Sedentism and  Pristine Agriculture


4.0 The Transition to Sedentism

4.1 Recognizing Sedentism

It has become increasingly clear that recognizing sedentism is not at all straight forward.  A number of criteria can be used, but there is not always agreement about which criteria can be used most effectively.  Bellwood (2005, p.23) also recommends caution when determining whether sedentism can be securely demonstrated, citing several regularly used determinants which are ambiguous.  Bar-Yosef and Meadow have addressed this briefly (1995, p.51):  “assertions that one site resulted from year-round occupation and another from short-term seasonal use must be based solely on biological evidence and not on arguments about the presence or absence of permanent structures, storage facilities, burials and heavy tools”.    Other indications that they quote would include regularly deposited rubbish, and types of game which are seasonal. 

Bar-Yosef (1998) goes into more detail, citing a number of criteria of necessary for the recognition of either semi or full sedentism as (p. 168):

  • Increasing presences of organisms who benefit from human sedentary activities, e.g.
    • House mice
    • Rats
    • Sparrows
  • Cementum increments on gazelle teeth
    • Indications that hunting took place in both winter and summer
  • Energy expenditure
    • Leveling slopes
    • Building houses
    • Production of plaster
    • Transport of undressed stones
    • Digging of graves
    • Shaping of big mortars

Edwards and Hardy-Smith (2004) add to the list an approach to disposing of debris that is deliberate and organized.  Other potential indications are the manufacture and use of large/heavy and non-portable products.

4.2 Process-Based Scenarios for Sedentism

There are numerous general scenarios which have been suggested to account for the increasing sedentism thought to have taken place towards the end of the Natufian. 

Bar-Yosef and Meadow (1995, p48) have proposed that wild cereals, which were collected from at least 19,000bp at Ohalo II, and could be exploited quite intensively if required on a seasonal basis from May in the lowlands and through early July in highlands, and that this could have lead to sedentism:  “Regular patterns of anticipated mobility would encourage the building of more permanent installations, storage facilities, and solid foundations for dwellings to serve the same through successive seasons” (p.48-49).  

Hillman says that the increased availability of wild cereals “appears to have been relatively abrupt, to have had a profound effect on local hunter-gatherer subsistence, and to have triggered increases in food storage and sedentism that were key precursors to the eventual adoption of cultivation” (1996, p.161), although he highlights that impacts will have taken place slightly differently at slightly different times.  Some of these impacts include (Hillman 1996, p.192-195) the ability to store plant-foods and the ability to extend periods of settlement in any one location.  This in turn will have lead to some degree of sedentism with some members of society possibly remaining at a home location on a year-round basis.  This could have led in turn to increased birth rates requiring food resource management strategies in order to feed the population by relatively simple strategies at first – for example, perhaps burning off competing vegetation to encourage cereal development.

Bar-Yosef and Meadows suggest that new subsistence strategies would see camps located in well-watered year-round areas like lakes and springs, where a number of environments could be exploited and where a broad-spectrum strategy could be employed, exerting pressure on local game, increasing dependence upon plants and encouraging intentional seeding and maintenance.

Kislev and Harmann (2004) believe that semi- or full-sedentism could have occurred by accident, with the generation of surpluses from wild wheat and barley grain collection, scooped from the ground.  Experiments in Israel with wheat and barley showed that fallen seeds survived on the ground for more than five months in very dense patches – permitting a days supply to be collection in just one or two hours.  This is backed by archaeological data – types of grains found in archaeological collections are consistent with those collected by hand rather than by sickle or by being stripped from the stalks.

Other theories identify social processes as a motivation for increased exploitation of resources, which could have increased population, while a shifted distribution of reduced rainfall could have accounted for concentration of areas of naturally growing cereals and legumes, forcing population aggregation in those areas, and new social and technological reorganization to deal with the new settlement requirements and altered subsistence base.

Keeley’s 1995 study of 96 ethnographic groups attempted to identify which variables were most likely to influence the adoption of cultivation.  He concluded that a number of variables would increase the dependence on plant foods – low latitude combined with low precipitation, population pressure and low ecological productivity.  “At any latitude except those of polar deserts, a rich-coastal hunter-gather group experiencing either a decrease in precipitation, an increase in population density, or both, has little choice but to intensify its use of plant foods” (Keeley 1995, p.249).

4.3 Chronological Models of Sedentism

A number of writers have suggested very specifically chronological models for the transition to sedentism, which incorporate a number of processes and ideas.

Fellner (1995) has suggested two such scenarios.

  • In the first model the Ramonian emerges before the Early Natufian.
    • Fellner claims that no environmental changes are visible, and believes that the Mushabian development into the Ramonian had a socially derived cause.  He suggests that a breakdown in the relationships between the Geometric Kebaran and Late Mushabian would have lead to a breakdown in exchange networks at around 13,000 to 12,500bp.  He sees an aggressive attitude in the purging of Geometric Kebaran elements from the Ramonian and the emergence of the Ramon Point, and suggests that Ramonian groups were forced to rely on local resources which may have been found by a move to the Negev highlands.  He suggests that the retreat by the Geometric Kebaran groups caused minor stress in the core area, where additional mouths now needed to be fed and an annual cycle of mobile residence would no longer be possible.  As a consequence, additional output was required to consolidate the community – and this led to the Natufian.
  • In the second model, the Early Natufian precedes the Ramonian
    • Fellner suggests that in the case of this scenario, Geometric Kebaran groups had resources which would have enabled them to become sedentary if they wished to, and although this didn’t happen, they did form larger communities “on a regular basis, during the aggregated phase of the residential cycle (1995, p.124) leading to a familiarity with intra-group tensions and the resolution of conflicts.  He suggests that it is entirely plausible that a Geometric Kebaran group in the northern or central Palestinian area adopted a semi-sedentary lifestyle at around 12,500bp as a response to events in an increasingly integrated community.  This corresponds to the change from trapezoidal and rectangular microliths with Helwan lunates.  Geometric Kebaran groups who had been accustomed to spending part of the year in southern Palestine now stayed within the core area and did not return to the Negev or Sinai.  This ruptured exchange mechanisms with the Late Mushabian, causing the emergence of the Ramonian, and the need for resources to be located locally in the Negev highlands.

    Fellner’s view is that it is impossible to decide between these two scenarios because there are not sufficient radiocarbon dates, and even if there were, the degree of precision required for conclusions about the chronology to be convincing would not be possible. 


The discussions about sedentism is a chicken in the egg situation – is it a case of sedentism leading to farming or farming leading to sedentism?  Whichever way round it went, the two together would lead to increasing permanence and population growth as orchards and fields required care and maintenance.

5.0 Prerequisites for the Establishment of Agriculture, and its Recognition

5.1 Prerequisites for the Establishment of Agriculture

5.1.1 Plants

There are a number of key circumstances which would have needed to exist in tandem in order for agriculture to be established, in addition to any other socioeconomic motivation.

  • A stable and suitable climate following the Younger Dryas to ensure a reliable and predictable source of food
  • Edible plant resources (many species poisonous, indigestible, or difficult to gather/prepare)
  • Crops that had suitable crops for human consumption that had suitable characteristics (e.g. large-grained, self-pollinating, seasonal)
  • Increased available ecologies
  • Social organization that was suitable for adapting to sedentism, which was necessary for crop maintenance
  • Existence of plant types that were suitable for either short-term or long-term storage
  • Regular practices of plant exploitation and processing prior to cultivation practices
  • Social/ecological and/or environmental conditions that would have triggered a change of subsistence practices
  • Adaptability of plants to areas away from native zones

5.1.2 Animals

  • A stable and suitable climate following the Younger Dryas
  • Existence of breeds attractive for human consumption
  • Existence of species predisposed to living in herds
  • Amenable to human dominance
  • Ability to reproduce in captivity
  • Not competitive with humans for food
  • Suitable for other tasks while alive, when meat not the main requirement (e.g. traction, carriage or dairy etc.).

Sheep, for example, meet the following criteria:

  • Dominance hierarchy (accustomed to following a leader and to being subservient to that leader)
  • Territoriality
  • Gregarious


5.1.3 Humans

  • Sedentary or semi-sedentary lifestyle
  • Higher population density than in the Epipalaeolithic (Price and Gebauer, 1995, p.6)
  • Social systems that can incorporate a new economy strategy
  • Social motivations for changing lifestyle (perhaps including the desire to accumulate wealth)
  • Planting, maintenance, harvesting and storage knowledge, skills and technologies


5.2 Recognition of Domestication

The ways in which domestication can be recognized have been the subject of original assumptions, considerable debate and some dispute.  The following outlines some of the key characteristics taken into account by those attempting to determine wild/domestic status.

5.2.1 Plants

Details of how domesticated cereals might be recognized include:

  • larger grain or seed size
  • larger number of seeds/pods per individual plant
  • presence in areas to which they were not indigenous
  • abundance of one specie over any other
  • Loss of wild mode of seed dispersal – visible in the toughening of the attachments of the rachis segments which connect spikelets to the plant
  • Loss of wild forms of germination
  • Development of free-threshing or “naked” seeds, where protective husks are not as firmly attached to the plant, so are easier to remove
  • Increase in the number of fertile florets and seeds per rachis (e.g. six row barley rather than two row barley)
  • Increase in yield potential
  • Location of species outside their natural habitat
  • Changing patterns of species availability.  For example, as Keeley (1995) points out, the practice of burning, which commonly accompanies cultivation, changes the balance of food species available by eliminating trees, shrubs and ground cover that impedes seed and root plants.  This reduces the supply of nuts and fruits.

Details of how domesticated pulses might be recognized include (after Garrard 1999):

  • Appearance of plants which retain seeds in the pod upon ripening rather than dispersing them
  • Increased size of seeds
  • Thinner and more permeable seed coat
  • Peas and vetches developed stiffer stems and became less dependent upon climbing

5.2.2 Animals

Recognition of animal domestication is particularly controversial.

Key indications of domestication in faunal assemblages are generally taken to be as follows:

  • Increase in species abundance in a faunal assemblage
  • Introduction of new species into areas where they were not indigenous
  • Morphology and reduction of body size
  • Population structure (conservation of females for reproduction and selection of sub-adults for consumption)
  • Types of animal chosen due to their “pre-adaptive” traits which make them attractive for domestication
  • Differences between hunter-gatherer and farmer faunal assemblages

It should be noted that low numbers of bone samples make discussions difficult.  Causes include poor recovery, poor survival and poor knowledge about pre-domesticated forms.  In addition, Dennell (1977) criticizes some of the above criteria for identifying domestication in animals as follows:

  • The criteria fail to take into account signs of localized domestication
  • There is an assumption that deer, elk etc. were never domesticated anywhere
  • With respect to cattle, it is difficult to tell between
    • Different species, which can show size variation
    • Male versus female forms, which can also show size variation
  • Descriptions of how hunter-gatherer societies were organized tend to be oversimplified.  Hunter gather societies were often far more complex in their food management techniques than has sometimes been acknowledged

In 1983, he took this further (Dennell 1983, p.17-18)

  • Changes in the distribution of an animal’s domestication beyond its natural/original Holocene environment are not invariably sound indicators:
    • It is not possible to identify localized domestication (e.g. cattle or pig)
    • It is not really possible to identify whether new distribution was natural or via human agency
  • Decreased body size
    • Post-glacial dwarfing also occurred  naturally
    • Sexual dimorphism can also account for size differences where there are problems in identifying gender in samples
  • Differences of faunal assemblage types between hunter gatherer and farmer societies are not as distinct as previously concluded
    • Hunter-gatherer societies were far more sophisticated in terms of food resource management than has been understood before recent times

As with plant domestication, some of the problems in discussing how and when this process took place lie in the fact that it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish between wild and domestic forms.  Some of the indicators are as follows:

  • General
    • Changes in bone morphology
    • Diachronic changes in the different species within a context
    • Occurrence of species outside their natural habitat range
    • Changes in slaughter patterns (age, sex etch)
    • Increased bone disease in skeletal remains
    • Other less certain indicators:
      • Smaller brain size
      • Lighter colour
  • Goat
    • Horn cores
    • Reduction in body size
  • Sheep
    • Horn cores
    • Reduction in body size, but less marked than in goat
    • Foot pathology
  • Cattle and Pigs
    • Reduction in body size

Hemmer (1990) suggests that domesticated species appear to have arisen from the more primitive species within any group.  He also says that only animals with reduced susceptibility to stress will breed in captivity and produce variants that are truly domesticated – he suggests that a reduction of the melanins that produce darker colouring and superior neural transmission will have resulted in lighter coated animals with reduced neural responsiveness leading to increased docility.

Ducas (in Horwitz 1999, p.68) points out that one of the usual criteria by which domestication is recognized in animals –decreased size – is not an infallible method.  In the southern Levant the size within wild species fluctuated considerably and many of those fluctuations are not related to domestication.  Domestication certainly did result in reduced size of animals overall, but other criteria are also required in order to recognize it, together with a significant number of samples to ensure that it is the population and not the individual that is being represented. 

There is also the matter of recognizing intermediate states: which took place during the Natufian, Pre-Pottery Neolithic and Early Neolithic, the faunal equivalent of cultivation before domestication in plant agriculture:  “a situation in which a species is on the one hand not hunted, while on the other it is not domesticated” (Ducas in Horwitz 1999, p.68). 

The first attempts at domestication can be looked for in areas where wild species which were first domesticated are native.  Wild goat (Capra aegagrus) was widely distributed from the central Negev and southern Jordan as far as the Taurus and Zagros footills and mountains in central Anatolia and Iran.  There is thought to be some overlap between distribution of goat and ibex in the Negev, Sinai and southern Jordan (Garrard et al 1996).

The wild sheep (Ovis orientalis) had a similar distribution but favoured lower elevations and therefore its distribution is much wider than that of the goat.   Cattle (Bos primigenius) and pig (Sus scorfa) were widespread throughout the Levant, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, the Iranian Plateau, Asia and Europe.

Each of these breeds has a number of features in common that make them attractive candidates for domestication:

  • Absence of well defined territories
  • Sociable
  • Hierarchical mixed-sex herds
  • Tolerant of close proximity to other members of the species
  • Herbivores (do not see humans as the next meal)
  • Generally non-aggressive
  • Consume a wide variety of readily available plants

Ducos (in Horwitz et al 1999) challenges the diminution of size as a key determinant of domestication, as Dennell has done, above, but with further comments.  In the southern Levant faunal size within wild species fluctuated considerably, and many of those fluctuations are not related to domestication.  Domestication did not result in reduced size of animals but need other criteria to recognize it – horn-core torsion, skull modification etc.  It also requires a significant number of individuals in the sample:  “true domestication concerns a population and not an individual animal” (Ducos in Horwitz 1999, p.68).  Ducos also points out that it is necessary to look at what we imply by the term “domestication” in the greater scheme of things, in the sense that it could and probably should imply the involvement of human-animal relation concepts, not just morphological changes.  For example, concepts of ownership or property and how this is held, shared or exchanged should be considered.

5.2.3 General Comments about both Plants and Animals

Dennell (1983) highlights that abundance of remains, a frequently quoted indication of plant and animal domestication, can depend greatly on the circumstances under which bones and plant remains were preserved.

6.0 Pristine Transition to Agriculture

6.1 Introduction to Pristine Agriculture

6.1.1 Basic Concepts

Looking at pristine domestication it is necessary to understand not simply the triggers or the outcomes – the entire process of adoption is a complex interplay of circumstances and decisions that culminated in a ‘package’ of domesticates.  These processes and decisions were unique in different areas of the world and although were long-term in effects, were not intentional – in other words they were not designed for the specific outcomes we see from the distance of time. As Tim Ingold puts it, succinctly: “The peoples of the past who were initially responsible for domesticating plants and animals must have had quite different ideas about what they were doing” (Ingold 1996, p.15).

Dennell (1983, p.15) makes the useful point that it is not always easy to determine the difference between food management and agriculture:  “In recent years, what seemed at first a crisp contrast between the two has become very blurred, and much confusion has arisen over how to distinguish food-extraction from food-production in the archaeological record”.

Sherratt suggests that in order to fully understand the establishment of agriculture, we need to have a realistic understanding of just how remarkable it was:  “Because farming was so rapidly adopted during the Holocene, we tend to view it as in some sense inevitable.  This disguises what ought to be the real surprise:  the rarity of the conjunction of conditions that actually gave rise to it” (Sherratt 1996, p.134).

There are a number of different types of agricultural components, including cultivation and pastoralism, and these can exist in semi-sedentary or fully sedentary populations and, in the case of pastoralism, nomadic groups.  Nomadic pastoralism is often thought to have been adopted in marginal areas where environments could not support cultivation or sedentary occupation.

Bintliff (1999) believes that in the case of both hunter-gatherer and more particularly farming communities although the location of settlements might be purely ecologically determined, other factors might also have been involved and could influence settlement locations – including social motives, ritual factors and other potential motives that are probably usually undetectable in the archaeological record.

6.1.2 Pro, Cons and Impacts of a Lifestyle based on Cultivation

There are a number of different explanations for why plant farming would be adopted, based on environmental, economic and social principles.  Many of the older explanations share a belief that the transition to cultivation would only have occurred under extraordinary circumstances because, compared with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, it was infinitely more hard work with numerous downsides.  Most recent discussions take place against a background of improved understanding about the nature of hunter-gatherer societies that transitioned to agriculture, and about the sites themselves.

The downsides usually listed are as follows:

  • Labour-intensive
  • Maintenance of plants (e.g. protection from birds), protection of stored grains (e.g. from rodents) and management of distribution will have required a degree of sedentism
    • Sedentism will have required the management of relationships and their associated tensions between larger communities than had previously been managed, and also the creation of inter-group mechanisms to ensure the continuation of external marriages and other external social requirements.
  • Some pulses are bitter and toxic and have to be prepared to make them palatable
  • High risk – harvest failures can have devastating economic effects
  • Osteological problems associated with repetitive tasks like grain processing
  • Tooth decay increases
  • Infectious disease more likely to reach epidemic proportions in sedentary communities with people living in close proximity to one another

However, Bellwood (2005) challenges this view with the following comments: “The early centuries of agricultural development were probably fairly healthy, in the sense that the major epidemic diseases of history, many known to have derived from domesticated animals, had probably not yet developed.  Neither, perhaps, had crop diseases” (p.14).  The very first farmers were therefore not necessarily subjected to the downsides associated with adopting agriculture that so many authors describe, and this somewhat undermines the idea that agriculture would have been unattractive to hunting and gathering communities when it was first established.  Bellwood further states that it would be “quite misguided to suggest that hunter-gatherers who developed agriculture were always embarking on a downhill trajectory into hard labour and disease.  Such a view pays no attention to specifics, whether ethnographic or archaeological” (2005, p.19).  He goes on:  “earliest agriculturalists in healthy food-rich environments probably had even more enviable lives from the viewpoint of many inhabitants, including many hunter-gatherers” (2005, p.19).

Additionally, there were numerous benefits to an adoption of cultivation practices (after Garrard 1999, and Diamond 1997):

  • Plants
    • Nutrition
      • Cereals provide carbohydrates
      • Pulses provide proteins
    • Large grain size
    • Growth of plant foods in large, dense stands which enable easier and more efficient exploitation
    • Ripening of different plants at slightly different times
    • Potential for storage
    • Self-pollinating
    • Pulses fix atmospheric nitrogen through root bacteria which provides soil enrichment
  • Animals
    • Sheep and goat have lower feeding requirements than many species
    • Sheep and goat have a higher reproductive rate
    • Sheep and goats have a faster growth rate
  • Territory
    • Smaller territories can feed many more people.  Diamond (1997) summarizes the situation:  “By selecting and growing these few species of plants and animals that we can eat, so that they constitute 90% rather than 0.1% of the biomass on an acre of land, we obtain far more edible calories per acre.  As a result, once acre can feed many more herders and farmers – typically 10-100 times more than hunter-gatherers” (p.88).

Dennell (1999) gives a very good description of some of the balances that need to be made in an economy that bases itself on the exploitation of both fauna and plants in a settled environment:  “More livestock produce more manure, and so higher crop-yields can be obtained;  however, the livestock then require more winter feed;  if they are fed with part of the crops there will then be less available for human consumption.  If, on the other hand, man consumes most of the crops, there will be less available for livestock;  fewer livestock results in smaller production of manure which in turn can cause crop yields to fall and this grain will be available to man” (p.8).

Wenke (1999) makes a similar point.  Full sedentism forces at least partial inertia in subsistence groups who now have to tend both living and stored plants, take care of children and animals, and have a non-portable material toolkit to consider.  They may also have ovens, ceramic kilns  and other investments that may be useful to maintain.

However, in spite of the obvious difficulties, it is as well to bear in mind that there may have been a number of attractions to the idea of sedentary lifestyles and farming smaller territories than have been conventionally considered.

6.1.3 Differences Between Hunter-Gatherer and Agricultural Lifestyles

Bearing in mind Dennell’s observations, above, about the difficulty of determining the differences between food extraction management and food production, it is worth looking at the difference between the different lifestyles. There are a number of differences between hunter-gatherer and agricultural subsistence strategies and regional movements.  Understanding why agriculture was adopted needs to be seen in the context of what these changes involved in terms of every day life.  These include the following changes:

  • Territorial changes
    • Diamond (1997), quoted above, summarizes the situation.  In addition:
      • Hunter-gatherer groups have territories of several kilometres, up to around 10km2
        • This equates (Hassan 1981) to around 1 person per kilometre.
      • Cultivators will plant several hectares
        • Equating (Hassan 1981) to around between 3 and 100 individuals per km2.
    • Bintliff (1999) suggests that
      • Hunter-gatherer territory was around 10km2 (which agrees with Diamond, above)
      • Pastoral-herders have a 7.5km2 territorial radius.
      • Cereal and animal exploitation allowed much smaller territories, but these required much more intensive labour (p.507)
      • It is necessary to analyze areas on an individual basis to understand how long it would take to reach limits of these territories, because geography and topology will impact the time taken to cover territory.  Territories may therefore vary in size depending upon physical profile, (which might be determined by fieldwork or by cost/benefit analysis).
  • Economic changes
    • The focus on plant cultivation and animal husbandry and maintenance creates new economic and social environments:  “the emphasis on cultured plants and animals creates a separate division . . . and concerned more with storage, processing, planting, weeding, caring and nurturing” (Hodder 1999, p.292).
    • Specifically, the use of domesticated emmer and bread wheat would have had a profound effect on both the social and economic profiles of groups who used them  in the following ways (Dennell 1983):
      • Sowing of seeds in prepared ground, weeding, harvesting, etc.
      • Organization is needed to ensure that very labour intensive tasks are completed
      • Congregation around suitable soils
      • Maintenance of land was needed to replenish nitrogens that legumes extract from the soil
    • The ability to store food in much greater volumes.
    • Synergies were created by both cultivating plants and keeping animals.  The nitrogen absorbed by cereals can be replenished by animal fertilizer. 
    • Domesticated animals provide the same resources as wild animals, but they do so in a concentrated and on-demand environment.  These resources include fuel (dung), blood and dairy products while alive, and hides (for containers, clothes etc), sinew (string and rope), fur/hair (clothing), meat (protein) and bone when slaughtered.
    • As well as foodstuff for humans and animals, another crop, flax, also provides natural fibre (linen) and oil.
  • Changes in concepts of ownership
    • Dennell (1983) describes how ownership concepts change fundamentally with the move from mobile lifestyles over large territories which might be shared with other groups, to sedentary lifestyles in smaller, defined regions, which are worked, protected and owned by only one group.  In addition, he points to differences in animal ownership concepts:  “an individual animal is owned by an individual hunter only when killed, and not whilst alive.  If the animal killed is female and has young, the person who killed it has no particular property rights over the young.  By contrast, such rights do exist amongst pastoralists.  Individual animals can be stolen, and ownership of a female also comes with it similar rights over the offspring” (p.19).  The same situation occurs with plants.  Hunter-gatherer groups may have communal rights over plant resources but farmers may own their own tracts of land and plants contained and maintained on that land will be the landowner’s property.
    • Blintiff (1999) highlights how territories may be altered by social mechanisms.  Many processes in agricultural communities are invisible in archaeology, but the archaeological interpretations of what remains need to take into account the fact that social factors  may determine both the location of settlement and its character:  “When the inhabitants of a village exchange marriage partners with neighbouring communities, such ethno-historic record with accompanying dowries of land, stock or other property” (p.532).  New types of tension could occur – boundaries changing as marriages redefine territories.  Social mechanisms evolve to deal with these situations.
  • Changes in settlement location
    • Blintiff (1999) suggests that in areas where there is no “hot spot” or concentration of resources, there is no motivation to lay claim to it and become territorial.  However, in areas where these focal points of high resource productivity exist and are predictable, the motivation for territoriality may well emerge.  There are degrees of predictability versus density/scarcity between these.  As Blintiff comments (1999, p.511):  “at one end of the spectrum, human groups can have fluid membership and no specific attachment to particular areas of landscape;  at the other, the human group can become largely endogamous, with a fixed membership and economic behaviour highly localized on a territory largely or wholly claimed by the group for itself”.
  • Changes to social organization and considerations
    • The ability to store foods in greater volumes would have led to a circular situation whereby both the dysfunctional (ill and old) members of the population and those who were useful as specialists could have been supported by the production of surplus.  Specialization could include anything from craftsmen (ceramicisits, for example) to those who were needed to negotiate in trading relationships with other sedentary groups. 
    • The organization of the annual plant cycle, storage and distribution, and the management of animals lead to changes in the way settlements were organized and the sort of structures that appear
    • The nucleation of settlements will have lead to an increased number of people living in permanent close proximity.  Social mechanisms will have been required to manage the potential problems inherent in this type of lifestyle.
    • As with settlement location, Blintiff (1999) argues that the sheer number of factors that influence settlement size should prevent any form of determinism, although it is only practical to understand what factors may be that can influence both settlement size and the form that it takes.

Ingold (1996) emphasizes that the difference between hunter-gathering and farming in terms of a change of subsistence was in no more than “the relative scope of human involvement in establishing conditions for growth” (Ingold’s italics). Therefore, although the eventual outcome was extensive socio-cultural change, the initial steps towards cultivation were not the “revolution” that has often been described. 

6.3 Theories of Pristine Agriculture

6.3.1 Early Theories

In 1927 Peake and Fleure proposed their “Natural Habitat Hypothesis”.  This suggests that the first agriculturalists would have been found in the Euphrates upper valley where indigenous populations would have had familiarity with wild wheat and barley that grew naturally in that environment.

In the late 1920s Childe proposed his “Oasis Theory”, which suggested that animals were domesticated before plant cultivation occurred, as a result of increasing aridity which forced humans and animals to share increasingly limited areas where water resources were concentrated (oases, rivers etc).  He suggested that this would have forced humans and animals into close proximity and inter-dependency (Childe 1928).

Perry (1937) thought that farming was established through a mixture of Nile inundation and the power of individual thinking.  Although innovation as an individual rather than more general processual innovation went through a period of unpopularity, the role of the individual is being taken more seriously in archaeology today.

Sauer (1969) suggested that only diversified types of terrain could have supported the variety of plants that he thought necessary for agricultural development.  He also considered that social systems needed to be in place to support agriculture.  These included sedentism, successful exploitation of existing resource to minimize the risk of experimentation, and pre-adapted skills.   In 1952 he suggested that hunter-gatherers acquired considerable affluence in the Near East and were able to adopt more leisure time, a combination of conditions allowing the development of sedentism and agricultural practices. 

In the 1950s Braidwood was one of the key figures in the understanding of early agriculture in archaeology.  He worked extensively in the so-called Fertile Crescent with a view to understanding how farming developed.  In the Chemchema Valley in northeast Iraq he excavated both Karim-Shahir and Jarmo.  His work at Jarmo pointed to a different ecological origin for agriculture – he suggested that the well-watered hillsides of the Near East were first formed because this is where the basic plant ancestors were located and native, as were sheep, goat and cattle.  He believed that as human technology and knowledge about their own environment increased in complexity and sophistication, the potential of certain species would become obvious and that this would be exploited.   Karim-Shahir was a hunter-gatherer butchery site, where wild sheep and goat and wild plants were processed. 

In 1970, Isaac also thought that a central origin for pristine agriculture was plausible, and he proposed that this was somewhere in the Near East.

In the 1960s and early 70s Binford approached the subject using a different approach.  He proposed that the shift to agriculture went hand in hand with a shift in the ecological balance, perhaps caused by increasing population density, with groups splitting and expanding into new territories that were already occupied. This, he suggested, would cause some groups to intensify their approach to subsistence resources on their own territories, leading to the domestication of plants and animals.   These theories were undermined by some of the areas where early agriculture was found – like the Negev.  Wenke comments on Binford’s ideas as follows:  “in most instances of early domestication and agriculture, domesticates seem to represent only about 5 percent of the total diet for centuries after they being to be domesticated – a slow process in which it is difficult to imagine much daily stress” (Wenke 1999, p.279).

In 1969 Flannery used Binford’s model as a basis for explanation, but introduced the concept of a “broad spectrum revolution” which described an eclectic diet and approach to food in hunter-gatherer economies.  He suggested that this lead them to be pre-adapted to plant-cultivation and similar practices.  Like Binford, he considered that the first agricultural communities would have evolved in areas outside resource-rich ones.

More recent theories are summarized below.

6.3 Modern Theories of Pristine Agriculture

6.3.1 Plant Cultivation Climatic, Environmental and Ecological Factors

Solutions which offer environmental determinism as an explanation of change have engendered volumes of debate, some for and some against.

This model suggests that drier conditions caused increased sparsity in game, and that new methods had to be used to ensure that groups could continue to be supplied with an adequate food source. There are a number of arguments both in favour and against total or partial climatic determinism.

Fellner (1995) claims that there is absolutely no evidence that any climatic change accompanied the adoption of intensive plant collection and cultivation, and the presence of extensive plant collection evidence during the Proto-Kebaran at Ohalo II demonstrates that intensive plant collection took place when no climatic stress is suggested.

Hayden (1995) also argues against a palaeo-environmental explanation:  “the most parsimonious conclusion might be that climatic change is essentially incidental to the domestic process” (1985, p.281).

There are plenty of opinions in it s favour, however.  Bar-Yosef and Meadow (1995), argue that “the origins of agriculture must be viewed in the context of a fluctuating climatic regime that broadened and then constricted areas suitable for productive hunting and gathering and later for cultivation and pastoralism” (p.45).  In short, it is important to understand local impacts and responses to changing environmental conditions. 

Similarly, Hole suggests that the combination of sedentism and the reduction of open areas due to advancing forestation would have encouraged territoriality and food resource management practices, including protection of local herds (Hole 1996, p265).

Blumer (1996) suggests that the onset of seasonality with dry summers in the Holocene was a factor in the onset of cultivation, simply by providing conditions that would favour cereals and would encourage storage practices:  “The correlation between agricultural origins and seasonal drought, annual habit and large seeds, is not perfect . . . .  But the correlation is close enough to be suggestive” (Blumer 1996, p.40).

Bellwood 2005 (p.24) suggests that deteriorating climatic conditions might act as a trigger if they did not have a severe impact.

Keeley (1995) points out that when subsistence activities are intensified by ethnographic groups, if fish is available it will be selected in preference to increased plant exploitation, so local ecological factors should also be considered in any attempts to assess why cultivation was adopted at any given stage in any given area.

Although archaeologists have quite rightly become wary of “environmental determinism” it is quite clear that significant changes in the environment have impacted groups at certain times and in certain places.  The occurrence of the Younger Dryas at this time would certainly have impacted human exploitation of resources, as the areas available for exploitation were reduced.

Bellwood (2005, p.20) concludes that “Holocene climate was clearly the ultimate enabler of early farming, but it was not the proximate cause behind individual transitions”. Demographic Pressure

Those who suggest that demographic pressure resulting from a sedentary lifestyle caused the adoption of farming are proposing that increased population caused a requirement for increased food production, perhaps in association with declining resources.  The reasons for this increased population and decrease in naturally available resources are explained by different writers in different ways.

Some writers (e.g. Cohen 1977, Flannery 1969, Binford 1968) have suggested that increased population, caused by the reproductive freedoms permitted by a semi-nomadic lifestyle in the Natufian, would have led to an increase in population, which would in turn have lead to an increase in exploitation of both plant and animal resources.  It has been suggested that gazelle, the main food source, could have been hunted to the point where sufficient numbers were no longer available to feed the population – forcing the population to become increasingly dependent on plant resources which led from intensive collection to actual cultivation.

A number of writers suggest that demographic difficulties were caused by the initial expansion of Geometric Kebaran populations into southern Palestine, followed by their retreat to central and northern Palestine when the climate deteriorated just before the onset of the Natufian, causing an imbalance of population and resources in that area, which in turn caused the adoption of plant exploitation and sedentism (Fellner 1995, p.115).  In this model, reduced resources lead to the adoption of cultivation and the development of agriculture.

Another model, proposed by Henry (1981) also suggests that a mixture of climate and demographic pressure motivated the adoption of agriculture.  He suggests that the Geometric Kebaran, coinciding with a dry climate, forced a mobile lifestyle, but that climatic improvement with wetter conditions at around 13,000bp immediately prior to the Early Natufian coincided with the expansion of wild cereals which attracted hunter-gatherers to a new resource.  In order to exploit it, sedentism became necessary, and this caused populations to expand, resulting in demographic stress, forcing expansion into the Negev in the Late Natufian, at the end of which increasing aridity reduced resources whilst the population was still growing.  He sees the result as a reversion to simple foraging in southern Palestine by Harifian groups, and the adoption of agriculture in northern and central Palestine.

The last of these two models are contradictory, each seeing completely different climatic conditions at the onset of the Natufian. Keeley (1995) considered population to be a variable in the move towards cultivation, but he believed that it did not function as an isolated process:  “it is clear that increasing population pressure alone leads only to socioeconomic complexity, not to proto-agriculture.  Only under relatively narrow conditions of latitude, precipitation and ecology is population pressure correlated with proto-agricultural practices” (p.257).  He believes that population pressure was in fact much less important than either latitude or precipitation:  “one could easily conceive of proto-agriculture’s developing where precipitation and ‘effective latitude’ are slowly decreasing . . . while population density remains static”. 

There are, as well, a number of objections to seeing the transition to cultivation as a response to demographic pressures.  Fellner (1995, p.113) makes the following comments

  • There is no archaeological evidence that more people occupied the area at the end of the Natufian – sites become bigger but more nucleated and fewer in number
  • Hunter-gatherer groups have numerous methods of controlling the population available
  • to them in times of stress
  • Ethnographic evidence suggests that small hunter-gatherer groups were highly vulnerable to “booms and busts” (p.114) an imbalance between fertility and death, and that these could have occurred at any time during the prehistoric period, and almost certainly did, with no dramatic changes in subsistence strategy occurring – so population pressure on its own is not a sufficient reason for the change from simple to more complex systems.

Bellwood (2005, p. 24) notes that extreme food stress in non-affluent societies would be likely to result in the adoption of agriculture, because “devastated populations” are not in any condition to revolutionize subsistence strategies and whole lifestyle arrangements. 

Price and Gebauer (1995, p.7) believe that population pressure was not a cause of agriculture and that, in fact, in order to establish a successful agricultural community it was necessary to have a substantial population to start off with.

Other arguments against population pressure leading to sedentism and the adoption of cultivation include the fact that hunter-gatherer populations will have faced imbalances in population and resources at many times without resorting to plant cultivation, and they had many methods, both biological and cultural, of managing community size when an imbalance occurred, including – marriage rules, birth spacing, depressed fertility and death by starvation (Zvelebil, M. 1986, p.8). Disease

Groube (1996) suggests that disease has been consistently underrated as a prime mover in prehistoric contexts because of its invisibility.  He points to the fact that humans provide the exclusive host for some of these “micropredators” which are responsible for diseases like malaria and smallpox.  Increased temperatures at the end of the Pleistocene and early Holocene allowed tropically adapted diseases to spread:  “the climate amelioration during the terminal Pleistocene was a bonanza for many temperature and humidity-sensitive micropredators and/or their vectors (Grouble 1996, p.123). 

With the establishment of sedentism or partial sedentism, it became possible for larger human communities to be established.  Those settled near to saline swamps and coastal areas were probably particularly vulnerable to malaria from Plasmodium vivax.  In other areas, other diseases could have established themselves:  “less damaging but more numerous viral, bacterial, protozoal, fungal and helminthic parasites would have made less spectacular but significant inroads into regions from which they had long been excluded” (Grouble 1996, p.125). 

Groube believes that this will have caused a demographic crisis that could only have been answered by reduced both intervals, which, in turn, could only be achieved with reduced mobility and increased food resources:  “reproductive effort had to be constantly improved to keep ahead of diseases” (1996, p.125).  In other words, he believes that one of the prime triggers for increased food management strategies was disease – and that the loss of individuals caused new strategies for attempting to reinforce and salvage devastated communities.

This ties in with population pressure arguments, for which, again, Bellwood’s comment re developing communications is relevant. Intra-Site and Inter-Site Social Status

It is often suggested that the increasing importance of elites and the demand for power have accelerated social change during different times and periods throughout the world.  The Near East is no different.  This may be on an intra- or inter-site basis.

Bender (1978) suggests that sedentism caused different processes to operate within communities, leading to concerns with social status and prestige, and ultimately power, and that the desire for power had to be met by an increase in wealth in the form of food surplus.  The generation of surplus permitted the redistribution of wealth, which was required in order to achieve a position of power.  However, in order to generate wealth, more intensive forms of exploitation were required and this led first to intensive plant collection and ultimately to cultivation.

Runnels and Van Andel (1988) suggested that accumulation of wealth via exchange networks could be achieved by trading surpluses and that this led to a storage economy associated with increasing sedentism.  Sedentism led to the desire for forms of wealth which did not have to be portable and this in turn led to the need for increased surplus – which again led to more intensive plant collection followed by cultivation. Inter-Site Social Competition

Models of inter-site social competition, particularly promoted by Hayden (1999) suggest that competition between communities linked by exchange networks led to increasing desire for status on a regional scale and that this could only be achieved by accumulation of wealth, display of wealth and power, and in order to achieve it, the generation of surplus. Holmes (2004) offers support for this:  “Certainly, many of the earliest domesticated plants seem better suited to the role of palate-teasing delicacies than staples . . . . Lentils, for example, usually grow just two per wild plant and would have been terribly finicky to harvest” (Holmes 2004, p.29).  Other arguments along these lines suggest that beer was the outcome of the growth of wheat and barley, and that this beer was used in feasting – part of the display of wealth and generosity required in this model.  Keeley (1995) does not agree with Hayden and other supporters of this model:  “To put the matter bluntly, there is not the slightest evidence that social inequality and wealth hierarchies have any relationship with the use of domesticated species” (1995, p.266).

Gamble (1986) suggested that increased sedentism would have made exchange networks more complex, requiring the services of negotiators who were still mobile, and who traveled in order to obtain products in return for surplus.  The employment of negotiators would also have required the creation of surplus in order to pay for their services.  Competition, in this model, would have led to the need for increased labour to generate the surplus, which in turn would lead to population growth and the need for more intensive plant collection and cultivation.

Holmes summarizes this line of thinking:  “If the first crops were prestige items, not staples, that should explain why they remained such a minor part of the diet for so long” (Holmes 2004, p.29). New Intra-Site Interactive Processes

The adoption of a more sedentary lifestyle will have led to the creation of different social pressures and the need to adopt different rules for dealing with disputes, exchange mechanisms, marriage, and food supply.  Territories will have decreased in size, but exploitation of these areas would be more intensive and the concept of both ownership and boundaries would have come into force, at some stage, possibly causing tensions with existing hunter-gatherer communities who traditionally had access to the land now being intensively used for plant collection. 

Hayden (1995) suggests that although pressure, stress, climatic and environmental change must have been a part of the Palaeolithic existence, increasing complexity in the Epipalaeolithic  may have been a factor in the adoption of agriculture, together with a number of other changes happening simultaneously, including sedentism, the socioeconomic impacts of this, and the need to develop risk management strategies.

Widespread adoption in the Levant could have come about partly in response to problems in declining land available for hunter-gatherer exploitation but, perhaps more likely, through the visible advantages of an agricultural lifestyle in the early stages of its adoption – increased wealth, improved social life, generation of surplus, and stability. Nucleation

Fellner (1995) suggests that sedentism and increased nucleation produced a desire for prestige and status, and that this was achieved by the ability to produce surplus by an increased labour force.  He believes that cultivation was a process already known to the Natufian populations but was only adopted in the PPNA as a response to the amalgamation of dispersed populations into nucleated villages with much more intensive food provision needs forcing a subsistence change from collection to subsistence.  Fellner does not offer any explanation as to why nucleation should have been desirable. 

However, this is in direct contrast to Nadel’s observation (Nadel 2003, p.40) that the biggest sites occurred in the Early Natufian at sites like Eynan (Mallaha) and el-Wad B2 where they reached 20 sq m., with smaller sites on only 5-10 sq m occurring in the Late Natufian. Accidental Cultivation – the “Refuse Dump” hypothesis

Anderson (1952) suggested that cultivation followed the accidental establishment of appropriate plants on rubbish dumps when plants selected for their preferred grain size were deposited in areas set aside for refuse.

However, Blumer (1996) rejects this on the basis of plant ecology:  “legumes seem poorly suited because they are disfavoured by the normally high nitrogen status of dump-heap soils.  Wild cereals also seem poor candidates, because grasses are generally relatively late colonizers of disturbed areas . . . and because the small amount of grain that could be produced on a refuse heap would not be of great interest to hunter-gatherers” (1996, p.39). Gradual Process of Alteration

A number of writers see an alternative explanation to these relatively high-speed adaptations, and instead see the adoption of agriculture as a slow and even process taking place over long periods.  The main proponent of this theory is David Rindos (1983), one of the most talked-about writers in discussions of early agriculture. His much-discussed proposal is that in areas shared by certain plant species (those later recognizable as biologically domesticated) and humans, the plants were impacted in an ecological way by human interference with the environment in which they lived.  This was not seen as deliberate change to alter plants, but as a series of cause-and-effect processes that resulted, over time, in the evolution of plants which where attractive for collection, and which were selected for those attractive features, causing them to become isolated and to develop features which became modern domesticates.

Rindos (1983) breaks the domestication process into three phases:

  • Human intervention in wild plants – seed dispersal and protection
  • Human impact on the environment created anthropogenic places where the relationship between plants and humans intensified
  • Plants adapted to a set of humanly created conditions.  He calls these humanly created conditions “agroecology”.  It is not people that effect changes in the plant, but the circumstances in which the plant now finds itself.
  • Rindos argues that people could not consciously domesticate crops, but could and would favour certain features in wild species.  Human groups were not thinking in the long-term, but their short-term preferences had an outcome and this outcome was domestication.

Wenke seems to favour this approach when he says: “domestication seems to have been in most cases a long-term process, not something that an occasional genius invented” (1999, p272).  But Wenke also highlights the opinions of those who see a swifter adaptation.

Blumer has challenged the view that gradual alteration is a reasonable explanation:  “As there is not a single archaeological sequence showing a clear transition from wild progenitor to primary domesticate, I would argue that there is no substantive evidence for this claim” (1996, p.37). Mixed Variables

Keeley’s above-mentioned 1995 study of ethnographic groups and the variables which might drive intensive use of crops indicated that the adoption of agriculture was based on more than any one dominant factor.  He suggests that between 13,000 and 6000bp there was a dramatic decrease of effective latitude accompanied by decreased precipitation and increased population size and social complexity.  He also believes that no single model accounts for the spread of agriculture into northwest Europe.  He concludes that cultivated plants were often adopted as a secondary food source, as risk limitation as climatic, demographic and ecological changes impacted successful hunting and plant collection (Keeley 1995).

Bellwood also believes that no single explanation can be applied:  “there can be no one-line explanation for the origins of agriculture.  Neither can we ignore the possibility of human choice and conscious inventiveness” (Bellwood 2005, p.25) – a thought that in some way echoes Perry’s 1937 view of the individual as a prime mover of agricultural adoption. Conclusions about Early Cultivation

It is clear that there are a number of different models available for the establishment of pristine practices of cultivation that eventually lead to the evolution of biologically domesticated species, and that at the same time there is insufficient evidence to select any one of them conclusively.

It is also clear, however, that social, biological and climatic environments that accompanied pristine agriculture should be factored in to any discussion on the subject, and given due consideration as part of the pattern of change occurring at this time.  These include:

    • Stabilization of climatic conditions
    • Warm dry summers and wet winters
    • Availability of large-seed cereals (with self-pollinating species being more prone to isolation and genetic change)
    • Availability of legumes
    • Complex hunter-gatherer social organization
    • Intensive plant-collection by hunter-gatherer communities using sickles
    • Plant processing activities by hunter-gatherer communities using pestles, mortars and hammer-stones
    • Possible sedentism or partial sedentism amongst hunter gatherer communities
    • Possible impacts of demographic levels, including impacts of disease

Wenke (1999, p.277) makes the important point that “there were many periods of climatic alteration in the past hundreds of thousands of years in which agriculture did not appear, so either there was something distinctive, perhaps unique, about this last period of climate change, or else there must have been additional factors”.

Keeley also suggests that any account of agricultural origins should take into account information from elsewhere in the world – for example, the fact that cultivation happens in both Old and New worlds at the same time, between 12,000 and 6,000bp.

Dennell sums up the situation:  “Crop agriculture is the outcome of numerous interrelated factors, environmental, economic and social.  To assume that crop agriculture is controlled only by the twin peaks of cultural choice or climate is grossly simplistic” (Dennell 1977, p.368).

6.3.2 Animal Domestication

As with plant cultivation, there are a number of different explanations for why animals were domesticated by early communities, who were usually already cultivating plants.  Plant domestication was far simpler to achieve, in terms of technical requirements.  Animal domestication is thought to have been far more difficult to achieve, so the motivation must have been high (Hemmer 1990).  The Romans failed to domesticate any of the animals they brought back to the empire, except the rabbit, which includes fallow deer and cheetah, while in modern times the only successful domesticates are the hamster, the white rat and the guinea pig.  The following section discusses some of the reasons why the effect of animal estimation and maintenance might have been seen as an attractive option to early plant cultivation. Insurance Against Risk

Plant cultivation comes with inherent risks – for example, disease and drought.  Animal husbandry provides, in some circumstances, a fallback solution to failed harvests, providing necessary proteins, and other nutrients.

Hayden (1985) raises a slightly different slant on the subject of risk.  Reciprocal sharing over distances is on ongoing risk-avoidance strategy practiced by hunter-gatherer societies, but this could be undermined by increased emphasis on private ownership of produce and land, and on the acquisition of wealth – again, animal ownership might reduce risk on the one hand and provide other exchange items on the other.

Risk reduction mechanisms were obviously operating in pre-agricultural communities, but changes in subsistence strategies would have required corresponding changes in risk management. Trade and Exchange

In order to increase economic stability and the ability to trade for commodities, desirable items and essentials, a broad range of tradeable commodities could improve a group’s ability to obtain what they require.  Domesticated animals not only provided this type of commodity (meat, bone tools, hides, dairy products etc) but would ensure a reliable, predictable and immediate supply.

Communication networks clearly existed at this time.  It been variously discussed, based on ideas like the domestication of sheep in Anatolia and its subsequent spread to the southern Levant and eastern Jordan (Garrard 1999, Martin and Garrard 1999).  Another example is provided by Gopher (1989) whose studies of the Helwan Point also suggest a north to south distribution/diffusion network throughout the Pre Pottery Neolithic. Response to Sedentism, Territoriality and/or Over Exploitation

Several writers have suggested that as territories became established, it would become increasingly difficult to hunt, or that large mammals would quickly be hunted to depletion in the immediate areas surrounding agricultural communities. 

This is partly because with territorialism the concept of land ownership comes into force, and it would become increasingly difficult to hunt on territories farmed by groups who might have considered that land under cultivation, together with transitory faunal species occupying the land, would be owned by the community.

The suggestion that increasing management of suitable animal species coincides with over-exploitation of gazelle in areas around settlements, perhaps in response to increasing populations and more plentiful resource requirements is supported by Martin and Garrard (1999, p.78): “It now seems clear that the Natufians had reached an impasse through the over-exploitation of available resources, and that animal domestication provided a solution that culminated in the growth of complex urban societies”.

It is also possible that the social, manual and technical skills required for plant cultivation were not consistent with those that were required for hunting – and that the change in subsistence patterns forced a change in animal exploitation patterns. Requirement for Dairy Products

Although there is no clear evidence for exploitation of animals for dairy products, it is possible that in order to maximize the value of resources in an available area in fairly close proximity to a settlement, early cultivators established herds of animals to use as a source of dairy goods. 

Exploitation of animals for dairy purposes would not necessarily be easy to identify in the archaeological record, although one would perhaps expect to find containers being used, and there is certainly no sign of any containers in the PPNA or PPNB. Unconscious Process

It is entirely possible that domestication was an entirely unconscious process that came about through increased permanency of settlement, and the ability to devote time to different activities in a single location.  Uerpmann argues that domestication was not a conscious process or decision in response to a need for protein (1996).  If it had been, it would have happened earlier in many areas, and probably with more species.  The circumstances required for domestication of goats and sheep, he suggests, happened in the context of “a rare constellation of environmental, biological and social factors that occurred together only in a very restricted area of the world . . . during a short span of geological time” (1996, p.235). He believes that some animals were tamed from when very young, and that from there domestication would have been almost inevitable:  “Human ingenuity is only needed in this hypothesis to the extent that someone had to realize the potential of what was going on among the animals raised in the settlements (1996, p.234).

Hole (1996) believes that seasonal use of upland valleys and transhumance occurred, and that both led to the domestication of caprines during the climatic optimum, as a result more of new lifestyles than actual intention. Compliment for Plant Cultivation

Although in some ways the presence of animals in a plant cultivating society might offer challenges – in terms of animals grazing on deliberately cultivated plant populations, or being in competition for plant foods, particularly during the winter months, there are also excellent reasons why human groups would want to maintain animals in a plant-growing economy. 

Cereals absorb large quantities of nitrogen from the soil.  This can be returned to the soil in a number of ways, including planting of legumes and cutting of cereal stalks, but one of the most straight forward ways is to use animal manure. Conclusions about Early Animal Domestication

Goat was apparently domesticated first, followed by sheep, each in different areas of southwest Asia (see following discussion of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic and Pottery Neolithic phases).  Cattle, pig and other species followed.  As outlined above, there are many reasons why domestication of animals would have been a good idea, whether intentionally arranged or opportunistically taken advantage of.

These species were not the only ones that could have been domesticated.  Uerpmann listed a number of species (Uepermann 1996, p.234-235) which were potentials for domestication. He rejects a number of key species used in hunting assemblages (gazelle, roe deer, auroch, red deer, onager, ass and wild boar) as potential domesticates in early farming villages on a number of grounds (p.235), and concludes that “sheep and goats remain on the list as the only animals suited to companionship with humans as lambs or kids, a companionship that could potentially last long enough for representation to start and continue under the restricted condition of life in a Proto-Neolithic village” (1996, p.235).

It is clear that unlike plant domestication, the taming and domestication of animals involved a more direct relationship, and could be managed in different ways – including penning, herding and nomadic pastoralism.  As Uerpmann says (1996, p.227) “the relationship between humans and domesticates can, in general, be described as symbiotic, although it is a very special symbiosis for which there are  no close parallels in the animal kingdom”. 

The closest parallels with the plant kingdom is Rindos’s view (Rindos 1983) that humans caused synergies between themselves and plants by modifying the natural environment in which plants could live and thrive, changing their nature.  He points out that the term “tame” is in now ay synonymous with “domesticated” (p.232).  Domestication involves genetic alternation through selection and isolation, via successful breeding of animals held together in captivity.  The probability of sheep and goat having been domesticated just once is low:  “it appears that herbivore (sheep and goat) domestication occurred spontaneously only once (in southwest Asia), which must be considered as statistical evidence for the low probability of such a process occurring” (Uerpmann 1996, p.232).

6.4 Conclusions About Pristine Establishment of Agriculture

Environmental and demographic pressures might be identifiable in the archaeological record, but social mechanisms are usually more difficult to identify.   A number of the variables suggested by Hayden as possible factors include religion, chance, choice, reciprocal sharing and social dynamics (1995), none of which can be dismissed just because they are difficult to identify via archaeological forms of data.

The Natufian certainly represents change – both in terms of what went before, and throughout the period of the Natufian itself.  As well as temporal variation, it also features considerable regional variation which could have been both incidental and deliberate, as territories became more clearly defined and the relationship between communities and the land itself became closer and concepts of ownership became involved.  However, looking at the burial record, evidence for exchange, and differentiation between settlement structures, there is very little sign of wealth, power or increased exchange. 

When considering the archaeologically elusive role of social demand in the adoption of plant cultivation, Keeley (1995) takes an opposite view to that of Hayden (1995), Gamble (1986) and Bender (1978) to mention but a few.  Although he suggests that a number of variables were probably responsible for the development of cultivation, his findings see no connection between social demand and intensified plant collection followed by cultivation.  In fact, in all the instances where social demand was a factor, it was actually a negative variable suggesting to Keeley that it was probably a deterrent to early agriculture (p.257). Keeley was basing his studies on a review of 96 ethnographic groups, rather than agricultural data.  His study was not only a statistical analysis, however, he tested his statistical findings by looking at a number of instances of ethnographic proto-cultivation, and used case studies of the foragers of the American Great Basin to test his model, and his observations back up his view that there was no connection between, for example, social festivity and agricultural usage:  “To put the matter bluntly, there is not the slightest evidence that social inequality and wealth hierarchies have any relationship with the use of domesticated species” (1995, p.266).  However, Hayden et al are not convinced, and this particular argument continues.

Wenke expresses suspicion of stress explanations:  “Generally we have no evidence that people of the immediately post-Pleistocene era experienced recurrent periods of starvation, or that they ‘invested’ domesticates and agriculture as a way of addressing their immediate food supply problem” (Wenke 1999, p.315).  But to others, it seems likely that the bottleneck effect of the Levant, combined with increased social stability, may have combined with other stress factors to produce changes never seen before.

Selection and planting were both required to lead to domesticated plant species (Hillman and Davies 1992), whether planting was conscious or unconscious. 

Animal domestication is rather easier to analyze because of the process of interaction between humans and animals over 1000s of years.  Capture, care and breeding were relatively simply, but required deliberate and intentional human interventions.

As Holmes (2004) says: “So far, our window into the past is too small to be sure which explanation is right.  But the answers should get clearer in the next few years as researchers gather crucial new data” (2004, p.29).

However it happened, Dennell highlights that the adoption of either pristine or secondary agriculture is to be seen in three contexts:

  • Physical environment
    • Identification of food resources
      • Distribution
      • Abundance
        • Impacts on human population size
        • Annual movements
        • Location of settlements
    • Effects of climate
  • Social environment
    • The ways that food procurement was organized
    • Information about the relationship with the environment
    • Mechanisms in place to provide incorporation into a social network for ensuring reproduction
  • Relationship between man and competitors
    • Carnivores to bacteria
    • Competitors for plants (e.g. rodents, birds)
    • Man and livestock, for crop


Copyright (text and images) Andie Byrnes 2005, unless otherwise stated