On December 2nd, 2015 we learned about

Preserved pits put nearly-modern peaches in the Pliocene

The origin of peaches has been passed from archaeology to paleontology. They have long been thought to have been natives of ancient China, but some fossilized peach pits have pushed the earliest date for a recognizable form of Prunus persica¬†well before any possible human involvement. The lineage of these plants hasn’t been completely discovered, but this new date forces some reconsideration of how humans cultivated the juicy, golden fruit. While hominids may have had a hand in selecting for the sweeter, tastier fruit, it’s clear that peaches are older than modern humans, not the other way around.

Fossilized stones

Eight specimens were discovered, but they obviously didn’t include the soft meat of the fruit. The fossilized pits, or endocarps, were well persevered, exhibiting a tough, woody structure so similar to modern peaches there was some concern they were just discarded from someone’s lunch break. A closer look showed that the actual seeds inside the pit had been replaced by iron deposits, and that the walls of the pit itself were completely recrystallized. What’s more, they were recovered from Pliocene rock layers among other fossilized plants, indicating an age of at least 2.5 million years. Radiocarbon dating was also used, but these peach pits were basically off the charts, as carbon dating is only accurate to around 50,000 years, and these specimens clearly exceeded that threshold.

Even without knowing the exact age of these peaches, knowing they’re over 50,000 years old is an exciting detail. We know there were some human migrations through Asia around 1.6 million years ago, but the first evidence we have of humans interacting with peaches dates to a mere 8,000 years ago. That relatively recent interaction spurred the idea that modern peaches were the result of human selection or possibly active cultivation. As much as a sugary-fruit seems like the kind of thing our species would come up with, the fossilized pits indicate that these ancient fruit were already well on there way to summertime snacks.

Ancient but up-to-date

Assuming that the pit to flesh ratio was roughly consistent with modern fruit, these peaches would have been around two inches in diameter. This probably wouldn’t be your first choice in the produce department, but it’s well within range of the growth of modern plants. Compared to how drastically many other fruits and vegetables have been altered through human domestication, peaches stand out as a modern fruit ahead of their time.

Source: Eat a paleo peach: First fossil peaches discovered in southwest China by Matthew Carroll, Penn State University News

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