“It was the first of September and the time when the apple ripen. We could see with our own eyes that here we were in a remarkable centre of origin of apples…”

– From the book, Five Continents by Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov

The birthplace of the apple has been hotly debated throughout history. Food historians and biologists thought it might have been the ancient Romans, but others peoples like the Nordics, Baltics, Celts, Swiss, and even Americans, have laid claim it. All this was put to rest in 1929 by the great Russian geneticist, agronomist, scientist, and geographer Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov.

When Vavilov stumbled into the forests on the slopes of the Tien Shan mountains outside Almaty, Kazakhstan, he immediately recognised the area as a ‘living laboratory where one can see the evolutionary process unfolding before one’s eyes.’ He had a simple theory: the likely origin of a species is the place where it shows the greatest genetic diversity. And that’s how the debate ended.

The locals of course had always prided over it: Almaty was called Alma-Ata (Father of Apples). In fact Kazakhstan’s diverse flora has been home to 157 direct precursors or wild relatives of domesticated crops.

Vavilov, who travelled the world collecting thousands of seeds established the world’s largest seed bank in Leningrad.  Celebrated through the 1920s, he was awarded the Lenin Prize, the highest decoration for Science. He has been called a genius for the sheer magnitude of his collection and the simplicity of his theories on agronomy and food security.

Vavilov’s genius could not save him from a disastrous end. He fell out of favour with the Stalinist regime, after Stalin’s failed experiment with farm ‘collectivism’, and was even branded as an ‘anti-soviet spy’ and saboteur. He died in a hard labour camp in 1943.

There is much more to this story of Vavilov: an unheard-of genius of the modern era who did as much work with plant biology and genetics as did Darwin with the animal kingdom.

The story of this literal ‘Garden of Eden’ and Vavilov’s genius fired me up so much that I had to make a quick dash to Kazakhstan!

Why is Kazakhstan shrouded in mystery?

See Kazakhstan Part 2.