for National Geographic News
A rice variety that made many a colonial plantation owner rich was brought to the United States from West Africa, according to preliminary genetic research.
The finding suggests that African slaves are responsible for nearly every facet of one of the first rice varieties grown in the U.S., as well as one of the most lucrative crops in early American history.
"Not only did they bring the technology, the how-to, they brought the cultivar," said Anna McClung, a genetic researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Stuttgart, Arkansas.
West Africans had been growing varieties of rice for several thousand years before the start of the slave trade with the colonies, McClung said.
Ship masters wanting to deliver healthy slaves to the U.S. bought rice in Africa as provisions for the voyage, according to experts. Once in the colonies, slaves grew leftover rice in their own garden plots for food.
In 1685 plantation owners in the Carolinas started experimenting with a rice variety that produced high yields and was easy to cook, McClung said.
The slaves used their rice-growing know-how to convert the swampy Carolina lowlands to thriving rice plantations replete with canals, dikes, and levies, which facilitated periodic flooding of the fields, McClung noted.
The so-called Carolina Gold variety quickly became a high value export crop, primarily to Europe.
"That was really fundamental for the economic growth of this country, and that hinged upon this one variety," McClung said. "So there's been this question of where did that one variety come from?"
Although thousands of rice varieties exist, they all belong to just two species of domesticated rice that are grown for consumption worldwide.
One species, called Oryza sativa, comes from Asia and dominates the commercial market (related photo: rice farming in China).
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