in the neighbourhood of which it was probably developed. Horenshce Wortelen (carrots of Hoorn) were common on the Amsterdam market in 1610.  The earliest English seedsmen list Early Horn and Long Orange.

In 1753 Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, published the "Species Plantarum," and established the foundations of the modern scheme for the naming of living organisms, called binomial nomenclature, that became universally accepted in the scientific world, including Daucus Carota.  

We have the French to thank for popular modern varieties such as Nantes and Chantenay, with credit to the 19th century horticulturist Louis de Vilmorin, who laid the foundations for modern plant breeding.   Here are some images of the carrots varieties which Vilmorin described in "The Vegetable Garden" in 1856 :
 

Vilmorin 1856 early half long nantes carrot Vilmorin 1856 Dutch Horn carrot Vilmorin 1856 English Horn carrot Vilmorin 1856 half long danvers carrot
Early Half Long Dutch Horn English Horn Half Long Danvers


The cheap and accessible orange root was constantly popular as a staple food throughout Victorian times and became even more so during the two World Wars when other food sources became scarce. (World War Two page here)

Research and development continues to take place to produce disease resistant varieties, together with research into other uses for the root such a bio fuel and its use in construction as an alternative to fibre glass and carbon fibre.

The current yellow/orange varieties (containing carotene) through gradual selection in Europe, now form the basis of the commercial cultivars around the world, mainly through their superior taste, versatility, nutritional value and cultural acceptance.

There is a lot more detail of the history of carrots through the ages, and the next pages in the Carrot Museum go on to give the full history from pre-historic seeds through to how the Greeks and Romans used carrots, first in medicine and then food.  

There is a more detailed analysis of the available evidence surrounding its origins, cultivation and domestication, and journey across Europe, also exploring the emergence of the ubiquitous orange carrot, here.   The main colours of carrots now have their own pages  -  purple - black - white

Follow its steps through the dark ages and then enlightenment with 17th century herbalists who recommended carrots and their seeds for a wide variety of ailments.   Finally after many years as a low class vegetable, mainly used for animal fodder,  it came of age during the food scarcity of the two World Wars when people were forced to be more inventive with fewer resources.(WW2 page here)

It is a long and fascinating story. 

There is a more comprehensive study and analysis of the various  theories of the domestication of carrots and the arrival of the orange carrot on the page dedicated to the subject - the Colour Orange - here.


Reference material is here.    Last update01/02/2014



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