Biocultural diversity of common walnut (Juglans regia L.) and sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa Mill.) across Eurasia

Paola Pollegioni, Stefano Del Lungo, Ruth Müller, Keith E. Woeste, Francesca Chiocchini, Jo Clark, Gabriel E. Hemery, Sergio Mapelli, Fiorella Villani, Maria Emilia Malvolti, Claudia Mattioni

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A biocultural diversity approach integrates plant biology and germplasm dispersal processes with human cultural diversity. An increasing number of studies have identified cultural factors and ethnolinguistic barriers as the main drivers of the genetic diversity in crop plants. Little is known about how anthropogenic processes have affected the evolution of tree crops over the entire time scale of their interaction with humans. In Asia and the Mediterranean, common walnut ( Juglans regia L.) and sweet chestnut ( Castanea sativa Mill.) have been economically and culturally important crops for millennia; there, in ancient times, they were invested with symbolic and religious significance. In this study, we detected a partial geographic congruence between the ethno-linguistic repartition of human communities, the distribution of major cognitive sets of word-related terms, and the inferred genetic clusters of common walnut and sweet chestnut populations across Eurasia. Our data indicated that isolation by distance processes, landscape heterogeneity and cultural boundaries might have promoted simultaneously human language diversification and walnut/chestnut differentiation across the same geographic macro-regions. Hotspots of common walnut and sweet chestnut genetic diversity were associated with areas of linguistic enrichment in the Himalayas, Trans-Caucasus, and Pyrenees Mountains, where common walnuts and sweet chestnuts had sustained ties to human culture since the Early Bronze Age. Our multidisciplinary approach supported the indirect and direct role of humans in shaping walnut and chestnut diversity across Eurasia from the EBA (e.g., Persian Empire and Greek-Roman colonization) until the first evidence of active selection and clonal propagation by grafting of both species. Our findings highlighted the benefit of an efficient integration of the relevant cultural factors in the classical genome (G) × environmental (E) model and the urgency of a systematic application of the biocultural diversity concept in the reconstruction of the evolutionary history of tree species.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEcology & Evolution
Issue number20
Pages (from-to)11192-11216
Number of pages25
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • anthropogenic processes
  • common walnut
  • human linguistic diversity
  • population genetics
  • sweet chestnut
  • MILL.

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