Origins of agriculture discussed in detail

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Price Bar Yosef 2011 Fig 1 worldwide origins of ag

Figure 1 (reduced), from the issue’s introductory article, The Origins of Agriculture: New Data, New Ideas: An Introduction to Supplement 4, by T. Douglas Price and Ofer Bar-Yosef. The original caption is: “Major centers of domestication and dates for earliest plants and animals. Illustration by Marcia Bakry.”

Archaeologists, who study human society, ponder several broad, overarching questions. One is: how did agriculture come about?

Obviously, way back in the distant human past, there was a time when people did not do any agricultural activities—no farming, no planting, no animal husbandry, no cultivation of any kind.

And today, over much of the world where the climate is hospitable to agriculture, humans do farm, or cultivate animals and plants.

Somewhere in between, there was a transition from one to the other. We can expect that transition to vary across space and over time. For example, different plant and animal species were involved, and climates differed.

The October 2011 Supplement 4 issue of Current Anthropology, titled The Origins of Agriculture: New Data, New Ideas, is devoted to this topic—and the twenty-two articles it includes are available for free. Click here to see all the titles, and to access the articles.

These articles are the thoughtful result of a 2009 Symposium sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. T. Douglas Price and Ofer Bar-Yosef co-organized the Symposium, and authored an introductory article that notes (page S168):

The origins of agriculture is one of the most important developments in our past. Virtually everything we as humans know and do today stems from this remarkable transition. Detailed study of this issue—the presentation of evidence and the evaluation of potential answers—has significance for students of the past, for anthropology as a whole, and for a wide range of related areas of scholarly interest.

Having compiled significant new data about the origins of agriculture, Price and Bar-Yosef write (page S172):

Beyond the specific details of local sequences, the nuances of plant and animal domestication, and concerns with the meaning of the evidence, certain larger questions arose again and again. What determines where the first farmers appeared? What makes centers of origin special places? Why do humans domesticate plants and animals? Why are some plants and animals selected for manipulation and not others? Is the domestication process determined solely by the biology of the selected species? What can we say about timing? How long does it take to domesticate plants and animals? How does the timing of this process interlace with developments such as sedentism, population growth, and social inequality? Why was agriculture such a successful adaptation? How does agriculture spread quickly to areas with different cultures, climates, and environments? Can the spread of agriculture tell us about its origins? What spreads, people or things? How do we best explain the origins of agriculture?

If you’re interested in Georgia archaeology, you may want to read Bruce D. Smith’s contribution, The Cultural Context of Plant Domestication in Eastern North America. Smith includes the following comments in his closing paragraph:

The debate about the role of population growth, landscape packing, and resource in the initial domestication of plants and animals worldwide will no doubt continue for a substantial period of time. I would argue, however, that eastern North America, arguably the best-documented regional case study currently available, does not provide much support for general models, including those of human behavioral ecology…that incorporate environmental downturn, external environmental stress, population growth, landscape packing, constricted resource zones, and carrying-capacity imbalance or resource scarcity in explaining the initial domestication process. Based on the archaeological information now available, small societies in eastern North America first domesticated local seed plants and developed initial crop complexes in resource-rich river valley environments within a larger context of stable long-term adaptations and broad-scale niche construction efforts that were carried out in the absence of any carrying-capacity challenges or seriously compressed and compromised resource catchment areas.

Want to ponder the origins of agriculture? Read some of these articles and you will find you’re embracing a knotty topic. Something else to ponder…in the global map above, why do the origins cluster in the mid-latitudes?