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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.

Article

Charlene Murphy and Dorian Q. Fuller

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.

Article

Early agricultural and arboricultural practices in the Pacific are based on vegetative principles, namely, the asexual propagation and transplantation of plants. A vegetative orientation is reflected in the exploitation of underground storage organs (USOs) within Near Oceania, as well as Island Southeast Asia, during the Pleistocene. During the early Holocene, people in the New Guinea region (including Near Oceania) began to intensify the management of plant resources in different landscapes. The increased degree of plant management, as well as associated environmental transformation, is most clearly manifest in the agricultural chronology at Kuk Swamp in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. At Kuk, shifting cultivation was potentially practiced during the early Holocene, with mounded cultivation by c. 7000–6400 cal BP and ditched drainage of wetlands for cultivation by c. 4400–4000 cal BP. Comparable agricultural records are lacking for other regions of Near Oceania; lowland sites indicate a range of arboricultural practices focused on fruit- and nut-bearing trees during the Terminal Pleistocene and throughout the Holocene, as well as potentially sago during the late Holocene. By c. 4000–3000 cal BP, indigenous agricultural and arboricultural elements were integrated with new cultural traits from Southeast Asia, including domestic animals, pottery and potentially new varieties of traditional crops. From c. 3250 to 2800 cal BP, different elements of agricultural and arboricultural practices from lowland New Guinea and Island Melanesia were taken by Lapita pottery–bearing colonists into the western Pacific. A later period of agricultural expansion occurred around c. 1000–750 cal BP with the colonization of eastern Polynesia. Agricultural practices and crops were variably taken and adapted to different islands and island groups across the Pacific. Additional transformations to agriculture occurred with the Polynesian adoption of the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), a South American domesticate, as well as following protohistoric and historic encounters.

Article

Kandace D. Hollenbach and Stephen B. Carmody

The possibility that native peoples in eastern North America had cultivated plants prior to the introduction of maize was first raised in 1924. Scant evidence was available to support this speculation, however, until the “flotation revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s. As archaeologists involved in large-scale projects began implementing flotation, paleoethnobotanists soon had hundreds of samples and thousands of seeds that demonstrated that indigenous peoples grew a suite of crops, including cucurbit squashes and gourds, sunflower, sumpweed, and chenopod, which displayed signs of domestication. The application of accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dating to cucurbit rinds and seeds in the 1980s placed the domestication of these four crops in the Late Archaic period 5000–3800 bp. The presence of wild cucurbits during earlier Archaic periods lent weight to the argument that native peoples in eastern North America domesticated these plants independently of early cultivators in Mesoamerica. Analyses of DNA from chenopods and cucurbits in the 2010s definitively demonstrated that these crops developed from local lineages. With evidence in hand that refuted notions of the diffusion of plant domestication from Mesoamerica, models developed in the 1980s for the transition from foraging to farming in the Eastern Woodlands emphasized the coevolutionary relationship between people and these crop plants. As Archaic-period groups began to occupy river valleys more intensively, in part due to changing climatic patterns during the mid-Holocene that created more stable river systems, their activities created disturbed areas in which these weedy plants thrive. With these useful plants available as more productive stands in closer proximity to base camps, people increasingly used the plants, which in turn responded to people’s selection. Critics noted that these models left little room for intentionality or innovation on the part of early farmers. Models derived from human behavioral ecology explore the circumstances in which foragers choose to start using these small-seeded plants in greater quantities. In contrast to the resource-rich valley settings of the coevolutionary models, human behavioral ecology models posit that foragers would only use these plants, which provide relatively few calories per time spent obtaining them, when existing resources could no longer support growing populations. In these scenarios, Late Archaic peoples cultivated these crops as insurance against shortages in nut supplies. Despite their apparent differences, current iterations of both models recognize humans as agents who actively change their environments, with intentional and unintentional results. Both also are concerned with understanding the social and ecological contexts within which people began cultivating and eventually domesticating plants. The “when” and “where” questions of domestication in eastern North America are relatively well established, although researchers continue to fill significant gaps in geographic data. These primarily include regions where large-scale contract archaeology projects have not been conducted. Researchers are also actively debating the “how” and “why” of domestication, but the cultural ramifications of the transition from foraging to farming have yet to be meaningfully incorporated into the archaeological understanding of the region. The significance of these native crops to the economies of Late Archaic and subsequent Early and Middle Woodland peoples is poorly understood and often woefully underestimated by researchers. The socioeconomic roles of these native crops to past peoples, as well as the possibilities for farmers and cooks to incorporate them into their practices in the early 21st century, are exciting areas for new research.

Article

World food systems in the 21st century comprise domesticated plant and animal species that originated from nearly every continent on the globe, spread through exchange and trade, and have been taken up by farmers and cooks worldwide. The indigenous inhabitants of the Americas domesticated several of the worlds’ most important food crops, including maize, potatoes, chili peppers, and quinoa. They also domesticated several animal species, two of which, llamas and alpacas, have become important as alternative herd animals outside of their native Andes. While maize, potatoes, and chili peppers became important globally in the 16th and 17th centuries as part of the Columbian Exchange, llamas/alpacas and quinoa have only gained worldwide prominence in the 20th and 21st centuries. Unraveling the history of how, where, when, and why these species were domesticated requires the expertise of researchers in the fields of biology, genetics, and archaeology. Domestication is the process by which humans transform wild plant or animal populations into forms that can only be maintained with human intervention. Humans build upon the natural variation in these species but select traits that while desirable for humans, would not be beneficial to survival without them. Using a range of evidence from the remains of ancient plants and animals recovered from archaeological sites to the study of the genetic relationships of living and ancient plant and animal populations, these researchers are revealing how ancient American populations created some of the world’s most important food sources.

Article

African domesticated animals, with the exception of the donkey, all came from the Near East. Some 8,000 years ago cattle, sheep, and goats came south to the Sahara which was much wetter than today. Pastoralism was an off-shoot of grain agriculture in the Near East, and those herders immigrating brought with them techniques of harvesting wild grains. With increasing aridity as the Saharan environment dried up around 5000 years ago, the herders began to control and manipulate their stands resulting in millet and sorghum domestication in the Sahel Zone, south of the Sahara. Pearl millet expanded to the south and was taken up by Bantu-speaking Iron Age farmers in the savanna areas of West Africa and then spread around the tropical forest into East Africa by 3000 b.p. As the Sahara dried up and the tsetse belts retreated, sheep and cattle also moved south. They expanded into East Africa via a tsetse-free environment of the Ethiopian highlands arriving around 4000 b.p. It took around 1000 years for the pastoralists to adapt to other epizootic diseases rife in this part of the continent before they could expand throughout the grasslands of Kenya and Tanzania. Thus, East Africa was a socially complex place 3000 years ago, with indigenous hunters, herders and farmers. This put pressure on pastoral use of the environment, so using another tsetse-free corridor from Tanzania, through Zambia to the northern Kalahari, then on to the Western Cape, herders moved to southern Africa, arriving 2000b.p. They were followed to the eastern part of South Africa by Bantu-speaking agro-pastoralists 1600 years ago who were able to use the summer rainfall area for their sorghum and millet crops. Control and manipulation of African indigenous plants of the forest regions probably has a long history from use by hunter-gatherers, but information on this is constrained by archaeological evidence, which is poor in tropical environments due to poor preservation. Evidence for early palm oil domestication has been found in Ghana dated to around 2550b.p. Several African indigenous plants are still widely used, such as yams, but the plant which has spread most widely throughout the world is coffee, originally from Ethiopia. Alien plants, such as maize, potatoes and Asian rice have displaced indigenous plants over much of Africa.

Article

Glenn H. Shepard Jr., Eduardo Neves, Charles R. Clement, Helena Lima, Claide Moraes, and Gilton Mendes dos Santos

The tropical lowlands of South America were long thought of as a “counterfeit paradise,” a vast expanse of mostly pristine rainforests with poor soils for farming, limited protein resources, and environmental conditions inimical to the endogenous development of hierarchical human societies. These misconceptions derived largely from a fundamental misunderstanding of the unique characteristics of ancient and indigenous farming and environmental management in lowland South America, which are in turn closely related to the cultural baggage surrounding the term “agriculture.” Archaeological and archaeobotanical discoveries made in the early 21st century have overturned these misconceptions and revealed the true nature of the ancient and traditional food production systems of lowland South America, which involve a complex combination of horticulture, agroforestry, and the management of non-domesticated or incipiently domesticated species in cultural forest landscapes. In this sense, lowland South America breaks the mould of the Old World “farming hypothesis” by revealing cultivation without domestication and domestication without agriculture, a syndrome that has been referred to as “anti-domestication”. These discoveries have contributed to a better understanding of the cultural history of South America, while also suggesting new paradigms of environmental management and food production for the future of this critical and threatened biome.

Article

In 2018 barley accounts for only 5% of the cereal production worldwide, and regionally for up to 40% of cereal production. The cereal represents the oldest crop species and is one of the best adapted crop plants to a broad diversity of climates and environments. Originating from the wild progenitor species Hordeum vulgare ssp. spontaneum, biogeographically located in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East, the domesticated form developed as a founder crop in aceramic Neolithic societies 11,000 years ago, was cultivated in monocultures in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, entered the New World after 1492 ce, reached a state of global distribution in the 1950s and had reached approximately 200 accepted botanical varieties by the year 2000. Its stress tolerance in response to increased aridity and salinity on one hand and adaptability to cool climates on the other, partially explains its broad range of applications for subsistence and economy across different cultures, such as for baking, cooking, beer brewing and as an animal feed. Although the use of fermented starch for producing alcoholic beverages and foods is globally documented in archaeological contexts dating from at least the beginning of the Holocene era, it becomes concrete only in societies with a written culture, such as Bronze Age Mesopotamia and Egypt, where beer played a considerable role in everyday diet and its production represented an important sector of productivity. In 2004 approximately 85% of barley production was destined for feeding animals. However, as a component of the human diet, studies on the health benefits of the micronutrients in barley have found that it has a positive effect on blood cholesterol and glucose levels, and in turn impacts cardiovascular health and diabetes control. The increasing number of barley-breeding programs worldwide focus on improving the processing characteristics, nutritional value, and stress tolerance of barley within the context of global climate change.

Article

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.