The beginnings of agriculture.

We hope you enjoy your veggies because today we are going to talk about… agriculture. Humans didn’t always accompany their meat with lettuce, tomato, and carrot, nor did we always have bread or cereal for breakfast.

In fact, agriculture marked a revolution in human (pre)history. Starting at about 10,000 years ago hunter-gatherers changed their lifeways and began to plant crops to directly control their subsistence. This had a huge impact on people, culture, and the environment – our current society is, one could say, the byproduct of the adoption of agriculture by past communities. As such, it’s not odd that this subject has fascinated researchers for centuries. However, there are still questions which remain unsolved. How did hunter-gatherers start farming? How did they domesticate the plants? How can we explain the differences between cultivated plants and wild plants?

Finding an answer to these questions is essential, especially if we consider there are huge differences between domesticated species and their wild progenitors – and that past humans were the engineers of these transformations. For example, the difference between domesticated corn (modern corn) and their wild relatives (teosinte) is impressive (fig. 1). What explains these obvious differences is the domestication process, which turns the wild species into a domesticated plant. This process dates to the earliest days of agriculture, to the early Neolithic, with the aid of stone sickles. The domestication of plants took place in many parts of the world, and there are differences not only in the chronology, but also the species present in different regions. For example, in Asia’s Fertile Crescent, the earliest crops were wheat, barley and rye (cereals) but also fava bean, pea, chickpea and lentil (legumes). In East Asia, it was rice (cereal) and soja bean (legume). In West Africa it was sorghum and pearl millet (cereals) and cowpea (legume). In Mesoamerica it was maize (cereal) and common bean (legume).

Fig. 1: Comparison between domesticated corn with wild corn. Source.

Archaeologists can study all these domestications and early agriculture through Archaeobotany. This composite discipline combines botanical knowledge with archaeological materials. It focuses on the study of preserved plant evidence from archaeological sites and the reconstruction and interpretation of past human-plant relationships. These plant remains can be pollen, seeds or even charcoal. There are so many cool and interesting things to learn about agriculture, crop domestication and archaeobotany. Last month, the ICArEHB dialogues presented a really interesting videoconference about the Origins of Agriculture with Dorian Fuller (professor in Archaeobotany) and Hugo Oliveira (specialist in molecular biology of plants). Both these wonderful researchers work on past agricultural systems and plant domestication through multidisciplinary approaches in several regions – some studies even evolve next-generation DNA sequencing methods. So, if you’re interested, microwave your popcorn, and check out the videoconference at ICArEHB’s YouTube page – we guarantee it will be a-maize-ing.


Authors: Roxane Matias and Joana Belmiro

A special thanks to Hugo Oliveira for the review and corrections.

3 thoughts on “The beginnings of agriculture.”

    1. Good question. It depends. The dog (an animal, just to make clear 🙂 ) was probably the first domesticate. In the SW Asian centre of domestication both crops and animals were domesticated at the onset of the Neolithic. There, agricultural economies based on plants seem to have started earlier. However, practices like cultivation (but not full domestication) and corralling (but not husbandry) leave little unambiguous archaeological traces and make it difficult to say for sure which came first. In other centres, like Mesoamerica and China, plants seem to have been domesticated first, but in the Andes animals might have taken precedence.

      So, the bets answer is: plants and animals were domesticated more or less at the same time as part of similar strategies for resource maximisation at the beginning of the Holocene.

      1. The earliest evidence for domesticated cereals is earlier than domesticated animals (cattle, sheep/goats, pigs) in the fertile crescent. But human societies through hunting ‘managed’ animal populations. This management of wild resources both plant (such as hazel nuts, fruit bearing trees as well as grasses) and animal is an important step in the domestication story.

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