History of Carrots - A brief summary and timeline

The History of Carrots

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History of Carrots - A Brief Summary & Timeline
Chapters in the history rooms:

 History Part 1 - A Brief Timeline

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

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

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

 History Part 5 - 1700 to 1900 - Science & Enlightenment - the modern carrot evolves

 History Part 6 - 1900 to date - The Modern Carrot and Genetic Discovery

 History of Carrot Colour - The road to domestication and the origin of Orange Carrots

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

 Illustrations of Carrot in Ancient Manuscripts and Early Printed Books


Brief Carrot History and Timeline

The cultivated carrot is one of the most important root vegetables grown in temperate regions of the world. It was derived from the wild carrot, which has whitish/ivory coloured roots. The most popular, orange rooted carrot, is now known from modern genetic research, derived from yellow rooted domestic varieties (Massimo Iorizzo, Simon et al Nature Genetics volume 48, pages 657–666 2016).  Early writings in classical Greek and Roman times refer to edible white roots, but these may have also been parsnips, or both. There are white rooted carrots in existence today, often used as animal feed or a novelty crop, but nevertheless gaining popularity for public consumption.

While the carrot is known as a bright orange root crop, the original carrots domesticated in Central Asia ca. 900 CE were purple and yellow (Banga 1963) There is some evidence for orange carrots earlier in history (Stolarczyk and Janick 2011), but it was not until six centuries after domestication that orange roots appeared consistently in the historical record.

Wild carrot is indigenous to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia, with its center of diversity in present day Afghanistan (Vavilov and Dorofeev 1992). Based on most historical records, the first evidence of carrot being cultivated as a food crop was in the Iranian Plateau and Persia in the 10th century (Banga 1957a,b, 1963; Food in Antiquity, Brothwell and Brothwell 1969), and molecular evidence supports a Central Asian origin of domesticated carrot (Iorizzo et al. 2013). During Arab expansion post the tenth century CE, the roots were brought east to Andalusia (in what is now Spain) and from Spain spread to the rest of Europe.

Carrot cultivation spread westward to North Africa and Europe, and eastward to Asia. Orange roots appeared in Spain and Germany in the 15th or 16th century (Stolarczyk and Janick 2011), and quickly became the predominant colour.


The earliest vegetable definitely known to be a carrot dates from the 10th  century in Persia and Asia Minor and would have been quite unlike the orange rooted carrot of today. Carrot sticks in five coloursIt is considered that Carrots were originally purple or white with a thin root, then a mutant occurred which removed the purple pigmentation resulting in a new race of yellow carrots, from which orange carrots were subsequently developed.

The centre of diversity for the carrot is in Central Asia, and the first cultivation of carrot for its storage root is reported to be in the Afghanistan region, approximately 1,100 years ago (Mackevic 1929). Long before carrot was domesticated, wild carrot had become widespread, as seeds were found in Europe dating back nearly 5,000 years ago. Today wild carrot is found around the world in temperate regions, particularly in wild areas, road sides and agricultural land.

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.


There are two main types of cultivated carrots:

Shape, colour and flavour. were surmised as selection criteria in the domestication of the carrot. The cultivated carrot can be mainly classified into the anthocyanin, or eastern-type, carrot (e.g., yellow or purple) and the carotene, or western-type, carrot (e.g., yellow, orange, or red) based on the pigmentation in the roots.

1) Eastern/Asiatic or anthocyanin carrots:  (Daucus carota ssp. sativus var. atrorubens Alef.) These are often called anthocyanin carrots because or their purple/black roots, although some have yellow roots. These are cultivars traditionally grown in Turkey, Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, and India. They always have thicker, shorter, narrow, conical root, and pubescent leaves giving them a gray-green colour, and bolt easily. The greatest diversity of these carrots is found in Afghanistan, Russia, Iran and India. These are possible centres of domestication, which took place around the 10th century.  These types are generally poorer in provitamin A carotenoid content

Anthocyanin carrots are still under cultivation in Asia, but are being rapidly replaced by orange rooted Western carrots.

2) Western or Carotene carrots: (Daucus carota ssp. sativus var. sativus)  These have orange, red or white cylindrical or tapered roots and less pubescent leaves. Most likely these carrots derived from the first group by selection among hybrid progenies of yellow Eastern carrots, white carrots and wild subspecies grown in the Mediterranean.

Carotene carrots are relatively recent, from the 1500's. Orange carrots were probably first cultivated in Norhtern Europre, probably the Netherlands/Spain/Germany or Switzerland. Present cultivars seem to originate from long orange varieties developed there. Adaptation to northern latitudes has been accompanied by change in photoperiod response.

The viewpoint that the eastern-type cultivated carrot was domesticated from the wild carrots in the area around Afghanistan is generally agreed upon.  A recent study based on the transcriptome data analysis also supports the hypothesis that the eastern-type cultivated carrot originated in Western Asia.

The western-type cultivated carrot was thought to originate from eastern-type carrots directly, based on the earliest molecular study about carrot domestication. In contrast, Heywood held the idea that western-type cultivated carrots did not originate directly from the eastern-type carrot . He summarized the hypothesis that there was a secondary domestication event in the domestication of western-type cultivated carrot . According to a recent study, western-type orange carrots may also originate from eastern carrots by introgression from wild carrots . Areas around Afghanistan are generally agreed to be the geographic regions of the first cultivation of eastern-type carrots. To determine the geographic regions of the first cultivation of western-type carrots, more genetic sequencing studies are needed. It is thought that orange carrots first appeared in Northern Europe, possibly Spain/Holland/Germany Switzerland (Source: Que, F., Hou, XL., Wang, GL. et al. Advances in research on the carrot, an important root vegetable in the Apiaceae family. Hortic Res 6, 69 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41438-019-0150-6) download here.


OVERVIEW OF THE ORIGIN OF CARROTS -

Carrots originated in the Himalayas and Hindu Kush centre of the continent and moved in both directions on the Silk Road. (The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes, formally established during the Han Dynasty of China, which linked the regions of the ancient world in commerce between 130 BCE-1453 CE. As the Silk Road was not a single thoroughfare from east to west, the term 'Silk Routes’ has become increasingly favoured by historians, though 'Silk Road’ is the more common and recognized name. (read more here at Wikipedia)

It is generally assumed that the eastern, purple-rooted carrot originated in Afghanistan in the region where the Himalayan and Hindu Kush mountains meet, and that it was domesticated in Afghanistan and adjacent regions of Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan and Anatolia. Purple carrot, together with a yellow variant, spread to the Mediterranean region and western Europe in the 11–14th centuries, and to China, India and Japan in the 14–17th centuries.

The discovery of a purple carrot attracted more interest from international traders. Traders carried purple carrots south to India and west to Baghdad, then to Spain, and then to the rest of Europe by 1000 AD. People did more experimenting. By the 1000s people were breeding red and yellow carrots in West Asia, and they had reached Spain by the 1100s, about the same time as lemons. Kublai Khan brought carrots east to China about 1300 AD.

The cultivated carrot is believed to have originated from forms with roots coloured purple anthocyanins as well as yellow mutants lacking anthocyanins. These forms spread to the West and East reaching Asia Minor around the 10th or 11th centuries, Arab occupied Spain in the 12th century, continental North West Europe by the 14th century. England in the early 15th century. Before the 16th century carrots were purple or yellow with long roots. The yellow roots were often preferred because they did noearly short horn carrott release anthocyanins during cooking. In the 16th century it is thought that Dutch growers developed a denser orange carotene carrot from yellow varieties and this deep orange carrot was the progenitor of the modern cultivated carrot we know.

The first evidence of carrot used as a food crop is in the Iranian Plateau and the Persian Empire in the 10th century AD (Brothwell & Brothwell 1969). These original carrot roots were purple and yellow in colour. From Persia, cultivated carrot spread to surrounding areas. Orange carrots appear to have become popular in the 16th century when Dutch and Spanish paintings began depicting orange carrots in market scenes (Banga 1963), although orange carrots likely originated much earlier (Stolarczyk & Janick 2011). Banga (1957) first hypothesized that orange carrots were initially selected from yellow cultivars and this is now supported by modern genetic analyses (Simon et al 2016).

The western, orange carrot probably arose in Europe or in the western Mediterranean region through gradual selection within yellow carrot populations. The Dutch landraces Long Orange and the finer Horn types, first described in 1721, were an important basis for the western carrot cultivars grown at present all over the world.

The word "carrot" was first recorded in English around 1530 and was borrowed from Middle French carotte, itself from Latin carōta, from Greek καρωτόν karōton. In Old English, carrots (typically white at the time) were not clearly distinguished from parsnips, the two being collectively called moru or more (from Proto-Indo-European *mork- "edible root", German for carrot is Möhre). Various languages still use the same word for "carrot" as they do for "root"; e.g. in Dutch it is wortel.


Wild Carrot - 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.

Wild carrot is more in evidence than cultivated carrots in classical sources. They had edible leaves and thin, strong tasting white roots which ere prescribed for medicinal purposes. Names include Greek keras, staphylinos agrios, daukos and Latin daucus, pastinaca rustica. According to Pliny and Dioscorides these had aphrodisiac properties. (References:Dioscorides MM 3,35;Pliny NH 19,89, also 20.30-2 citing ‘Orpheus’, also 25.110-12;Galen SF 12.129)

An early form of carrot began to be cultivated in the last few centuries BCE. It is first mentioned in the 3rd century BCE by Diphilus of Siphnos. It was diuretic; it was also juicier and more digestible than the parsnip. This carrot was not red (or orange), it was whitish and understandably confused with parsnip as the same plant. The “redness” feature is thought ot have emerged in varieties developed in post classical times, after hybridisation with a central Asian species in the early Middle ages. The first European author who mentions red and yellow carrots is the Byzantine dietician Simeon Seth, in the 11th century.

(references: Dioscorides MM 3,57, E 2.101;Galen AF 6.654, SF 11.862; Athenaeus D 371d-e citing Diphilus of Siphnos (karo); Simeon Seth p35 Langkavel)

The Carrot has a somewhat obscure history, surrounded by doubt and enigma and it is difficult to The diversity of carrot colors and shapespin 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..................... 


First cultivation - where and when. The Domesticated Carrot

Graphic - History of carrot domestication - key periods

The time frame and geographic region(s) of the first cultivation of carrots are unclear.  N Vavilov (1926) 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”. (Vavilov, N.I. 1926. Studies on the Origin of Cultivated Plants. 248 pp. Leningrad.)

More recent work e.g. by Harlan (1992), suggests that a centre of origin for a given spp is not necessarily the centre of diversity - Vavilov concluded that a centre of origin was characterized by dominant alleles while towards the periphery, the frequency of recessive alleles increased and the genetic diversity decreased. Vavilov's original concept was modified by Harlan J.R (1971) who proposed that crops may have originated from centres and non-centres  Centre: A delimited geographical area where a crop was domesticated and from which it was distributed to other areas. Non-centre: A broad geographical area where a crop was domesticated and from which it was distributed to other areas.

n vavilov centres of carrot diversity

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).

In the US Department of Agriculture circular dated March 1950 are listed 389 names that have been applied to orange-fleshed carrot varieties or strains. This gave a thorough classification of all varieties of orange rooted carrots found in the US at the time. On the basis of their general or outstanding characteristics these varieties or strains were classified in 9 major groups, as follows: I, French Forcing; II, Scarlet Horn ; III, Oxheart ; IV, Chantenay ; V, Danvers ; VI, Imperator; VII, James' Intermediate; VIII, Long Orange; and IX, Nantes (Synonymy of Orange-Fleshed Varieties of Carrots M F  Babb 1950).

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, non-pubescent, 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 evidenceThe Carrot Field of Iran

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