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Tomato find sows seeds of doubt

Peng Ren ( China Daily )

Until seven years ago, no-one questioned the fact that the tomato was a New World plant.

But its South American origin was thrown into doubt in 1984 when scientists at the Chengdu Agriculture Research Institute in Sichuan Province harvested 34 baby tomatoes from seeds discovered in an ancient tomb dating back more than 2,100 years.

From the tomb, in the Fenghuang Mountains just on the outskirts of Chengdu, archaeologists unearthed some 60 relics - pottery, lacquerware and baskets of rattan and bamboo.

Some seeds, which researchers initially believed to be rice, had settled in the crevices of the baskets. To protect the ancient baskets, they covered the containers with damp sterilized cloth. In less than two weeks, the seeds had begun to germinate.

The surprised researchers took the sprouts to the agricultural research institute for further cultivation. About seven months later, the plants bloomed and bore fruit. Another 10 months later the plants once again carried fruit.

It was of little surprise to scientists that ancient seeds bloom and bear fruit, the scholar Zhi Zi wrote in the latest issue of a Chinese language monthly, the Chinese Culinary Arts.

However, the discovery of tomato seeds that were grown in ancient China more than 2,100 years ago was incredible.

Not wishing to admit this extraordinary fact, skeptical and cautious researchers argued that the tomato seeds had been carried into the tomb by robbers ages later, had been left by visitors to the excavation site, or had existed in the damp cloth that covered the baskets. Their key question was why tomato seeds should remain alive while walnuts, chestnuts and rice grains unearthed with the tomato seeds had become desiccated.

However, archaeologists refuted the arguments. They said there was no sign of a robbery at the site. The baskets carrying the seeds were placed at the bottom of the tomb chamber. The wood coffin, which weighed about 1,000 kilograms, was laid on top of the baskets.

They also pointed out that, during the excavation, policemen were on site to maintain order and keep onlookers away from the tomb.

The damp cloth had been sterilized in boiling water and processed to get rid of germs and bacteria and couldn't possibly have carried modern tomato seeds.

It was only some of the tomato seeds that had remained alive. More tomato seeds unearthed at the site were useless.

Above all, after careful investigation, researchers found that no-one in the neighbourhood had ever grown such a breed of tomato.

This last argument alone proved that the tomato seeds were indeed in the tomb.

Moreover, the ancient seeds bloomed in winter while modern ones flower in summer. And the growing period of the ancient seeds was much longer than their modern strains.

While the ancient seeds contained such trace elements as arsenic and mercury, modern tomato seeds contain phosphorus and chlorine.

The most important conclusion the researchers made was that the tomato seeds had gone through some kind of cultivation process. Therefore implying that the history of tomato cultivation in China might go back more than 2,100 years.

However, according to historical records, tomato cultivation began in China only about 400 years ago, when seeds were brought into China by Western missionaries. The best edible tomato strains were introduced to China from Britain during the Qing Dynasty more than 100 years ago.

As a result, researchers weren't too willing to overturn the commonly recognized facts.

Zhi Zi argues that the tomato's South American origin is still to be debated. It is commonly held that cultivated breeds came from wild strains.

Chinese agronomists have discovered wild tomato strains in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces and in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. These were good enough for human cultivation.

However, Zhi Zi also points out that history indicated the tomato was grown only within a small region. Unknown causes stopped cultivation altogether and people simply forgot there was once such a pulpy red fruit.

Thus, although tomato is widely welcomed as a nutritious vegetable for salad, for stir frying with eggs, as a tasty ketchup sauce, or as a delicious drink, its cultivation and distribution still remain a mystery.

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