Why did agriculture begin and how did it spread from the ancient middle east?
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The archeological party line points to the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. There, the authorities say that, about 10,000 years ago, humans suddenly learned how to sow and harvest such crops as wheat and barley. There, civilization really began. Or was it there?
Wadi Kubbaniya, Egypt. At this site, G. Hillman, of the Institute of Archeology, London, has found grinding stones and tubers. This site is dated at 17,000-18,000 years old.
New Guinea highlands. J. Golson, formerly of the Australian National University, has found ditches and crude fields in this area. The implication is that humans were tending plants here between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago.
Buka Island, Solomons. While excavating Kilu cave, M. Spriggs and S. Wickler unearthed small flake tools with surfaces displaying starch grains and other plant residues. Evidently, these tools were used for processing taro. Further, the starch grains resembled those of cultivated rather than wild taro. Date: about 28,000 years ago.
(Dayton, Leigh; "Pacific Islanders Were World's First Farmers," New Scientist, p. 14, December 12, 1992.)
When major climate change took place at the time of the end of the last ice age c.11,000 BC much of the earth became subject to long dry seasons. These conditions favoured annual plants which die off in the long dry season, leaving a dormant seed or tuber. These plants put more energy into producing seeds than into woody growth. An abundance of readily storable wild grains and pulses enabled hunter-gatherers in some areas to form the first settled villages at this time.
The practice of agriculture first began around 8000 BC in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia (part of present day Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Jordan which was then greener). This region was home to the greatest diversity of annual plants and according to one study 32 of the 56 largest grass seeds.
The first crops to be domesticated were all crops of edible seeds, wheat, barley, peas, lentils, chickpeas, bitter vetch and flax. These plants were all readily storable, easy to grow and grew quickly. They had to undergo few genetic changes to be of use to farmers, their wild relatives remaining easily recognisable to this day. In several other regions world wide local crop domestication took place independently.
In China rice and millet were domesticated by 7500 BC, followed by the beans mung, soy and aduki. In the Sahel region of Africa local rice and sorghum were domestic by 5000 BC. Local crops were domesticated independently in West Africa and possibly in New Guinea and Ethiopia. Three regions of the Americas independently domesticated corn, squashes, potato and sunflowers.
Humans in many different areas of the earth took up farming in what is, set against the 500,000 year age span of modern humans, a very short time. This is the most convincing evidence that global climate change, and the resultant adaptations by vegetation, were the cause of the beginning of agriculture.
We are wrong if we assume that the change from hunter gathering to farming bought an improvement in the quality of the human life or in the humans themselves. Skeletal evidence reveals that hunter gatherers were in fact, taller, better nourished, suffered less disease and lived longer than farmers. The gathering of wild grains produces more calories of food for each calorie of energy invested than any form of agriculture
. Hunter-gatherers typically get more of their energy from gathering plant sources, usually done by women, than from hunting. Their diet is extremely diverse and thereby balanced, between 3000 and 5000 plants were gathered as food in North America. Hunter gathering humans had developed superior stone tool making skills, bone needles and fish-hooks, jewellery, art and music over 30,000 years prior to the advent of agriculture. We have discovered from the last remaining hunter-gatherer societies that these people have an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants and their uses and names for every species.
No hunter gatherer would voluntarily change to farming. The practice of cultivation developed gradually in settled communities over thousands of years. Migrant mothers have to carry around their children and generally have longer birth intervals and lower birth rates than settled people. Increased population required increased food enforcing more reliance on agriculture.
Settled agriculturists can survive at higher population densities estimated to be 10-100 times greater than hunter-gatherers.
As well as the best available domesticable plants the Eurasian continental block was also the home of the major domestic farm animals. Sheep, goats and pigs were domesticated along with the first plants and surely attributed to the rise of the agriculturists. Around 6000 BC cows were domesticated and began taking on the burden of farm labour.
However crop domestications took place in the Americas and New Guinea in the absence of any domesticable large mammals. When humans had first arrived on the these continents (Australia c.35,000 BC, Americas c.11,000 BC) they had quickly hunted into extinction these continent's native large mammals. Having not co-evolved with proto-humans these animals presumably lacked fear. At the time of the beginning of agriculture burgeoning numbers of highly skilled human hunters aided by dogs ( domesticated c.10,000 BC) caused serious depletion of wild game animals. In West Asia huge herds of gazelles had been decimated despite the fact that these animals can run at 50 miles per hour and jump up to 30 feet. This factor may have contributed to increasing demands on plant food sources and been an incentive to cultivate.
How did humans domesticate plants?
The mutation, which marks the beginning of domesticated crops, was the loss of wild mechanisms in grasses and legumes for the scattering of seeds. Humans selected for grains whose stalks had failed to shatter and legumes whose pods failed to explode. Simply by cultivating the seed which was easiest to collect humans unintentionally caused a genetic change in plants. The resultant plants, lacking any means of seed dispersal, could not have survived without human intervention.
Annual plants had evolved ways to spread the germination of their seeds over several years in order to survive particularly bad weather. Seeds which sprouted immediately would have been the ...
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