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
Mesoamerica is one of the world’s primary centers of domestication where agriculture arose independently. Paleoethnobotany (or archaeobotany), along with archaeology, epigraphy, and ethnohistorical and ethnobotanical data, provide increasingly important insights into the ancient agriculture of Lowland Mesoamerica (below 1000 m above sea level). Moreover, new advances in the analysis of microbotanical remains in the form of pollen, phytoliths, and starch-grain analysis and chemical analysis of organic residues have further contributed to our understanding of ancient plant use in this region. Prehistoric and traditional agriculture in the lowlands of Mesoamerica—notably the Maya lowlands, the Gulf Coast, and the Pacific Coast of southern Chiapas (Mexico) and Guatemala—from the Archaic (ca. 8000/7000–2000 bc) through the Preclassic/Formative (2000 bc–ad 250) and into the Classic (ad 250–900) period, are covered. During the late Archaic, these lowland regions were inhabited by people who took full advantage of the rich natural biodiversity but also grew domesticates before becoming fully sedentary. Through time, they developed diverse management strategies to produce food, from the forest management system (which includes swidden agriculture), to larger scale land modifications such as terraces, and continued to rely on semidomesticated and wild plant resources. Although lowland populations came to eventually rely on maize as a staple, other resources such as root crops and fruit trees were also cultivated, encouraged, and consumed. The need for additional research that includes systematic collection of paleoethnobotanical data, along with other lines of evidence, will be key to continue refining the understanding of ancient subsistence systems and how these changed through time and across lowland Mesoamerica.
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.