Tag Archives: agriculture

The case for and against cattle domestication and sorghum cultivation at Nabta Playa

First of all a link to a Fred Wendorf paper on Nabta PLaya.

Nabta Playa and Its Role in Northeastern African Prehistory

Nabta Playabasin offers an unprecedented longitudinal view on the emergence, consolidation and complexification on human–livestock relationships, from the early stage of the Early Holocene (c. 11,000 cal. B.P.) to 6000 B.P. The problem of cattle domestication in Northeastern Africa is considered and hopefully ‘‘solved’’ in the light of new mtDNA evidence which suggest an early late Pleistocene split between African, Asian, and Eurasian wild Bospopulations. The paper presents a contextualized analysis of almost all the components of archaeological investigation, including climatic change, culture history of Early to Mid-Holocene Nabta-Playans, the development of social differentiation, and probably ranking with ‘‘labor-consuming’’ megalithic features with the emergence of characteristic features of pastoralideology and religions. As far as the emergence and adoption of new food ways are concerned, the cultural development outlined with the Nabta Playa  archaeological record is important for the understanding of the Holocene prehistory of Africa as a whole.


One of the most interesting bits (my POV) from this paper was the presence of legumes at about 10,000 BC.

One of these sites yielded charred seeds of wild millet and two varieties of legumes (Wasylikowa, report to F. Wendorf 1996)

It also has a reference to possible early domesticated sorghum. Although again the case is bit weak. There’s more reference to it here. The seeds don’t appear to resemble any kind of cultivated sorghum though. They did seem to be harvesting and storing them in large amounts; some of the houses had storage pits for the grains.

Preliminary chemicalanalyses by infrared spectroscopy of the lipids in the archaeological sorghum show closer resemblance to some modern domestic sorghum than to wild varieties (Wasylikowa et al. 1993)

In a later publication (97)  Wasylikowa describes the Sorghum as more likely to be wild, after another study of the seeds showed them to be typically wild seeds. 

Smaller grain size and the lack of any spikelets containing attached branchlets of the inflorescence or rachis fragments suggest that the material harvested and eaten at the Nabta Playa site were of a wild type.

This sorghum doesn’t seem to ‘spread out’, as farmers tend to expand massively into their hunter gatherer neighbours very rapidly. The expansion of domesticated sorgum doesn’t seem to begin until the expansion  of the domesticated donkey, which parallels it’s spread into Asia quite well, and the donkey seems to have been domesticated about 6,000 BP.

It also mentions the barley from this site, once thought to be an ancient domesticate, but now known to be a neolithic contaminant.

The barley recovered from this site during the 1977 excavations (Hadidi in Wendorf and Schild 1980: 347) is regarded as intrusive.

And the first appearance of goats and sheep.

Around 8000 cal B.P. there was an important new addition to the food economy of the Middle Neolithic. Domestic caprovids, either sheep or goat, or both, were introduced from Southwest Asia, probably by way of the Nile Valley (although the oldest radiocarbon dates now available for the Neolithic along the Nile are about 500 years later)

Since the only legumes I know of come from Anatolia, I shall dig a bit deeper into this. This could possibly be a breadcrumb for my ‘proto-Neolithic’ expansion from the near east, circa 13,000 to 14,000 years ago. The paper has made me warm a bit more to pastoralism there in the Holocene, although I’m not sure that it went beyond providing water to keep the cattle around. The claims for dairying are a bit dubious IMO. There’s a link here to a Wendorf item on the Saharan cattle. I think analysing lipids on the surviving pottery from the era might be a good way forward in this case. There have done some kind of analysis along these lines already (sorghum lipids) but there was no sign of milk fats -I’m sure Wendorf would have mentioned them  if they had been found. If there were dairy fats in the pots that would be a different story, a wild cow isn’t going to let a human near her udders. One of my main objections to the very early pastoralism at Nabta PLaya is that it should have seen a population expansion from the area, and to date no sign of that is to be found.

Also, to quote another source…

Grigson’s study concluded cattle from all periods at Nabta Playa were morphologically wild (2000).

Smith’s study: morphologically wild prior to and including the El Nabta/Al Jerar Maximum (7050 – 6150 BC), but domesticated from the Ru’at El Ghanam phase (5900 – 5500 BC) onward

From the Wendorf item on cattle domestication, it states that domesticated sheep, goats etc are all included in the proto Sahelian, but (as he says above) they all arrive with the early neolithic from the near East about 8,000 years ago along with agriculture (they have been shown to be native Asian domesticates, not African, and the date is more like 7,500 years), so the 9,000 year time depth given for proto Sahelian seems unlikely, 7,500 years or younger would make more sense. These Sahelian words appear to be words of Neolithic and not older origin. You’d also expect the domesticated cattle dates in Mali and Mauritania to be a lot older than 4,200 years if the Sahara was the source of very early domesticated cattle.

Another issue is how long it takes animals to show physical signs of domestication. The domestication of Asian cattle now seeming about 11,000 years old) didn’t show any real changes until about 9,500 years ago, a similar situation is seen with domesticated donkeys-they show signs of load bearing and heavy labour for about 1000 years  before they begin to change physically. This would suggest some leeway in the morphologically studies of the cattle. However, there should still have been physically differentiated domesticated African cattle existing right across the Nile region and the Sahara/East Africa by about 7,5000 BP; domesticates spread out quickly, as does pastoralism/agriculture, and there is no sign of fully domesticated cattle at so early a date in Africa. If there were, they should be definably different to the Asian domesticates (through drift) by the time the sheep, goats, and cereals arrive from Asia. So far, domesticated cattle track the arrival of the rest of the neolithic, evidence for domestication in Nabta is still negligible.

Linguistic evidence

The Proto-Northern Sudanic language contains root words such as “to drive,” “cow, “grain,””ear of grain,” and “grindstone.” Any of these might apply to food production, but another root word meaning “to milk” is cetainly the most convincing evidence of incipient pastoralism. There are also root words for “temporary shelter” and “to make a pot.” In the succeeding Proto-Saharo-Sahelian language, there are root words for “to cultivate”, “to prepare field”, to “clear” (of weeds), and “cultivated field.” this is the first unambiguous linguistic evidence of cultivation. There are also words for “thornbush cattle pen,” “fence,” “yard,” “grannary,” as well as “to herd” and “cattle.” In the following Proto-Sahelian period, there are root words for “goat,” “sheep,” “ram,” and “lamb,” indicating the presence of small livestock. There are root words for “cow,” “bull,” “ox,” and “young cow” or “heifer” and, indeed, a variety of terms relating to cultivation and permanent houses

The word for grindstone could date back to about 25k ago, so it’s not likely to be associated with agriculture, and wild grains were being eaten in the area for a very long time, as were cattle. As for the word ‘to milk’, it’s suggestive but again not exactly solid. Pottery in the Sahara does go back that far though, and the main word for pot seems to have derived from water pot, which is interesting. There are cached book links here and here that go into this in more depth, but as they’ve already make a miscalculation for the age of proto Sahelian judging by the inclusion of sheep and goats which dates it securely to the arrivval of the neolithic-as sheep and goats are not native to Africa and only appear when the domesticates are being herded in from Asia. Non- pastoral people in the Sahara were penning and keeping wild animals (Barbary sheep at Uan Afada); so assuming terms that describe fencing in animals must be from domestication is a fallacy. In essence the presence of the words goat and sheep in proto Sahelian, that can only date to the Neolithic, torpedoes a lot of the linguistics argument, and means proto Sahelian probably has a date of 7,500 BP or slightly younger. This would bring proto Sahara Sahelian within the range of the Neolithic as well, as it’s only slightly older (estimated). A link to the Nilo Saharan Language family family tree. In fact, I’d suggest the presence of agricultural terms dates the arrival of the Neolithic, rather than showing agriculture there at an earlier date. This also casts some major doubt on Ehrets dates for proto Sudanic if it’s estimated by the same method.

This linguistic information would really depend on the dating of the age of proto Sudanic. One inaccuracy I’ve spotted in these links is that Proto Indo European is down as 6,000 years old; it’s now estimated at more like 9,000 years, seems to come from Turkey and is a very good match for the start date and location of the Neolithic expansion. There’s another link that discusses the claimed domestication.

So,  predating the Asian domestication seems unlikely (since it now dates pretty reliable back to 11,000 Bp, the same as sheep and goats), and in a lot of African sites domesticated cattle bones don’t show up until sheep, goats and grain do. It’s not convincing for a very early domestication in the Sahara, although there does seem to have been a specific domestication of African cattle at some point, similar to the domestication of the Zebu In Pakistan. My theory is that the Asian cattle just weren’t up to the local climate and parasites and tended to die in droves, making a local domestications necessary. I’d suggest African cattle domestication probably dates to the Neolithic, sometime between 8,000 and 6,000 BP, and so does sorghum.

The Spread of Agro-Pastoral Economies across Mediterranean Europe: A View from the Far West

The Spread of Agro-Pastoral Economies across Mediterranean Europe: A View from the Far West.
Jo5o Zilhio
Instituto de Arqueologia, Faculdade de Letras de Lisboa,
1699 Lisboa Codex, Portugal

The transition to food production in Portugal begins with the arrival of cardial pottery and domesticates, an event that can be dated to the time period between 6800 and 6200 Bp. These items are found in sites located in the northern part of Estremadura. Contemporaneous hunter-gatherer adaptations are known to have continued their development up to c. 6000 BP in areas located further south, centered in the inner part of the estuaries of the rivers Tejo, Sado and Mira. This pattern is interpreted as indicating that the onset of agro-pastoral economies is linked to the arrival of small groups of settlers that, through interaction with local hunters, are at the origins of the subsequent expansion (completed about one thousand years later) of those economies to the rest of the Portuguese territory.

The archaeological evidence from southern Spain and southern France commonly invoked by proponents of models of the transition to food production as the result of the domestication of local resources or of the acquisition of novel resources bylocal hunters through long-distance exchange systems is shown to be flawed. Severe disturbances at the MesolithiclNeolithic interface of the stratigraphic sequences upon which such models are based-sometimes not recognized by the excavators, but documented either by subsequent work or by critical evaluation of the site reports–can be shown to have occurred. Such disturbances would account well for the radiocarbon dates between 8000 and 7000 Bp obtained at some of those sites, as well as for the presence of sheep bones in their pre- Neolithic strata.

I’ll admit to not reading this one yet (it’s late). One for Luis.

Oldest agriculture in Northern Atlantic Spain.

The oldest agriculture in northern Atlantic Spain: new evidence from El Mirón Cave (Ramales de la Victoria, Cantabria)

Leonor Peña-Chocarroa, Lydia Zapatab, Maria Jose Iriarteb, Manuel González Moralesc and Lawrence Guy Strausd, ,

aLaboratorio de Arqueobotánica, Instituto de Historia, CSIC, C/ Duque de Medinaceli 6, 28014 Madrid, Spain bArea de Prehistoria, Universidad del Pais Vasco, 01006 Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain cInstituto de Prehistoria, Universidad de Cantabria, Avda. de los Castros, 39005 Santander, Spain dDepartment of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131, USA

Received 2 November 2004;  revised 2 December 2004.  Available online 16 February 2005.

Emmer wheat (Triticum diccocum) has been positively identified from the stratigraphically oldest ceramic- and domesticated livestock-bearing level of El Mirón Cave in the Cantabrian Cordillera. The grain is AMS 14C-dated to 5550±40 BP. This date is congruent with six others from the same layer, higher within which were found other grains of wheat, including einkorn as well as emmer. Although wild ungulates (mainly red deer) were still hunted, abundant ovicaprines, together with small numbers of cattle and pigs, appear in this level-for the first time in the 40,000-year record at El Mirón. Potsherds (undecorated, but of very good quality) also appear abruptly and abundantly. However, the associated lithic assemblage contains specific tool types also found in late Mesolithic contexts in Cantabrian Spain. In addition to the full suite of Neolithic indicators at El Mirón, as confirmed by less unambiguous early agro-pastoral evidence from other sites in the Vasco-Cantabrian region, there are megalithic monuments both in the vicinity of the cave and throughout the region that are similarly dated. All these data tend to suggest that Neolithic adaptations—already present about a millennium earlier not only along the Mediterranean coast, but also much closer, to the southeast of the Cordillera—were quickly adopted as “a package” by Cantabrian Mesolithic foragers, possibly as a consequence of social contacts with Neolithic groups in southern France and/or the upper Ebro basin of north-central Spain.

Possible evidence for Mesolithic agriculture in Europe.

Mesolithic agriculture in Switzerland? A critical review of the evidence.

February 2007.  

Accumulating palaeobotanical evidence points to agricultural activity in Central Europe well before the onset of the Neolithic, commonly dated at ca 5500–5200 cal BC. We reinvestigated an existing pollen profile from Soppensee with refined taxonomical resolution by further subdividing the Cerealia pollen type into Triticum t. and Avena t. because the sediments at this site currently provide the highest temporal resolution and precision for the period of interest among all sites in Switzerland. Our new results are in agreement with previous high-resolution investigations from Switzerland showing scattered but consistent presence of pollen of Cerealia, Plantago lanceolata, and other cultural plants or weeds during the late Mesolithic period (6700–5500 cal BC). Chronologically, this palynological evidence for sporadic agricultural activities coincides with a major break in material culture at ca 6700 cal BC (i.e. the transition from early to late Mesolithic). Here, we review possible arguments against palaeobotanical evidences of Mesolithic agriculture (e.g. chronological uncertainties, misidentification, contamination, long-distance transport) and conclude that none of these can explain the consistent pollen pattern observed at several sites. The palynological evidence can, of course, not prove the existence of pre-ceramic agriculture in Central Europe. However, it is so coherent that this topic should be addressed by systematic archaeobotanical analyses in future archaeological studies. If our interpretation should turn out to be true, our conclusions would have fundamental implications for the Neolithic history of Europe. Currently, it is intensely debated whether Central European agriculture developed locally under the influence of incoming ideas from areas where Neolithic farming had already developed earlier (e.g. southeastern Europe) or whether it was introduced by immigrating farmers. On the basis of our results, we suggest that agriculture developed locally throughout the late Mesolithic and Neolithic. Mesolithic trading networks connecting Southern and Central Europe also support the hypothesis of a slow and gradual change towards sessile agriculture, probably as a result of incoming ideas and regional cultural transformation.

Unfortunately I can’t reproduce the whole article here. But I have the conclusion..

Indications of agricultural activity during almost the entire late Mesolithic are recorded in many pollen profiles. It seems highly unlikely that the palynological evidence of cultivated plants and adventive weeds could have originated from sources other than Mesolithic agriculture in the region, though we cannot completely exclude this reservation. The archaeological evidence is still less clear. The few credible radiocarbon dates suggest a chronological framework for the late Mesolithic between 6700 and 5500 cal BC, and the beginning of the proper Neolithic (i.e. agriculture,livestock, pottery and stone axes) around the middle of the sixth millennium BC. There is no credible evidence of bones from domesticated animals (with exception of dogs) from late Mesolithic assemblages, whereas in the early Neolithic goat and sheep (imported animals) played animportant role.

Considering the general palaeovegetational patterns and their chronology, we postulate a connection between the occurrence of the earliest cereal and weed pollen and thes triking cultural change at the transition from the early tot he late Mesolithic.

Equivalent developments can be observed in large parts of Europe. Agricultural adoption by indigenous hunter-gatherers as opposed to the partial or wholesale immigration of agriculturalists is a complex issue. Our combined palaeobotanical and archaeological evidences are in favour of the hypothesis of a gradual change, probably owing to incoming ideas and regional cultural transformation. In the Near East and in southern Europe (Greece, Italy), a pre-ceramic (or aceramic) Neolithic had developed before the onset of pottery-based agriculture. This innovation (cultivation of cereals without ceramic production) reached continental Greece at about the end of the eighth millennium BC and southern Italy at ca 7000 cal BC

Our systematic finds of pollen of cereals and weeds are younger than these dates (first clusters around 6600–6500 cal BC, although one single Triticum pollen grain occurred at ca 7800 cal BC at Soppensee).However, if they represent agricultural activities, such a rapid spread of agriculture across the European continent (reaching almost simultaneously Bavaria in the east and France in the west) could be explained by dynamic Mesolithic (exchange) networks transporting the idea of agriculture. Moreover, the material culture of the Central European late Mesolithic probably developed autochthonously, but with strong influences from the Mediterranean region. Given the striking change in material culture at 6700 cal BC we cannot, however, reject the hypothesis of an immigration of people from southern Europe that may have influenced local Mesolithic groups. Similarly, combined palaeobotanical and archaeological data (gradual increase of pollen indicative of agricultural activity over centuries, high continuity in silex culture) suggest that the proper Neolithic at ca 5500 cal BC developed autochthounously and that immigration of people as suggested for the loess areas of Central Europe was of minor relevance, which is corroborated by recent genetic results.

 Nonetheless, considering the disagreement with other palaeogenetic studies, more localised genetic samples are needed tothoroughly address this question.

The unambiguous proof for early (pre-ceramic) agricultural activities in Central Europe requires finds of cereal macroremains The lack of suchf inds in Switzerland is a consequence of two reasons. Owing to the (humid) climatic conditions resulting in very high biological activity and thus high decomposition ratesin the soils, such grains are seldom preserved in an archaeological context in Central Europe As a matter of fact, Swiss late Mesolithic archaeological excavations yielded no finds of any plants at all, except from charcoal and carbonised Corylus nutshells. Of course, this does not mean that other plant resources were not used by the late Mesolithic people. Instead, it rather mirrors poor preservation conditions and especially the complete lack of systematic archaeobotanical analyses. Given the palynological indications for agricultural activities, the inclusion ofarchaeobotanical, archaeozoological and palynological approaches is highly desirable for future archaeological investigations covering the late Mesolithic period. Indeed,cereal grains may have been occasionally charred (e.g. in orclose to a fire place). Unambiguous evidence such as cereal grains within cultural layers older than 5500 cal BC would imply the presence of a pre-ceramic Neolithic in Central Europe, which would correspond to what is currently called the late Mesolithic period.

One of the plants he names as being common is P. lanceolata, plantian (a wheat field weed). He suggests a moblile life where crops are planted and then left, which would definitely be very interesting. What really needs to be done is sift through the fire remains to find cereal grains.

Interestingly, someone else shares my view that Mesolithic Europeans could have been planting nut trees. Would this be a ‘Mesolithic revolution’?

From ‘The Cambridge World History of Food’.

During the Mesolithic, hazelnut bushes spread rapidly to many parts of Europe, as evidenced by pollen diagrams. This is in contrast to the vegetation development of the earlier interglacials. Hazelnuts are heavy, with low dispersal rates, so that it is very unlikely that the plant diffused unaided to all parts of northern Europe at the same time. Instead, it has often been assumed that hazelnuts were culturally dispersed by Mesolithic peoples (Firbas 1949: 149; Smith 1970: 81—96). Indeed, the distribution of these nuts is recorded by pollen analysis in the Mesolithic layer of Hohen Viecheln at the border of Lake Schwerin in northern Germany (Schmitz 1961: 29).

I suggest that someone takes a trip to the area around Francthi cave in Greece, and starts searching for lentil, almond, pistachio and vetch pollen. If it is absent before about 11,000 BP, that would more or less prove that those plants were imported and cultivated prior to grains, and it would place agriculture in Europe at 2,000 years earlier.

The consequences of agriculture on the human body.

An absolutely fascinating paper, not written by me!

The Consequences of Domestication and Sedentism

Emily A. Schultz & Robert H. Lavenda

(This interesting piece on the effects of agriculture is from the college textbook Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition Second Edition. pp 196-200)

Sedentism and domestication, separately and together, transformed human life in ways that still affect us today.

“Our Land”

Sedentism and domestication represent not just a technological change but also a change in worldview. Land was no longer a free good, available to anyone, with resources scattered randomly across the landscape; it was transformed into particular territories, collectively or individually owned, on which people raised crops and flocks.  Thus, sedentism and a high level of resource extraction (whether by complex foraging or farming) led to concepts of property tat were rare in previous foraging societies. Graves, grave goods, permanent housing, grain-processing equipment, as well as the fields and herds, connected people to places.  The human mark on the environment was larger and more obvious following sedentization and the rise of farming; people transformed the landscape in more dramatic ways–building terraces or walls to hold back floods.

Fertility, Sedentism, and Diet

One of the more dramatic effects of settling down was the change in female fertility and the rise in population.  A number of different effects together caused the population to grow.

Child Spacing Intervals   Among modern foragers, a woman’s pregnancies tend to be spaced three to four years apart because of the extended period of breastfeeding characteristic of these societies.  Extended means not just that children are weaned at three to four years of age but that they still nurse whenever they feel like it, as frequently as several times an hour (Shostak 1981, 67).  This nursing stimulus triggers the secretion of a hormone that suppresses ovulation (Henry 1989, 41). Henry points out that, “the adaptive significance of such a mechanism is obvious in the context of mobile foraging. A single child, who must be carried for some 3 to 4 years, creates a heavy burden for the mother; a second or third child within this interval would create an unmanageable problem for her and also jeopardize her health.

There are many reasons that nursing continues for three to four years in foraging societies. The foraging diet is high in protein, low in carbohydrates, and lacks soft foods easily digestible by very young infants. In fact, Marjorie Shostak observes that among Ju/’hoansi (!Kung), a contemporary foraging people of the Kalahari Desert, bush foods are rough and difficult to digest:  “To survive on such foods a child would have to be older than two years–preferably substantially older.” (1981, 66).  (See EthnoProfile 19.1: Ju/’hoansi [!Kung]).  By having her child nurse exclusively for six months, a mother does not have to find and prepare food for the infant in addition to her ordinary routine. Among the Ju/’hoansi, infants over the age of six months are given solid foods in the form of prechewed or pounded foods, a supplement that begins the transition to solid food (67).

The length of time between children in foraging societies serves to maintain a long-term energy balance in women during their reproductive years.  In many foraging societies, adding the caloric requirements of nursing to the physical demands of mobility, and the burden of food-gathering in the context of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet can keep the mother’s energy balance low. Where nutritional circumstances are marginal, the period of pregnancy and nursing can even constitute a net energy drain, resulting in a sharp drop in fertility. Under such circumstances, it will take the woman longer for her to regain her fertile condition. Thus, the period when she is neither pregnant nor nursing frequently becomes essential to building up her energy balance for future reproduction.

Fertility Rate Changes   In addition to the effects of breastfeeding, Ellison notes, age, nutritional status, energy balance, diet, and exercise all affect female fertility in a graduated way (1990).  That is, intense aerobic exercise may lead to the loss of the monthly period (amenorrhea), but less intense aerobic exercise may disrupt fertility in less obvious but still significant ways.

Recent studies of North American women who engage in high levels of endurance exercise (long-distance runners and young ballet dancers, for example) demonstrate several effects on childbearing.  These data are relevant to the transition to sedentism, because the levels of activity of the women studied approach the levels of activity of women in modern foraging societies.

Researchers found two different kinds of effects on fertility. Young, highly active ballet dancers studied by Warren (cited in Henry 1989) experienced their first menstruation at about 15.5 years, much later than a nondancing control group, whose members first menstruation was at about 12.5 years. High levels of exercise also seem to affect the endocrine system, reducing the time during which a woman is fertile by about one-third.

Summarizing the effects of foraging on female fertility, Henry observes:

It would appear then that a number of interrelated factors associated with a mobile foraging strategy are likely to have provided natural controls on fertility and perhaps explain the low population density of the Paleolithic. In mobile foraging societies, women are likely to have experienced both long intervals of breastfeeding by carried children as well as the high energy drain associated with subsistence activities and periodic camp moves.  Additionally, their diets, being relatively rich in proteins, would have contributed to maintaining low fat levels, thus further dampening fecundity. (1989, 43)

With complex foraging and increasing sedentism, these brakes on female fecundity would have been eased.  The duration of the breastfeeding period would have declined, as would the energy drain on women (Ju/’hoansi women, for example walk about 1,500 miles per year, carrying about 25 pounds of equipment, gathered food, and young children). This is not to say that a sedentary life is physically undemanding. Farming requires its own heavy labor, both from men and women. The difference seems to be in the kind of physical activity involved. Walking long distances carrying heavy loads and children was replaced by sowing, hoeing, harvesting, storing, and processing grain.  A diet increasingly rich in cereals would have significantly changed the ratio of protein to carbohydrate in the diet.  This would have changed the levels of prolactin, increased the positive energy balance, and led to more rapid growth in the young and an earlier age of first menstruation.

The ready availability of ground cereals would have enabled mothers to feed their infants soft, high-carbohydrate porridges and gruels. The analysis of infant fecal material recovered from the Wadi Kubbaniya site in Egypt seems to demonstrate that a similar practice was in use with root crops along the Nile at what may have been a year-round site by 19,000 years before the present (Hillman 1989, 230). The influence of cereals on fertility has been observed by Richard Lee among settled by Ju/’hoansi, who recently began to eat cereals and experienced a marked rise in fertility.  Renee Pennington (1992) notes that the increase in Ju/’hoansi reproductive success seems to be related to a reduction in infant and child mortality rates.

The Decline in the Quality of Diet

Westerners have long seen agriculture as an evolutionary advance over foraging, a sign of human progress. Put simply, however, early farmers did not eat as well as foragers. Jared Diamond (1987) writes:

While farmers concentrate on high carbohydrate crops like rice and potatoes, the mix of wild plants and animals in the diets of surviving hunter-gatherers provides more protein and a better balance of other nutrients. In one study, the San [Ju/’hoansi] average daily food intake (during a month when food was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and 93 grams of protein, considerably greater than the recommended daily allowance for people of their size.  It’s almost inconceivable that San [Ju/’hoansi] who eat 75 or so wild plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s.

Skeletal evidence makes the same point. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey in late Paleolithic times indicate an average height of 5 feet 9 inches for men and 5 feet 5 inches for women. With the adoption of agriculture, the average height declined sharply; by about 5,000 years ago, the average male was about 5 feet 3 inches tall, the average woman, about 5 feet. Even modern Greeks and Turks are not, on average, as tall as the late Paleolithic people of the same region.

Increase in Precariousness

In the short term, agriculture was probably developed in ancient southwestern Asia, and perhaps elsewhere, to increase food supplies to support an increasing population at a time of serious resource stress. Over time, however, as dependence on domesticated crops increased, so did the overall insecurity of the food supply system. Why?

Proportion of Domesticated Plants in the Diet  There are several reasons why early farmers depended more and more on cultivated plants. Because the agroecology created an environment favorable to the plants, farmers were able to cultivate previously unusable land.  When such vital necessities as water could be brought to the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, land on which wheat and barley was not native could support dense stands of the domesticated grains.  Domestic plants also provided more and larger edible parts and were easier to harvest, process, and digest.  There is good evidence that they also tasted better. Rindos lists a number of modern food plants that derive from bitter wild varieties. Finally, the greater yield of domesticated plants per unit of ground also led to a greater proportion of cultivated plants in the diet, even when wild plants were still being eaten and were as plentiful as before.

Reliance on a Smaller Number of Plants   Unfortunately, reliance on an increasingly smaller number of plants is very risky should those plants fail.  According to Richard Lee, the Ju/’hoansi, who live in the Kalahari Desert, use over 100 plants (14 fruits and nuts, 15 berries, 18 species of edible gum, 41 edible roots and bulbs, and 17 leafy greens, beans, melons, and other foods; 1992b, 48).  By contrast, modern farmers rely on no more than 20 plants, and of those, three–wheat, maize, and rice–feed most of the world’s people.  Historically, it was only one or two grain crops that were the staple for a specific group of people.  A decrease in this crop has devastating effects on the population.

Selective Breeding, Monocropping, and the Gene Pool  Selective breeding of any given plant species decreases the variability of its gene pool, eliminating varieties with natural resistance to infrequently occurring pests and diseases and lowering its long-term survival chances by increasing the risk of severe losses at harvest time.  Again, the more people depend on a particular plant species, the riskier their future. Monocropping is the practice of growing only one kind of plant in a field. Although it increases efficiency and short-term yield, it exposes the entire field to destruction by diseases or pest damage. The outcome could be starvation.

Increasing Dependence on Plants  As cultivated plants took on an increasingly large role in their diet, people became dependent on plants and the plants in turn became completely dependent on the people–or rather on the environment created by the people. But the people could not completely control that environment. Hail, floods, droughts, infestations, frost, heat, weeds, erosion, and other factors could destroy or significantly affect the crop, yet all were largely outside human control.  The risk of failure and starvation increased.

Increase in Disease  Connected to the evolution of domesticated plants was an increase in disease, especially of the epidemic variety, for which there were several reasons.  First, prior to sedentism, human waste was disposed outside the living area. As increasing numbers of people began to live near each other in relatively permanent settlements, the disposal of human waste became increasingly problematic:  Large quantities of fecal material had the potential to transmit disease, and animal and plant wastes nourished pests, some of which served as disease vectors.

Second, a larger number of people living very near each other served as a disease reservoir.  Once a population is large enough, the likelihood of disease transmission increases.  By the time one person recovers from the disease, someone else reaches the infectious stage and can reinfect the first.  Consequently, the disease never leaves the population. The speed with which school children catch and spread colds, influenza, or chicken pox illustrates how a closely packed population and germs interact.

Third, settled people cannot just walk away from diseases; by contrast, if someone in a foraging band falls ill, the others can walk away, reducing the likelihood that the disease will spread.  Fourth, the agricultural diet may have reduced people’s resistance to disease. Finally, the rise in human population provided a greater opportunity for germs to evolve in human hosts. In fact, as we discussed in Chapter 3, there is good evidence that the clearing of land for farming in sub-Saharan Africa created an excellent environment for malaria-carrying mosquitos, leading both to a dramatic rise in human malaria and the selection for the HbAHbS genotype.

Environmental Degradation

With the development of agriculture, human beings began to intervene more actively in the environment.  Deforestation, soil loss, silted streams, and the loss of many native species followed domestication.  In the lower Tigris-Euphrates valley, irrigation waters used by early farmers carried high levels of soluble salts, poisoning the soil and making it unusable to this day.

Increase In Labor

Raising domesticated plants and animals requires much more labor than foraging.  People must clear the land, plant the seeds, tend the young plants, protect them from predators, harvest them, process the seeds, store them, and select the seeds for planting the next year; similarly, people must tend and protect domesticated animals, cull the herds, shear the sheep, milk the goats, and so on.


Diamond, Jared. 1987.  “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” Discover, May

Ellison, Peter. 1990.  “Human Ovarian Function and Reproductive Ecology: New Hypotheses” American Anthropologist 92 (4): 933-52

Henry, Donald. 1989.  From Foraging to Agriculture: The Levant and the End of the Ice Age  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Hillman, Gordon. 1989. “Late Paleolithic Plant Foods from Wadi Kubbaniya in Upper Egypt: Dietary Diversity, Infant Weaning, and Seasonality in a Riverine Environment.”  In Foraging and Farming: The Evolution of Plant Exploitation, edited by David Harris and Gordon Hillman, 207-39. Vol 13 of One World Archaeology.  London: Unwin Hyman.

Lee, Richard. 1992. The Dobe Ju/’hoansi  2d ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Pennington, Renee. 1992.  “Did Food Increase Fertility: Evaluation of !Kung and Herero History” Human Biology  64: 497-501.

Shostak, Marjorie. 1981.  Nisa: The Life and Words of !Kung Woman  New York: Vintage Books

I feel I should add, that close contact with domesticated animals also brings us into contact with more nasty pathogens and parasites than a hunter gatherer would be exposed to.

Ancient Natufian farmers in Syria, at Abu Hureyra

The first farmers grew wheat and rye 13,000 years ago in Syria and were forced into cultivating crops by a terrible drought, according to UK archaeologists.

Professor Gordon Hillman, at University College London, has spent over 20 years investigating the remains of ancient food plants at a unique site at Abu Hureyra, in the middle Euphrates.

“Nowhere else has an unbroken sequence of archaeological evidence stretching from hunter-gatherer times to full-blown farming,” he told BBC News Online.


The evidence for cultivated crops comes from seeds carefully sifted from the material excavated at Abu Hureyra. These had survived because they had been accidentally charred in domestic fires before eventually becoming buried. 

Farming crisis: drought drove the hunter-gatherers into cultivation
Many years of ecological field work assessing present day vegetation was also necessary to provide a basis for interpreting the material found.

“What we expected to find from the hunter-gatherer levels at the site was lots of wild cereals. These are characteristically very skinny and we found plenty of them,” explains Professor Hillman.

“But then, at higher and later levels, we found things that did not belong there. There were these whacking, great fat seeds, characteristic of cultivation.”

The cultivated seeds found at Abu Hureyra are the oldest yet found.

Grindstone from about 9500-9000 BC
Excavated at Abu Hureyra, northern Syria.

A dry death

Professor Hillman and his team found that, as they looked through the archaeological record, the wild seed varieties gathered as food gradually vanished, before the cultivated varieties appeared. Those wild seeds most dependent on water were the first to die out, followed one by one by the more hardy ones.

This was a clue to why the hunter-gatherer people turned to cultivating some of the foods they had previously collected from the wild, and prompted Professor Hillman to look at independent climate records for the period.

What he found was evidence for a terrible drought: “It was very sharp and would certainly have been felt within a human lifetime, perhaps even in the space of 10 or so years.”

Geologist call this period the Younger Dryas, a 1000-year spell of cold and dry weather with interrupted the planet’s gradual warming from the last ice age. 
The land had to be cleared before planting
Professor Hillman’s team suggest that as the wild grasses and seeds that the people relied on for food died out, they were forced to start cultivating the most easily-grown of them in order to survive.

Professor David Harris, also at UCL, said: “There came a point when this community had no option – they were stuck with agriculture.”

The archaeologists found no evidence that the irrigation was used to grow the first crops as the drought set it. Professor Hillman explains: “What they did was to take seed of the wild cereals from higher areas to the West, and sowed it close to Abu Hureyra in areas such as breaks in slope, where soil moisture was greatly enhanced naturally.”

“Wild stands of these cereals could not have continued to grow unaided in such locations because they would have been out-competed by dryland scrub. Therefore, these first cultivators had to clear the competing vegetation.”

Abu Hurerya, now under lake Assad, near the Turkish border in Syria.

These articles always ignore that the Koreans were farming rice about 15,000 years ago!

There does seem to be some dispute over the age of these grains, as the 12,700 BP date is so much older than the other grain domesticates and this doesn’t seem to have a sensible place in the chronology of the evolution of the Neolithic, it’s possible the dates are wrong (it happens) or that they were just an usually fat bunch of seeds. Also against this is that the Natufians generally show no other signs of agriculture at this era, and that the expanding Neolithic farmers who definitely were growing grain don’t show any cranial similarity to the Natufians.  And there’s the issue that Abu Hurerya is debatable as a Natufian site….

Also against this being agriculture is that the grain in question, rye, really doesn’t feature in the Neolithic expansion as a founder crop. So, hmmm. Reserving judgement here.

Abu Hureryae

Abu Hurerya  link 2

Abu Hurerya link 3

New evidence of Lateglacial cereal cultivation at Abu Hureyra on the Euphrates