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date: 24 January 2021

Geography and Chronology of the Transition to Agriculturelocked

  • Peter BoguckiPeter BoguckiPrinceton University

Summary

After millennia of hunting and gathering, prehistoric human societies around the world made the transition to food production using domesticated plants and animals. Several key areas for the initial domestication of plants and animals can be identified: southwestern Asia, Mesoamerica, China, Neotropical South America, eastern North America, Highland New Guinea, and sub-Saharan Africa. In the Old World, wheat, barley, millet, rice, sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs were the major founding crops, while in the New World, maize, squashes, beans, and many other seed and tuber plants were brought into cultivation. Although each area had its own distinct pathway to agriculture, it typically followed a standard path from resource management by hunter-gatherers, incipient cultivation (and livestock herding in some areas), domestication, to commitment to agriculture. Many theories to explain the transition to agriculture have been proposed. Early single-factor hypotheses have been largely discarded in favor models drawn from human evolutionary biology that emphasize the interplay between humans and the species targeted for domestication. Although within the long span of human history, the transition from hunting and gathering to farming in the last 10,000 years can be considered extraordinarily rapid, usually this process took decades, centuries, or even millennia when considered from the perspective of the human factors involved. From these core areas, agricultural practices dispersed, both through their integration into the plant and animal economies of hunter-gatherer societies and through the spread of farming populations. The transition to agriculture had consequences on a global scale, leading to social complexity and, in many cases, urban societies that would be impossible to imagine without agriculture.

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