If we carried out a survey asking what has been the most important discovery that Humanity has made, things like fire, the wheel, electricity would surely come up… But very few would think about what has been described as “the greatest idea of mankind”. history” : the domestication of plants and animals. And there is no doubt that this is so, because only it has led to the deepest and most enduring transformation of our way of life and the environment that surrounds us.
It all happened sometime no later than 14,000 years ago in the so-called Fertile Crescent , the region that includes the eastern Mediterranean – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine – southeastern Turkey, Iraq, and western Iran. That is where archaeologists place the so-called Neolithic Revolution , one of the most studied milestones in human history: the moment in which human beings went from being nomads and hunter-gatherers to being sedentary and producers.
Three cereals make up the triumvirate of the “founders” of agriculture : cluster wheat ( Triticum turgidum ) -which makes more than one ear at the end of the cane-, barley ( Hordeum vulgare ) and alonso wheat ( Triticun monoccocum ) – closed cane and wide ear, which produces a lot of bran and little flour. Its domestication was accompanied by others such as the pea, the lentil, the chickpea, the bitter pea or the flax. In each of these cases it has been possible to identify the original wild variety, which has served to understand the differences between one and the other. In the case of alonso wheat, for example, the main difference is in how the seeds are dispersed : the wild variety has brittle spikes, and the individual spikelets break when ripe; in the domestic one, the spikes are less fragile and only break when threshing. In other words: domesticated alonso wheat, if it wants to survive, needs to be harvested and planted. On the other hand, comparison of the DNA of the various kinds of wheat found throughout the Fertile Crescent are basically the same, so it points to domestication only happening once.
Where was agriculture born?
Over the years archaeologists have identified the handful of places where agriculture could have been born : Tell Abu Hureyra and Tell Aswad in Syria, Karaca Dag in Turkey, and Netiv Hagdud, Gigal and Jericho in the Jordan Valley, all They are between 12,000 and 10,000 years old. As we can see, they are all located in the western zone of the Fertile Crescent, which has led us to think that agriculture had a single origin.
But in 2013 the journal Science published an article questioning this conclusion. The archaeologist at the University of Tübingen (Germany) Simone Riehl, who has been excavating at the site of the agricultural village of Chogha Golan, in the foothills of the Zagros mountains, in western Iran , claimed that its inhabitants began to cultivate barley wild wheat, lentils, and lentils more than 11,500 years ago, and that domesticated forms of wheat appeared there 9,800 years ago, about the same time as known sites in the western Fertile Crescent. Among the remains that prove the processing of the plants, they found grinding stones and pestles, as well as charred vegetable remains that have allowed the dating of the site: Chogha Golan was continuously occupied from around 11,000 BC. E. until 7700 a. E., dates that coincide with the age of the remains found in the western part.
Of course, the Fertile Crescent was not the only place where agriculture appeared. In Mesoamerica, between Panama and northern Mexico, it also arose independently , as in the highlands of New Guinea, in China -where the domestication of rice had its own history-, in the eastern United States and in a narrow strip of sub-Saharan Africa that stretches from the Ivory Coast and Nigeria to Sudan and Ethiopia. According to Andrew Sherratt of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, agriculture arose in the Fertile Crescent, Mesoamerica, and the Southeast Asian archipelagos because they are “hot spots,” regions that are constantly changing both geographically and geologically . In them, the tectonic movement created isthmuses with very special and unique characteristics: a conjunction of hills, deserts and alluvial lands (deposits of sand or mud created by the passage of water) and narrow strips of land that caused an increase in the population to the point that hunting and gathering were not enough to supply it.
Why did agriculture appear?
But the fundamental question to be answered is not so much where or how, but why. We tend to think that going from hunter-gatherer to farmer was a change for the better. Quite the opposite; the life of a hunter-gatherer was quite efficient : dedicating 3 or 4 hours a day to subsistence work was enough to support the family. The amount of free time was infinitely more than he could ever dream of as a farmer, who would also have to deal with the diseases that appear due to a sedentary lifestyle. And that’s not to mention when the lean times came: the hunter-gatherer just had to break camp and go somewhere else.
If an improvement in the quality of life is not the cause of the appearance of agriculture , there is no other choice but to think that something had to happen that “forced” the human being to domesticate plants and animals. Only one thing that can do something like that: the weather.
Between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago, a great climatic change occurred that caused the wide open territories to be segmented into ecologically distinct niches where different species evolved depending on the height or type of vegetation. The climate became more arid and, therefore, the seasons more marked, which contributed to the spread of wild cereals. These environmental conditions explain why areas such as the Fertile Crescent were the place of origin of agriculture: there the existence of mountains, coastal plains, plateaus and rivers led to a great climatic variety and that put different places in the hands of human beings, close to each other, to experiment. On the other hand, pastures were common in this region; even today we can find wild ears of barley and wheat.
The first baby boom in history
An alternative to the origin of agriculture comes from the American anthropologist Mark Nathan Cohen. According to him, it was a population crisis that caused the appearance of agriculture . This does not come naturally because it is an easy way of life; what happened was a confluence of different events that led to the first baby boom in history. First , the planet-wide disappearance of megafauna , the large mammals that, like the mammoth, provided most of the protein. Second, climate change that allowed people to move more easily and triggered the habitability of many places. Third, the cultivation of wild species before the appearance of agriculture proper. All this led to an increase in the number of children a family could have . In the times of the hunter-gatherers, the birth rate was controlled by weaning after two years. In this way the mobility of the group was not compromised; with a sedentary lifestyle this ceased to be necessary. And so agriculture arose, for the existence of feeding a greater number of people.
Barker, Graeme, and Candice Goucher, eds. (2015) The Cambridge World History: Volume 2, A World with Agriculture, 12000 BCE–500 CE. Cambridge University Press
Cohen, M.N. (1977) The Food Crisis in Prehistory, Yale University Press
Riehl, S., Zeidi, M., Conard, N.J. (2013) Emergence of Agriculture in the Foothills of the Zagros Mountains of Iran. Science 341 (6141):65-67. doi:10.1126/science.1236743