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Changes in key traits occurring during the processes of plant domestication have long been subjects of debate. Only in the case of genetic analysis or with extensive plant remains can specific sets of changes be documented. Historical details of the plant domestication processes are rare and other evidence of morphological change can be difficult to obtain, especially for those vegetables that lack a substantial body of archaeological data. Botanical records chronicled in the ancient literature of established ancient civilizations, such as that of China, are invaluable resources for the study and understanding of the process of plant domestication. Here, the considerable body of ancient Chinese literature is used to explore the domestication process that has occurred with the eggplant (Solanum melongena), an important vegetable in Old World.
Information about eggplant domestication in the ancient Chinese literature was retrieved using a variety of methods. The information obtained was then sorted by taxon, examined and taxonomic identifications verified.
It was found that the earliest record of the eggplant documented in ancient Chinese literature was in a work from 59 bc. As far as is known, this is the earliest reliable and accurately dated record of eggplant in cultivation. The analysis reveals that the process of domestication of the eggplant in China involved three principal aspects of fruit quality: size, shape and taste. These traits were actively and gradually selected; fruit size changed from small to large, taste changed from not palatable to what was termed at the time sweetish, and that over time, a wider variety of fruit shapes was cultivated.
The results indicate that, in addition to data gleaned from archaeology and genetics, evidence as to changes in key traits occurring during the process of plant domestication and selective forces responsible for these changes can be traced through the ancient literature in some civilizations.