Origins of Agriculture
Nicole M. Arendt
July 22, 2004.

Agriculture was developed independently at many locations in both the Old and New Worlds. In a very well-studied example from the Old World, agriculture involving the domestication of cereals, such as wheat, developed in the Near East, particularly the Levant. The domestication of maize, the major Precolumbian staple in the New World, occurred in Mesoamerica, along with other crops, such as beans and squash. Palynology has been used by those studying the origins of agriculture, both focusing on the cultigens and their spread and by studying the paleoenviornment.

There have been numerous theories about the origins of agriculture and its development. These theories often use ecological explanations, some using palynology to provide evidence, such as suggesting that agriculture developed in marginal environments (although this is not the case in many cases) and population pressure as a contributing factor (Childe 1951; Flannery 1969; McClung de Tapia 1992; Miller 1992; Watson 1995). Agriculture seems to have developed from a continuum of human-plant interactions, eventually leading to cultivation (Harris 1989). Related to agriculture is sedentism, which in some places preceded agriculture, while in other places it comes after the beginning of domestication (Cowan and Watson 1992).

The Near East, in the late eleventh or early tenth millennium, the climate was fluctuating, although initial cultivation appears to have occurred during the Younger Dryas, which was cold and dry. This could have decreased the natural stands of the cereals that were eventually domesticated, perhaps motivating a move toward domestication (Bar-Yosef and Meadow 1995). Another factor in the origins of agriculture in the Near East appears to be sedentism. This occurs prior to the development of agriculture here, which could have begun to ensure a reliable food supply or increase the food supply, necessary due to population pressure (Flannery 1969; Miller 1992). In Mesoamerica, pollen has indicated increasing manipulation of the environment and decreasing diversity of plants, as well as the presence of cultivated plants, interpreted as indicating agricultural practices, around 6000-5000 bp (Pearsall 1995; Pope et al. 2001). Unlike the Near East, there does not appear to be a link to environmental conditions or population pressures, but was possibly a response to other societal demands (McClung de Tapia 1992). Similar indicators have also been used to follow the spread of agriculture into other areas in the New World, such as the Southwest (Minnis 1992; Wills 1988, 1995). While these are not areas where plants were domesticated, the process by which agriculture was adopted and what was adopted are interesting for the study of changes in subsistence systems (Cowan and Watson 1992).

One location in Mesoamerica that has received considerable attention regarding this topic is the Tehuacan Valley, where remains found in caves include what appears to be remains of these major cultigens (maize, beans, and squash) from early in their use as domesticated plants (Cutler and Whitaker 1967; Kaplan 1967; Mangelsdorf et al. 1967). These include maize remains that appear to show the progression of the plant from a wild to a domesticated plant (Mangelsdorf et al. 1967). These reports give early dates for these remains (wild corn from about 6500 years before present, beans from 5000 B.P., and squash from 5000 B. C.) (Cutler and Whitaker 1967; Kaplan 1967; Mangelsdorf et al. 1967). Recently, improvements to dating techniques and other analyses have refined our knowledge of the early domestication of plants in Mesoamerica (Smith 2001). AMS radiocarbon dates of the beans themselves from Tehuacan do not support the presence of cultivated Phaseolus before about 2500 B.P. (Kaplan and Lynch 1999). In another region, in the lowlands of Mesoamerica, in the Gulf Coast region, Zea mays pollen first appears about 6000 years B.P. (Pope et al. 2001). A cave in Oaxaca, Mexico, Guilį Naquitz, has been a location of much recent research on early domestication in Mesoamerica. The domestication of Zea mays from this location appears to date to about 5400 14C years B.P. (Benz 2001; Piperno and Flannery 2001). Cucurbita pepo from this location seems to indicate an initial domestication of this plant much earlier, however, about 10,000-8000 calendar years before present (9000-7000 14C years B.P.) (Smith 1997). Therefore, it appears that the major Precolumbian New World domesticates were domesticated at very different times, with squash being the earliest and beans the most recently domesticated. More research done on this topic, along with the ability to directly date the remains themselves will continue to refine our knowledge of the domestication of plants, both in the New World, as seen here, and in other regions.

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