The origins of the practices of soil cultivation, crop harvesting, and livestock raising traditionally are regarded as the main criteria of transition to the next stage of human society and culture development following hunter-gatherers community and directly preceding the formation of state and private property. The premises of the origin of agriculture as well as the mechanisms of its dissemination over the world remain under discussion in contemporary cultural anthropology.
Theories and Premises
One of the earliest explanations of the origins of agriculture was proposed by G. Childe, in his idea of “Neolithic revolution.” According to Childe, drought and supply shortage stimulated food production in oases. Later, demographic agency has been put forward as a necessary background of transition to the productive economy (L. Binford), alongside a wide spectrum of social and ecological factors (R. Braidwood, K. Flannery, C. Renfrew, V. Masson, V. Shnirelman, L. White, and many others). Today, most researchers tend to interpret the origin of agriculture as the inevitable response to a crisis in the traditional hunter-gatherer economy and the necessity of securing a subsistence system in a new ecological situation. Alongside a disparity of natural resources and human needs, other factors contributed to the origin of agriculture, such as presence of plants suitable for cultivation and human knowledge about the biological peculiarities of these plants.
Mechanisms and Chronology
The mechanisms and chronology of the origin of agriculture traditionally are conceptualized throughout several binary oppositions existing in prehistoric science for the last two centuries. Monocentric versus polycentric paradigms are rivals when discussing the place of plant cultivation origin; in the frameworks of each theory, revolutionary versus evolutionary views coexist. At the same time, in different case studies, early farming has been interpreted as fundamental to late prehistoric population subsistence system or only as an additional food supply alongside hunting, gathering, and fishing.
Today, agriculture dissemination over the world is considered a long-lasting process that was generated independently in several regions (primary loci), starting around 9,000 BC (“effective” village stage, Jarmo culture of the Middle East). Harvest collecting arose from seed gathering. The earliest evidences of plant domestication are traces at Natufian settlements of Palestine, Shanidar, and Ali Kosh (in present-day Iran and Iraq) and are dated about 9000 BC to 7000 BC.
Seven primary loci of agriculture origin, huge areas where the transition to an agricultural mode of life was based on a complex of cultural plants, have been distinguished by Soviet geneticist N. Vavilov:
- East Mediterranean locus, or Fertile Crescent (Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Turkey); 9000-7000 BC; wheat, barley, rye.
- South Asian locus (southern China, southeastern India, and southeastern Asia); 7000-5000 BC; rice, tuberousals.
- East Asian locus (Mongolia, Amour region, northern China); 7000-5000 BC; Chinese millet, beans.
- Sahara and Sudan; 4000-3000 BC; pearl millet, sorghum.
- Guinea and Cameroon; 4000-2000 BC; yams, beans, oil-bearing palms.
- Mesoamerican locus (central and southern Mexico); 9000-4000 BC; maize, amaranth, string beans, pumpkins, peppers, garden trees.
- Andean locus (Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia); 7000-5000 BC; potatoes and sweet potatoes, manioc, amaranth.
Historical Significance and Economic Consequences
The historical significance and economic consequences of the development of agriculture are connected, first of all, with the cyclical character and long-lasting effects resulting from the regularities of land cultivation and harvesting. Improvement of such activity required the formation of a settled mode of life, the concept of land as property, and labor division in its social (gender, age) as well as seasonal forms. These tendencies led to the transformation of the whole system of social distribution of food supply and material valuables of the society. The possibility of obtaining predictable excess of the products gave the opportunity (or even necessity) for its holders (“big men”) to organize ritual ceremonies (potlatch), which resulted in the growth of their importance in the community. A so-called prestige economy led to the formation of property and social inequality and, in turn, to the formation of social classes, exploitation, and political organization.
Transition to the settled mode of life required the formation of many sorts of household activities necessary to secure the livelihood of early farmers. The origins of ceramic production, spinning, weaving, advanced tool production technique and means of transportation, and other phenomena are connected with the needs of a new form of production. First, the negative consequences of early farming (environment pollution, forest reduction, soil deterioration, infections, and epidemics) also could be traced as early as the Neolithic.
Agriculture improvement necessarily accompanied with development of rational knowledge in the field of plant biology and soil peculiarities; weather prediction and first calendars have been elaborated at that time.
A new form of ideology was required to accommodate the new form of production and secure its repetition by following generations. Fertility cults and cosmogony and the beginning of deification of elements of nature coincided with the advent of agriculture.
The diversity and global character of the historical consequences of the transition to agriculture, and its deep influence on all spheres of human life, are reasons to consider this phenomenon as the background for the “wide-spectrum revolution” theory proposed by K. Flannery.
- Higgs, E. S. (Ed.). (1972). Papers in economic prehistory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Hutchinson, J. (Ed.). Essays on crop plant evolution. (1965). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Rindos, D. (Ed.). (1984). Origins of agriculture: An evolutionary perspective. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.