South Asia possesses a unique Neolithic transition to agricultural domestication. India has received far less attention in the quest for evidence of early agriculture than other regions of the world traditionally recognized as “centers of domestication” such as southwest Asia, western Asia, China, Mesoamerica, South America, New Guinea, and Africa. Hunter-gatherers with agricultural production appeared around the middle of the Holocene, 4000 to 1500 bce, with the cultivation of domesticates and a correspondingly more sedentary lifestyle emerging at this time. Two thousand years ago South Asia was inhabited by farmers, with densely populated river valleys, coastal plains, urban populations, states, and even empires. While some of the crops that supported these civilizations had been introduced from other regions of the world, a large proportion of these crops had local origins from wild plants native to the subcontinent. As a case study for the origins of agriculture, South Asia has much to offer archaeologists and environmental scientists alike for understanding domestication processes and local transitions from foraging to farming as well as the ways in which early farmers adapted to and transformed the environment and regional vegetation. Information exchange from distant farmers from other agricultural centers into the subcontinent cannot be ruled out. However, it is clear that local agricultural origins occurred via a series of processes, including the dispersal of pastoral and agro-pastoral peoples across regions, the local domestication of animals and plants and the adoption by indigenous hunter-gatherers of food production techniques from neighboring cultures. Indeed, it is posited that local domestication events in India were occurring alongside agricultural dispersals from other parts of the world in an interconnected mosaic of cultivation, pastoralism, and sedentism. As humans in South Asia increasingly relied on a more restricted range of plant species, they became entangled in an increasingly fixed trajectory that allowed greater food production levels to sustain larger populations and support their developing social, cultural and food traditions.
Charlene Murphy and Dorian Q. Fuller
Alan H. Simmons
Despite millennia of success as hunters and gatherers, some human groups made a monumental transition to agricultural economies and more sedentary lifeways, broadly referred to as the “Neolithic.” This major tipping point in human history first occurred around 12,000 years ago in Southwest Asia and the eastern Mediterranean, where it is also the best documented. Much research has focused on the origins of agriculture, asking questions about why this event occurred after so much success at hunting and gathering. While early investigations concentrated on the economic significance of the Neolithic, studies in the late 20th century and continuing into the early 21st century also address what are perhaps more significant issues related to social, ritual, political, and ecological aspects of the Neolithic. Equally important is a focus on not only why the Neolithic first occurred, but also its consequences. These often are addressed in relation to the subsequent development of so-called civilizations and the environmental and social impacts that these had, but increasingly there are investigations of the consequences of the Neolithic within itself. These consequences refer to Neolithic societies on both the Near Eastern mainlands and adjacent Mediterranean islands. These include not only economic consequences but also ones related to social organization and complexity, trade, and health and disease. What is apparent is that consequential events during the Neolithic were not linear, following a predictable path. For example, there is strong evidence for substantial environmental deterioration during the Neolithic at sites such as ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan, where adaptive responses may have included divisions of domestic animal and plant resources. However, in Cyprus, where the Neolithic is now known to be as early as it was on the mainlands, evidence is limited for severe ecological degradation throughout the period. Thus, Neolithic consequences must be examined from a broad perspective, considering both successes and failures.
Benjamin S. Arbuckle
The domestication of livestock animals has long been recognized as one of the most important and influential events in human prehistory and has been the subject of scholarly inquiry for centuries. Modern understandings of this important transition place it within the context of the origins of food production in the so-called Neolithic Revolution, where it is particularly well documented in southwest Asia. Here, a combination of archaeofaunal, isotopic, and DNA evidence suggests that sheep, goat, cattle, and pigs were first domesticated over a period of several millennia within sedentary communities practicing intensive cultivation beginning at the Pleistocene–Holocene transition. Resulting from more than a century of data collection, our understanding of the chronological and geographic features of the transition from hunting to herding indicate that the 9th millennium bce and the region of the northern Levant played crucial roles in livestock domestication. However, many questions remain concerning the nature of the earliest predomestic animal management strategies, the role of multiple regional traditions of animal management in the emergence of livestock, and the motivations behind the slow spread of integrated livestock husbandry systems, including all four domestic livestock species that become widespread throughout southwest Asia only at the end of the Neolithic period.
Along with ceramics production, sedentism, and herding, agriculture is a major component of the Neolithic as it is defined in Europe. Therefore, the agricultural system of the first Neolithic societies and the dispersal of exogenous cultivated plants to Europe are the subject of many scientific studies. To work on these issues, archaeobotanists rely on residual plant remains—crop seeds, weeds, and wild plants—from archaeological structures like detritic pits, and, less often, storage contexts. To date, no plant with an economic value has been identified as domesticated in Western Europe except possibly opium poppy. The earliest seeds identified at archaeological sites dated to about 5500–5200 bc in the Mediterranean and Temperate Europe. The cultivated plants identified were cereals (wheat and barley), oleaginous plant (flax), and pulses (peas, lentils, and chickpeas). This crop package originated in the Fertile Crescent, where it was clearly established around 7500 bc (final Pre-Pottery Neolithic B), after a long, polycentric domestication process. From the middle of the 7th millennium bc, via the Balkan Peninsula, the pioneer Neolithic populations, with their specific economies, rapidly dispersed from east to west, following two main pathways. One was the maritime route over the northwestern basin of the Mediterranean (6200–5300 bc), and the other was the terrestrial and fluvial route in central and northwestern continental Europe (5500–4900 bc). On their trajectory, the agropastoral societies adapted the Neolithic founder crops from the Middle East to new environmental conditions encountered in Western Europe. The Neolithic pioneers settled in an area that had experienced a long tradition of hunting and gathering. The Neolithization of Europe followed a colonization model. The Mesolithic groups, although exploiting plant resources such as hazelnut more or less intensively, did not significantly change the landscape. The impact of their settlements and their activities are hardly noticeable through palynology, for example. The control of the mode of reproduction of plants has certainly increased the prevalence of Homo sapiens, involving, among others, a demographic increase and the ability to settle down in areas that were not well adapted to year-round occupation up to that point. The characterization of past agricultural systems, such as crop plants, technical processes, and the impact of anthropogenic activities on the landscape, is essential for understanding the interrelation of human societies and the plant environment. This interrelation has undoubtedly changed deeply with the Neolithic Revolution.