What Caused the Rise of Agriculture?
The rise of agriculture is a complex topic but from what we do know the earliest region to witness the domestication of plants and animals was in the Fertile Crescent region of the Near East, spanning modern day Iraq, Syria, western Iran, southern Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel (Figure 1). The rise of agriculture is so significant that the earliest cereal crops and animals domesticate still form the basis of agriculture in many countries today. This includes the domestication of sheep, goats, pigs, cattle, dogs, donkeys, onager, wheat, barley, oats, and others. Many of these varieties of plants and animals were domesticated between 12,000-9000 years ago.
Genetics in animals and plants are very different and these differences make domestication more complicated in plants than in animals. In particular, wild varieties of many cereals, such as wheat and barley, can be grown for many generations with only minor or subtle differences noticeable even when humans select and replant those cereals that are best suited for their food needs. This could perhaps partially be explained that plants that are subtly different from their wild progenitors can still bread with them, slowing the process of change down.
On the other hand, animals, in particular caprids (sheep and goats), Bos (cattle), and equids (donkeys and onagers) can be tamed relatively quickly and be separated from their wild ancestors. In just one experiment, within 40 years a population of foxes was tamed and behaved very differently from their wild ancestors. Behavioral change could occur rapidly, leading ultimately to animal populations that can be separated and then genetically modified.
Within a few generations, the offspring of many domesticated animals can be made tame, which is the critical first trait to enable domestication. For dogs, which were also among the earliest domesticates, they are clearly derived from wolves; however, similar to sheep and goats, they can be tamed within a generation. In the case of domestication, the selection process conducted by humans is the most critical factor that leads to domestication. For instance, sheep and goats were selected for their coats, meat, and to make them docile. Similarly, cows were also selected for their meat, milk, and docile behavior. Such a selective process, and the fact that these types of animals lend themselves well to domestication, enables the relatively early development of animals domestication. In fact, it is animal domestication that we first begin to see have an impact on agriculture, as it occurred more quickly than plant domestication.
Geographical and Climatic Factors
We see domestication and agriculture occurring so early in the Near East because of two main reasons. One is the geography, where the Near East contains many wild progenitors of domesticates. The region along the Zagros and Taurus mountains , valleys, and lowlands is home to wild varieties of wheat, lentils, oats, barley, sheep, dogs, goats, pigs, and cows. On the other hand, many other regions do not contain such a rich variety of plants and animals that are genetically susceptible to domestication.
In addition, during the period known as the Younger Dryas (12,900 to c. 11,700 BP), which was a cold and dry period in the Near East and was an ice age in Europe and North America, human societies were mostly living in small bands. At this stage, some exploitation of wild varieties of plants and animals likely occurred, with perhaps animals such as dogs, sheep, and goats potentially already domesticated. In the subsequent period, with the melting of the continental glaciers, a much different environment developed. The Near East became warmer and wetter and this led to more rainfall in many areas of the Near East.
This change encouraged more exploitation of plants and animals; however, it seems domestication was not an even process. Not every village or settlement necessarily exploited plants and animals and began to domesticate them. Rather, some villages appear to have utilized agriculture for at least some of their food, while overall many villages or nomadic bands were still heavily dependent on hunting and gathering. Favorable climate conditions did allow agriculture to expand to more distant regions, where now we begin to see the spread of crop plants, probably through human action and spreading, to new areas across the Near East. The spread of domesticated crops and animals eventually makes its way to Europe.
Greater dependence on agriculture appears to have encouraged greater emphasis on settlement. With greater dependence on plant and animal domestication, it became a greater hindrance to travel farther distances and exploit hunting and gathering resources. Therefore, settled societies became possible with the rise of agriculture. This had a profound importance in social development, as it led to new household institutions, including nuclear and extended families, and adaptation to greater numbers of people in smaller spaces. The latter is significant because this ultimately leads to the rise of cities and the development of laws, governments, and formal religions. In essence, agriculture creates new social problems, whereby greater numbers of people living in more confined spaces need to create new social practices to manage their social interactions. In many respects, the foundations to our societies whereby laws, governments, and social norms that regulate how we marry, interact, and structure our families were initially developed at the time of agricultural domestication and its spread becoming the norm. In time, social structures created began to reinforce the need for agriculture, that is societies becoming dependent on them, encouraging people to stay settled and follow given social norms such as those that developed with the rise of agriculture.
We can safely say there are few inventions that have had as profound an effect as the development of agriculture, affecting both animals and crop plants, but also how societies have subsequently developed across the globe. The factors that caused the rise of agriculture range from genetic circumstances, geographical factors, favorable climatic conditions, and social developments that encouraged greater dependence on agriculture over time. All of these events ensured that our own societies developed on the path in which they are evident today. In summary, understanding the rise and factors of agriculture helps to explain how we have arrived to our given social state today.
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- For a discussion on the regions that witness the rise of agriculture see: Wengrow, D. 2010. What Makes Civilization?: The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
- For a discussion on domestication characteristics see: Zeder, Melinda A., ed. 2006. Documenting Domestication: New Genetic and Archaeological Paradigms. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.
- For a discussion on the domestication of plants and why they might be slow see: Miller, Allison J. 2007. “Crop Plants: Evolution.” In Encyclopedia of Life Sciences, edited by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
- For a discussion on behavior and genetic changes in animals that can be tamed see: Dobney, K., and G. Larson. 2006. “Genetics and Animal Domestication: New Windows on an Elusive Process.” Journal of Zoology. dos:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2006.00042.x.
- For a discussion on animal domestication, behavior, and genetic traits see: Price, Edward O. 2002. Animal Domestication and Behavior. Wallingford, Oxon, UK ; New York: CABI Pub.
- See: Zeder, M. A. 2008. “Domestication and Early Agriculture in the Mediterranean Basin: Origins, Diffusion, and Impact.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105 (33): 11597–604. dos:10.1073/pnas.0801317105.
- For a discussion on the Younger Dryas and its role on domestication see: Haldorsen, Sylvi, Hasan Akan, Bahattin Çelik, and Manfred Heun. 2011. “The Climate of the Younger Dryas as a Boundary for Einkorn Domestication.” Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, April. dos:10.1007/s00334-011-0291-5.
- For a discussion on the rate of domestication, see: Heather, Pringle. 1998. “The Slow Birth of Agriculture.” Science 282(5393):1446.
- For a discussion on complex evidence for domestication and its adoption see: Simmons, Alan H. 2010. The Neolithic Revolution in the Near East: Transforming the Human Landscape. 1. paperback print. Tucson, Ariz: Univ. of Arizona Press.
- For a discussion on the social changes associated with domestication see: Bender, Barbara. 1978. “Gatherer‐hunter to Farmer: A Social Perspective.” World Archaeology 10 (2): 204–22. dos:10.1080/00438243.1978.9979731.