Deborah L. Nichols
The Basin of Mexico is a key world region for understanding agricultural intensification and the development of ancient and historic cities and states. Archaeologists working in the region have had a long-standing interest in understanding the dynamics of interactions between society and environment and their research has been at the forefront of advances in both method and theory. The Basin of Mexico was the geopolitical core of the Aztec empire, the largest state in the history of Mesoamerica. Its growth was sustained by a complex economy that has been the subject of much research.
Two themes underlie a broad interest in the pre-Hispanic agriculture of the Basin of Mexico. First, how with a Neolithic technology did the Aztecs and their predecessors sustain the growth of large cites, dense rural populations, and the largest state system in the history of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica? Second, what is the relationship of agricultural intensification and urbanization and state formation? Mesoamerica is the only world region where primary civilizations developed that lacked domestic herbivores for either food or transportation. Their farming depended entirely on human labor and hand tools but sustained large cities, dense populations, and complex social institutions. Intensive agriculture began early and was promoted by risk, ecological diversity, and social differentiation, and included irrigation, terracing, and drained fields (chinampas). Most farming was managed by smallholder households and local communities, which encouraged corporate forms of governance and collective action. Environmental impacts included erosion and deposition, but were limited compared with the degradation that took place in the colonial period.
Simon Holdaway and Rebecca Phillipps
Northeast Africa forms an interesting case study for investigating the relationship between changes in environment and agriculture. Major climatic changes in the early Holocene led to dramatic changes in the environment of the eastern Sahara and to the habitation of previously uninhabitable regions. Research programs in the eastern Sahara have uncovered a wealth of archaeological evidence for sustained occupation during the African Humid Period, from about 11,000 years ago. Initial studies of faunal remains seemed to indicate early shifts in economic practice toward cattle pastoralism. Although this interpretation was much debated when it was first proposed, the possibility of early pastoralism stimulated discussion concerning the relationships between people and animals in particular environmental contexts, and ultimately led to questions concerning the role of agriculture imported from elsewhere in contrast to local developments. Did agriculture, or indeed cultivation and domestication more generally (sensu Fuller & Hildebrand, 2013), develop in North Africa, or were the concepts and species imported from Southwest Asia? And if agriculture did spread from elsewhere, were just the plants and animals involved, or was the shift part of a full socioeconomic suite that included new subsistence strategies, settlement patterns, technologies, and an agricultural “culture”? And finally, was this shift, wherever and however it originated, related to changes in the environment during the early to mid-Holocene?
These questions refer to the “big ideas” that archaeologists explore, but before answers can be formed it is important to consider the nature of the material evidence on which they are based. Archaeologists must consider not only what they discover but also what might be missing. Materials from the past are preserved only in certain places, and of course some materials can be preserved better than others. In addition, people left behind the material remains of their activities, but in doing so they did not intend these remains to be an accurate historical record of their actions. Archaeologists need to consider how the remains found in one place may inform us about a range of activities that occurred elsewhere for which the evidence may be less abundant or missing. This is particularly true for Northeast Africa where environmental shifts and consequent changes in resource abundance often resulted in considerable mobility. This article considers the origins of agriculture in the region covering modern-day Egypt and Sudan, paying particular attention to the nature of the evidence from which inferences about past socioeconomies may be drawn.