Background: Prehistoric human activities have contributed to the dispersal of many culturally important plants. The study of these traditional interactions can alter the way we perceive the natural distribution and dynamics of species and communities. Comprehensive research on native crops combining evolutionary and anthropological data is revealing how ancient human populations influenced their distribution. Although traditional diets also included a suite of non-cultivated plants that in some cases necessitated the development of culturally important technical advances such as the treatment of toxic seed, empirical evidence for their deliberate dispersal by prehistoric peoples remains limited. Here we integrate historic and biocultural research involving Aboriginal people, with chloroplast and nuclear genomic data to demonstrate Aboriginal-mediated dispersal of a non-cultivated rainforest tree.
Results: We assembled new anthropological evidence of use and deliberate dispersal of Castanospermum australe (Fabaceae), a non-cultivated culturally important riparian tree that produces toxic but highly nutritious water-dispersed seed. We validated cultural evidence of recent human-mediated dispersal by revealing genomic homogeneity across extensively dissected habitat, multiple catchments and uneven topography in the southern range of this species. We excluded the potential contribution of other dispersal mechanisms based on the absence of suitable vectors and current distributional patterns at higher elevations and away from water courses, and by analyzing a comparative sample from northern Australia.
Conclusions: Innovative studies integrating evolutionary and anthropological data will continue to reveal the unexpected impact that prehistoric people have had on current vegetation patterns. A better understanding of how traditional practices shaped species’ distribution and assembly will directly inform cultural heritage management strategies, challenge “natural” species distribution assumptions, and provide innovative baseline data for pro-active biodiversity management.