Humanity’s transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture is one of the most important developments in human and Earth history. Human societies, plant and animal populations, the makeup of the atmosphere, even the Earth’s surface – all were irreversibly transformed.
When asked about this transition, some people might be able to name the Neolithic Revolution or point to the Fertile Crescent on a map. This widespread understanding is the product of years of toil by archaeologists, who diligently unearthed the sickles, grinding stones and storage vessels that spoke to the birth of new technologies for growing crops and domesticating animals. The story they constructed went something like this: beginning in the Near East some 11,000 years ago, humans discovered how to control the reproduction of wheat and barley, which precipitated a rapid switch to farming. Within 500 to 1,000 years, a scattering of small farming villages sprang up, each with several hundred inhabitants eating bread, chickpeas and lentils, soon also herding sheep and goats in the hills, some keeping cattle.
This sedentary lifestyle spread, as farmers migrated from the Fertile Crescent through Turkey and, from there, over the Bosporus and across the Mediterranean into Europe. They moved east from Iran into South Asia and the Indian subcontinent, and south from the Levant into eastern Africa. As farmers and herders populated new areas, they cleared forests to make fields and brought their animals with them, forever changing local environments. Over time, agricultural advances allowed ever larger and denser settlements to flourish, eventually giving rise to cities and civilisations, such as those in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus and later others throughout the Mediterranean and elsewhere.
For many decades, the study of early agriculture centred on only a few other regions apart from the Fertile Crescent. In China, millet, rice and pigs gave rise to the first Chinese cities and dynasties. In southern Mexico, it was maize, squash and beans that were first cultivated and supported later civilisations such as the Olmecs or the Puebloans of the American Southwest. In Peru, native potato, quinoa and llamas were among species domesticated by 5,000 years ago that made later civilisations in the Andes possible. In each of these regions, the transition to agriculture set off trends of rising human populations and growing settlements that required increasing amounts of wood, clay and other raw materials from the surrounding environments.
Yet for all its sweep and influence, this picture of the spread of agriculture is incomplete. New technologies have changed how archaeology is practised, from the way we examine ancient food scraps at a molecular level, to the use of satellite photography to trace patterns of irrigation across entire landscapes. Recent discoveries are expanding our awareness of just how early, extensive and transformative humans’ use of land has been. The rise of agriculture was not a ‘point in time’ revolution that occurred only in a few regions, but rather a pervasive, socioecological shifting back and forth across fuzzy thresholds in many locations. [Continue reading…]