The inability to distinguish wild from domesticated poppy seeds has hindered scholars from mapping where and when the plant was first domesticated. On May 18, 2021, in the open-source journal Scientific Reports, Universität Basel archaeologist Ana Jesus and colleagues described a new methodology and provided support for poppy domestication in northern Europe. Poppy is to date the only plant thought to have been domesticated in northern Europe.

This Background Check summarizes previously published information in the scientific literature about the domestication history of poppies. The image above is of the flower and capsule of the opium poppy. Image credit: Raül Soteras, AgriChange Project.

The Opium Poppy

The opium poppy (''Papaver somniferum" L.') is an annual plant native to Asia and the Mediterranean region. In addition to its fame as part of the illegal international drug trade, poppy today is cultivated for its blue-black crunchy seeds and seed oil used in culinary dishes, for medicinal uses, and, because its flowers are bright and colorful, as a garden ornamental. The poppies grown in gardens and produce the tiny seeds (about 1 mm 0.04 inch in length) scattered across bagels are the same plant as those grown to produce opium.

Medically, the domesticated poppy is used as a painkiller, sedative, cough suppressant, and antidiarrheal; it has been investigated as a source of linoleic acid, which is thought to reduce the risk of heart disease (Heinrich 2013). Poppy is primarily known as the source for the analgesic alkaloids codeine, thebaine, and morphine. The alkaloid content is approximately 10–20% of the chemical makeup of poppy seeds.

Scholars largely assume that the poppy was prized prehistorically for its narcotic and culinary uses. Canadian archaeologist Amy Bogaard and colleagues have suggested that another possible prehistoric use of poppy was as a decorative plant, as markers of social identity in the central European Neolithic culture Linearbandkeramik (LBK). The configuration of fields planted to poppy say these scholars, may have reflected a "neighborhood" pattern within those communities.

Domesticating Poppies

Poppies. Image credit: Peter Castleton
Poppies. Image credit: Peter Castleton. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Scholars believe that P. somniferum ssp. somniferum was probably domesticated from the wild opium poppy (Papaver somniferum ssp. setigerum), which is native to the western Mediterranean basin, and probably at least 7,000 years ago. The greatest diversity of poppy species is found in Turkey (36 species); Iran and adjacent areas (30 species); while Spain and Italy only have 15. Scholars generally interpret a high diversity of species as a marker of the plant's site of origin.

The problem with determining where that occurred is that up until recently, it was nearly impossible to differentiate between the P.s. somniferum and P.s. setigerum from the seed alone: the morphological differences of the tiny seeds are most in evidence from the capsule covering the seed, which typically does not survive archaeologically. Poppy seeds found in LBK sites in central Europe have long been considered domesticated because they are outside of their region of origin.

Two theories about where the poppy originated are current in the literature, both attempting to explain how poppy arrived in northern European LBK 5600–5000 cal BCE sites so far outside of its region of origin. Some scholars (including archaeobotanist Aurélie Salavert) argue that the process of poppy domestication occurred in the LBK sites in northern Europe, making it the only crop of any kind to have been domesticated in that region. Others (such as Ferran Antolín and Ramon Buxó) argue that poppy was domesticated in Turkey and/or Iran, and LBK farmers obtained domesticated poppy through contacts with groups in the western Mediterranean, perhaps the La Hoguette Group in France.

New Measurements

Poppy seeds recovered at the archaeological site of Zurich Parkhaus Opéra
Poppy seeds recovered at the archaeological site of Zurich Parkhaus Opéra. Image credit: Raül Soteras, AgriChange Project.

Jesus and colleagues used multiple traditional and geometric measurements on known domesticated and wild poppy seeds and found that by using the number of cells, size measurements, and outline analysis they were able to distinguish known wild from known domesticated seeds 87% of the time. Using those characteristics, the researchers distinguished an equal mixture of domesticated and wild seeds from the Alpine lake dwelling of Zurich-Parkhaus Opéra, Switzerland. That suggests that the poppies may have been undergoing domestication when the house was occupied, although it doesn't rule out other potential reasons why both types would be available. The study's results provide support to the notion that part of the domestication process of the poppy (Papaver somniferum L.) took place in pile dwelling villages in northern Europe, at least by 5500 BCE.

The human process of developing a wild plant into a domesticated one often takes hundreds or thousands years to complete: and so, it is perhaps likely that the domestication process started in Turkey and/or Iraq, and continued in northern Europe.

Lake Dwellings

The Zurich-Parkhaus Opéra site is a single Alpine lake dwelling dated by tree ring analysis to have been built about 3170 BCE. The site was discovered in 2010 during excavation for an underground car park at the Zurich Opera House in Switzerland. Lake dwellings (aka pile dwellings) are the remains of houses erected on lake margins atop wooden pilings pounded into the ground and sometimes supported by a web of horizontal pilings to anchor the structures.

Lake Dwellings (Pfahlbauten in German) range in date between the early Neolithic through Iron Age villages and, because of their location at lake margins often exhibit excellent preservation of organic materials.

Archaeological Evidence

The oldest known occurrence of the poppy is of a single seed is from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic C (7481–5984 BCE) site of Atlit-Yam, in modern-day Israel. Other early occurrences include the earlier sixth-millennium cal BCE in La Draga central Spain and Can Sadurni in central Italy, predating the LBK.

Early Sites (primarily charred seeds):

  • Israel: Atlit-Yam (single wild seed, 9000–8200 cal BP)
  • Germany: Meindling (6000-6400 RCYBP), Wangels LA 505, Bruchenbrücken, Ulm, Vaihingen an der Enz (5500-5100 cal BCE)
  • Italy: La Marmotta (5400 cal BCE)
  • Spain: La Draga, Los Castillejos (6th millennium BCE), Los Murciélagos Cave
  • Switzerland: Tourbillon (4980–4730 cal BCE), La Gillière (4980–4730 cal BCE)
  • Netherlands: Swifterbant culture sites (ca 4900 cal BCE)
  • France: Le Chenet des Pierres (4400–4000 cal BCE)
  • Belgium: Momalle, Bia Flo

Selected Sources

The earliest version of this was first published on in February 2014, and was discontinued there before October 2017.
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