Thursday, May 26, 2005

Slow Birth of Agriculture

Slow Birth of Agriculture - An essay arguing that people began cultivating some crops long before they embraced agriculture, and that crop cultivation and village life often did not go hand in hand.

From the site:

According to early Greek storytellers, humans owe the ability to cultivate crops to the sudden generosity of a goddess. Legend has it that in a burst of goodwill, Demeter, goddess of crops, bestowed wheat seeds on a trusted priest, who then crisscrossed Earth in a dragon-drawn chariot, sowing the dual blessings of agriculture and civilization.

For decades, archaeologists too regarded the birth of agriculture as a dramatic transformation, dubbed the Neolithic Revolution, that brought cities and civilization in its wake. In this scenario, farming was born after the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago, when hunter-gatherers settled in small communities in the Fertile Crescent, a narrow band of land arcing across the Near East. They swiftly learned to produce their own food, sowing cereal grains and breeding better plants. Societies then raised more children to adulthood, enjoyed food surpluses, clustered in villages, and set off down the road to civilization. This novel way of life then diffused across the Old World.

But like many a good story, over time this tale has fallen beneath an onslaught of new data. By employing sensitive new techniques--from sifting through pollen cores to measuring minute shape changes in ancient cereal grains--researchers are building a new picture of agricultural origins. They are pushing back the dates of both plant domestication and animal husbandry (see sidebar, p. 1448) around the world, and many now view the switch to an agrarian lifestyle as a long, complex evolution rather than a dramatic revolution.

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