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.
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.
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.