The concept of centers of origin was first proposed by the Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943). Vavilov headed what was to be eventually named the Vavilov All-Union Institute of Plant Industry from 1920 to 1940. One of his missions was to collect crop-related germplasm for use in national plant breeding projects.
During his explorations, Vavilov observed that crop diversity tends to be concentrated around specific regions. He proposed that these concentrations of high variability indicated the regions where domestication of these crops began. This concept went against the prevailing view that cultivation of plants started randomly all over the world.
In 1926, Vavilov published his theories in his “Studies on the Origin of Cultivated Plants". He identified eight primary areas of diversity and origin of cultivated plants. These areas came to be known as the Vavilov Centers of Diversity or simply, Vavilov Centers. Following are these eight centers and some of the crops for which they are centers of origin/diversity:
1. China – buckwheat, soybean, peach, cherry, onion
2. India/Indochina – rice, chickpea, cucumber, mango, orange
3. Central Asia – common wheat, peas, lentils, mungbean
4. The Near East – rye,alfalfa, fenugreek, lentils
5. The coast of the Mediterranean Sea – durum wheat, cabbage, lettuce, celery
6. Ethiopia – barley, pearl millet, flax, coffee, sesame
7. Southern Mexico/Middle America – corn, lima beans, cotton, sweetpotato, pepper
8. South America – strawberry, potato, tomato, pumpkin, pepper
In 1971, American scientist Jack Harlan (1917-1998) proposed a modification to the concept of Vavilov Centers. He theorized that that there are three regions in which domestication of plants originated, and that for each, there is a definable center of origin and a more disperse noncenter, each of which which interacts with the other. These regions are:
Near East (center) and Africa (noncenter)
North China (center) and Southeast Asia and the South Pacific (noncenter)
Mesoamerica (center) and South America (noncenter)
While the designations of centers of origin and diversity continue to evolve, particularly with modern approaches using DNA and molecular biology, Vavilov and Harlan’s theories are still useful in the study of plant origins and crop domestication.