Transitions to Agriculture The transition in the common mode of subsistence, from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, marks an important stage in the development of mankind. During the time of this transition, humans experienced an increase in their social, political, and technological complexity. A number of varying hypotheses have been put forward to explain the causes of agricultures origin, as well as its effect upon the human population. However, due to the lack of definitive data in much of the archaeological record, it is often difficult to discern the validity of theories suggested to explain either events leading up to, or the consequences of the Agricultural Revolution. Agriculture is defined as the planting of multipropagators of domesticates or cultivars in relatively large plots or fields (Macneish 1992:11).
Agriculture involves changes both in humans use of the earth as well as in the structure and organization of human society. Agriculture is often accompanied by use of ceramic containers, extensive forest clearing, cultivation of hard-shelled cereals which can be stored for long time periods, invention and adoption of technologies for farming, with an increase in sedentism and population, as well as an increased pace towards more complex social and political organization (Price and Gebauer 1995:6).
The process of agricultural domestication seems to be self-perpetuating and begins an increased dependency on cultivated foods rather than on wild resources. Once a commitment to this way of life is made, the necessity of maintaining food production transforms the basis of the society, making a return to the original state improbable or impossible (Smith 1976:17).
Many discussions have been sparked on the topic of whether or not agriculture was beneficial or detrimental to human life. Hypothetically, agriculture, if cultivated correctly, will never allow any part of a group to go hungry. There is no stress about moving because every resource you need is in your back yard. Realistically, agriculture does cause a lot of issues. Problems such as increased ...
Definitive signs of plant cultivation first appeared in early Neolithic villages in the Near East around 7500-7000 B.C. Food production within the area was based on the domestication of approximately nine species of local grain plants (Zohary and Hopf 1988:207).
These early domesticated species include emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, barley, lentils, peas, bitter vetch, chickpeas, broadbeans, and flax (Zohary 1986:5-6).
Zohary and Hopf describe several techniques which are used to date the origin and spread of cultivated plant species.
The analysis of archaeological evidence, such as carbonized plant remains; impressions left on pottery, daub, and bricks; parched plant remains; waterlogged preservation; preservation by oxides of metals; digested or partly digested remains, can help to determine the age of the species. Other methods can include analysis of living plants, such as the wild progenitors from which the cultivated plants evolved, and use of radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology. Many of the preconditions associated with, or appearing just prior to, the development of domestication are commonly agreed upon. The core traits include sedentism, storage abilities, high population densities, high resource diversity, processing and harvesting technology, and good potential domesticates. Possible factors, which may or may not have had a great affect on the transition to agriculture, are competition, ownership of produce and resource localities, changes in climate or vegetation, and population pressure (Hayden 1995:277-280).
One of the most well-known theories for the explanation of the origin of agriculture is the Oasis Theory which was first discussed by Rafael Pumpelly, and later popularized by Gordon Childe from the 1920s and afterward.
Before the 1940s it was thought that the end of the Pleistocene was a period of increasing temperatures and less precipitation. It was therefore suggested that areas such as the Near East would have experienced a period of aridity at the end of the Pleistocene when vegetation only grew around limited water sources- oases (Gebauer and Price 1992:1).
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Childe suggested that farming began where potential animals and plants were available, particularly in Africa and Asia. He proposed that a Post-Pleistocene desiccation expanded the deserts and led to a concentration of men, plants, and animals at oases which might have resulted in the symbiosis implied in domestication. The humans recognized the food potential of the plants and animals, and began experimentation which would eventually lead to agriculture (MacNeish 1992:6).
The hunters whose wives were cultivators had something to offer some of the beasts they hunted- stubble on grain plots and the husks of the grain.
As suitable animals became increasingly hemmed in to the oases by the desert, men might study their habits instead of killing them off-hand, might tame them and make them dependent (Childe 1954:49).
Unfortunately, the Oasis Theory lacks the proof to demonstrate its validity. There is evidence of climatic shifts, but not of drastic desiccation in the Post-Pleistocene period. However, even if there was proof that such a desiccation had occurred, environmental determinism could not serve as a sufficient explanation because it does not explain why there were not similar responses to desiccation at earlier periods. Another hypothesis which was proposed in order to explain the origins of agriculture was Robert Braidwoods theory involving cultural levels. Braidwood suggested that domestication began in the hilly flanks of the Fertile Crescent and not in the lowland oasis area as proposed by Childe.
Braidwood focused on cultural rather than environmental factors in formulating an alternative to Childes hypothesis. Braidwood created a cultural model in which farming was seen as the culmination of ever-increasing cultural differentiation, specialization, and knowledge of habitat and which occurred in zones where potential domesticates were available (Bender 1975:25).
He explained that as human technology and knowledge of the environment improved over time, human populations moving into an environment like the hilly flanks of the Fertile Crescent would eventually realize the potential of the local fauna and flora and would exploit that potential by domesticating the appropriate species (Price and Gebauer 1995:25).
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Braidwood based his hypothesis on inherent human nature, and did not offer a precise reason as to why domestication occurred. His vague explanation was that human technology and culture were ready by the end of the Pleistocene and that farming was a highly desirable invention that would provide security and leisure time. Some hold that an increase in population and sedentism spurred the development of plant domestication. According to Vavilov, humans first settled in the primary hearths of domestication because of the wide variety of plants which were available there. The reason that these plants were domesticated was because increasing populations needed more food (Macneish 1992:7).
The marginality hypothesis is composed of the views of Lewis Binford and Kent Flannery and focuses on the issue of demography. Binford thought that semisedimentary groups living in optimal zones in the post-Pleistocene period would increase in size until they reached the lands carrying capacity, and then the groups would fission. These fissioned-off groups would encroach on inhabitants living outside of the optimal zone and put pressure on food resources. The loss of equilibrium between population size and natural resources would cause some of these groups to intensify their subsistence practices by domesticating plants and animals. Flannery agreed with Binfords assessment and added that plant cultivation might have begun as a deliberate attempt to artificially produce cereal stands in the marginal areas which were as dense as those in the optimal areas (Watson 1995: 26-27).
Brian Hayden explains his difficulties with this theory due to hunter-gatherers strategy of maintaining their population levels in a dynamic equilibrium with their resources. However, Hayden cedes that hunter-gatherers would have faced difficulties if they had lacked the ability to move out of their natal communities and merge with distant allied bands when faced by extreme population pressure and deteriorating climatic conditions.
Resource stress could then have led to efforts to reduce local population as well as to an increase in efforts to extract more resources from the environment through increased intensification (Hayden 1995:288).
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However, there are many such as Gordon Hillman and W. Groenman-Van Waateringe who hold that the triggering factor for the beginning of agriculture was not a food shortage, but abundance. This abundance of available resources allowed humans the leisure time to experiment with new technologies, and develop agriculture, since they were not required to spend all of their time searching for food in order to survive. Brian Hayden also explains that food production, and the competition inherent in it, could only occur in a situation with abundant resources where obligatory food sharing was no longer essential and ownership of produced food was not considered an anathema (Hayden 1992:12).
Another possible reason for the emergence of domestication is socioeconomic competition.
Brian Hayden explains that domestication may be derived from the emergence of economically based competition between individuals for control of wealth and power in hunter-gatherer communities. This competition often involves the use of labor-intensive foods in the form of trade of surpluses, displays of wealth in order to attract labor or support, gifts to individuals in order to exert control over them, and other behavior which can create special value for labor-intensive food in acquiring economic or political advantages (Hayden 1995:289).
Barbara Bender suggests that the success of food production may lie in the ability of certain individuals to accumulate food surplus and convert and to transform it into more valued items such as rare stones and metals (Gebauer and Price 1992:3).
Hayden gives ….