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date: 19 January 2020

Agricultural Origins and their Consequences in Southwestern Asia

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Despite millennia of success as hunters and gatherers, some human groups made a monumental transition to agricultural economies and more sedentary lifeways, a period broadly referred to as the Neolithic. This major tipping point in human history is best documented in the Near East, Anatolia, and the eastern Mediterranean around 12,000 years ago. 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, recent studies are now also addressing 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 the consequences that it had on human society. These often are addressed in relation to the subsequent development of so-called civilizations and the environmental impacts that these had, but increasingly there are investigations on consequences within the Neolithic itself.

The development of agriculture brought positive and negative consequences within 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—they did not follow 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. This may represent the beginning of the classic Near Eastern economic and social dichotomy between the “desert and the sown.” However, in Cyprus, where the Neolithic appeared as early as it did on the mainlands, there is only limited evidence for severe ecological degradation throughout the period. There, the impacts of human activity associated with the Neolithic appeared much later. Consequences within the Neolithic can be examined from a broad perspective, considering both successes and failures.