For most of the 20th century, anthropologists were keen typologists, preferring to categorize and classify the diversity of social and cultural phenomena they encountered. The diverse ways in which people engaged in production to satisfy their subsistence needs fell within five broad categories. One of these adaptive strategies is known as horticulture. Horticultural production is found throughout the world in a wide variety of climatic and geographical circumstances. To some extent, the more common association of horticultural production to tropical climatic zones skews our understanding of this adaptive strategy.
The general, defining characteristics of this form of production include a nonintensive use of land and labor, simple technology, varying periods of fallow, and human labor as the only means of working and fertilizing the land. More specifically, horticultural activity involves a preliminary clearing and burning of vegetation in an area determined by the group to be ready for production. Following a season of growth and harvest, the area is abandoned and left to regenerate until needed again. This is known as fallow or shifting cultivation. The period of fallow can range from 2 to 25 years, depending upon the location and fertility of the soils. When burned and the vegetation reduced to ash and charcoal, the area is cleared of debris and readied for planting. Apart from the use of adzes, machetes, and fire in the preparation of land for planting, the simple digging stick or hoe is the primary tool of production.
Once cleared, the horticultural plot is planted with suitable cultigens, depending upon climatic and soil conditions. Generally, horticultural production is associated with tubers, such as yams, potato, taro, and manioc, or seed production, including cultigens such as maize, beans, and squash. While all populations plant a variety of food crops in their cleared plots, there is always a dominant cultigen that people regard as their staple and around which much social and ritual activity revolves.
Apart from periodic bursts of activity during a growing season, depending upon the needs of the cultigen and the conditions in which it has to grow, the plot is maintained with little effort, leaving the group plenty of time for other activities. As in all other forms of subsistence, horticulturalists engage in other activities to secure food. Hunting and gathering available foodstuffs are often a daily part of people’s lives, as is the raising of domesticated animals, such as pigs, chickens, goats, and sheep. Harvest brings on a new urgency as the crops are removed from the ground and people celebrate the results of their labor. Soon after, other areas are identified for clearing and a new cycle begins of clearing, burning, planting, growth, and harvest.
Other terms used for horticultural production are slash-and-burn, swidden, or shifting cultivation. Slash-and-burn refers to the seasonal clearing of new ground, emphasizing how vital the burning of vegetation is to the fertilization of the land. Slash-and-burn methodology also enables a relatively laborfree means of clearing. Swidden refers to the characteristically small tropical forest clearings found in South America, Melanesia, the Pacific, Indonesia, South Asia, and Africa. Although horticultural production is capable of supporting large populations, there is a tendency for these to be dispersed into smaller village groups, who in some areas relocate their villages to remain close to the newly cleared garden plots, hence their “shifting” strategies as a form of adaptation.
- Clarke, W. C. (1971). Place and people: An ecology of a New Guinea community. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Cohen, Y. A. (1974). Man in adaptation: The cultural present (2nd ed.). Chicago: Aldine.
- De Schlippe, P. (1956). Shifting cultivation in Africa. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Kunstadter, P., Chapman, E. C., & Sabhasri, S. (Eds.). (1978). Farmers in the forest. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.