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History of Soy

On The Domestication of the Soybean (1)

by Theodore Hymowitz (2)

Soybeans, together with bananas, barley, common beans, cassavas, coconuts, maize, peanuts, potatoes, rice, sorghum, sugar beets, sugarcane, sweet potatoes and wheat, are man's principal food plants (12). Today, the soybean, like so many other food plants, is taken for granted, that is, without appreciable forethought as to when and where it was adapted to the needs of man, how, when and by whom it was disseminated, and whether or not the distribution of soybeans took place in prehistoric or within the modern era (73). In addition to the general lack of urgency in studying the origin of the soybean, it is unfortunate that the literature concerned with the antiquity and historical development of the soybean and its agricultural consequences is fraught with errors and misconceptions. This is mainly due to two reasons: (a) the soybean is autochthonous to the Orient, where western scientists are at a linguistic disadvantage with respect to historical records; (b) it is only in recent times that attention has been focused on studying in depth, using a team approach, the interrelationships between the domestication of plants and animals and development and needs of human society (10, 32, 67, 115). During the past 30 years, many Chinese historical books, commentaries and materia medica have been translated into western languages and a large amount of archeological material has been uncovered, both on mainland China and in Taiwan. This paper is an attempt to reconcile the old archeological, historical, agricultural and botanical literature with the more recent data and to establish a working hypothesis on the domestication of the soybean.


The Current Status of the Soybean

During the first three decades of the twentieth century soybean production was largely confined to the Orient. China, Indonesia, Japan, and Korea were the major producers of soybeans (17, 88, 87). However, in the late l940's and early l950's, the U.S. overtook China and eventually the entire Orient in soybean production. By 1968, approximately 28 million hectares of soybeans were sown in nearly 25 countries. Farmers in the U.S. and China grew 76 and l7 percent of the total world production, respectively. Other countries with large soybean hectarage are Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea and U.S.S.R. (85). Over one-half of the soybean production in the U.S. comes from the eastern Corn Belt which includes the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio. An additional one-quarter of the U.S. soybeans is produced in the south central states of Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee (Fig. 1). In China (Fig. 2) soybean production is concentrated in Manchuria (Heilungkiang, Kirin, Liaoning) and Shantung. Soybeans are also grown extensively in the provinces of Anhwei, Honan, Hopei, Kansu, Kiangsu, Shansi, Shensi and Szechwan, (13, 70). It is interesting to note that the areas of greatest soybean production of both China and the U.S. are located within the 35 to 45 degree north latitudes.

soy regions of US
Fig. 1. The major soybean regions in the United States

Laufer (60) astutely observed that the Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Malayans and Indo-Chinese do not drink animal milk despite an abundance of milk producing animals such as cows, buffaloes, goats and sheep in their possession. On the other hand, the Indo-Europeans, Semites and the nomadic tribesmen of North Central Asia are animal milk drinkers. In the Far East, the soybean, sometimes called "the cow of China" is utilized in liquid, powder or curd forms to make miso (fermented soy paste), shoyu (soy sauce), tofu (soy curd), natto (fermented soy cheese) tempeh, yuba, kinako, hamanatto, kochu chang and soy milk. Immature green beans and soybean sprouts are considered highly nutritious and consumed in great quantities (15, 28, 41, 87, 99, 104).

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1 Contribution from the Crop Evolution Laboratory, Department of Agronomy, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. Submitted for publication 6 July 1970. Published in Economic Botany, Vol. 24, No. 4, October-December 1970.

2 Assistant Professor of Plant Genetics, University of Illinois. The research reported in this paper was supported in part by a grant from the National Soybean Processors Association.


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