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Last Hunters-First Farmers (1995)
School of American Research Press
Price and Gebauer (GN 799 A4 L37)

Chapter 1: New Perspectives on the
Transition to Agriculture
by the Editors

Excerpts and Definitions and Addendums:

..... Farming is a way of obtaining food that involves cultivating plants and herding animals. But the beginnings of agriculture were much more than the domestication of species. This revolution entailed major long-term changes in the structure and organization of societies that adopted the new way of life as well as a totally new relationship with the environment. Whereas hunter-gatherers largely live off the land in an extensive fashion, exploiting a diversity of resources over a broad area, farmers utilize the landscape intensively and create a milieu that suits their needs. A number of studies have indicated that hunters and gatherers, even in very *marginal environments, spend only a few hours a day obtaining enough food to eat; farming on the other hand is very labor intensive and much more time consuming. So why did humans become farmers?.

Three factors are considered to have been primary in the origins and spread of agriculture: climatic or environmental change, population pressure and changes in social organization. These factors can be categorized as **exogenous (climate/environment and population) or ***endogenous (social change). Exogenous factors are generally natural forces over which human groups have little control; endogenous factors reflect internal change within society and represent decisions that humans make.

Domestication is a biological process that involves changes in the genotypes and physical characteristics of plants and animals as they become independent on humans for reproductive success. Domestication may often be unintentional, resulting from continuing interaction between humans and the wild ancestors of domesticates. Cultivation on the other hand is a cultural phenomenon that involves intentionally preparing fields, sowing, harvesting and storing seeds or other plant parts. Cultivation require significant and deliberate changes in human technology, subsistence and perspectives. Herding, like cultivation, requires intentional changes in the relationship between humans and animals.

Agriculture in turn is a commitment to this relationship with plants and/or animals. It ultimately involves changes in the human use of the earth and in the structure and organization of human society -- the widespread use of ceramic containers, the extensive clearing of forest, the cultivation of hard-shelled cereals that can be stored for long periods of time, the invention and adoption of new technologies for farming and/or herding, more villages and more people and an increased pace along the path to more complex social and political organization.

The most important factors in the transition from foraging to farming include, in order of suggested importance, available protodomesticates, human sedentism, higher population density, resource abundance, geographic and/or social constraints, processing and harvesting technology, storage, and wealth accumulation.

Recognition of pronounced diversity among hunter-gatherers has caused many of the changes in our perspectives of the transition to agriculture. Instead of viewing hunter-gatherer bands as consistently small, mobile and egalitarian, we now see that larger groups and more complex organization also frequently characterized these food collectors, particularly during the last 30,000 years or so of the late Pleistocene and early Holocene. Complex hunter-gatherers [therefore] live in areas of abundant resources, often in coastal situations, where food resources are largely renewable and seemingly inexhautible.

One of the most important and far ranging of the new [authors] perspectives is the view that agriculture is adopted in areas of relatively abundant resources. Previous views have emphasized the emergence of farming in marginal environments -- in areas where severe climatic changes have forced human populations to find new foods to eat. [The authors] support the contrary notion that farming is added as a supplement in areas where groups already have a diverse and rich diet. In such contexts it is difficult to imagine that intensifying [foraging] would not be sufficient to provide increased quantities of food. [Therefore] agriculture must be a solution to problems other than environment change or a growing population.

Although the size of the population is certainly a factor in the transition to agriculture, population pressure does not appear to be a major force in changing subsistence strategies. [Indeed] the evidence from human skeletal remains suggests strongly that health and nutrition were better among pre-farming populations than among early farmeres. [The authors] regard substantial population as a condition for subsistence shifts rather than as a a cause.


1 Plants were important in human subsistence prior to the transition to agriculture. The shift to dependence on the cultivation of fully domesticated plants was a very gradual process. There was a long period of availability of either wild ancestors or the cultigens themselves, as well as of domesticated animals, prior to the full adoption of agriculture (See #1 Below). Evidence from the Near East suggests substantial interaction between foragers and farmers before agriculture was adopted by hunter-gatherers. Domesticates initially were a supplement to existing foodstuffs in a broad-spectrum diet. Considerable time passed before intensive food production began. In the Near East, for example, there was a substantial delay in the spread of some domesticates between 8000 and 6000 B.C. The gradual spread of this new source of subsistence argues against food shortages or stress as one of the reasons for its adoption.

2 Domesticated plants and animals appear to spread through ****diffusion rather than through colonization by new peoples. With only a few exceptions, the general pattern for the transition to agriculture is one in which local peoples adopt the ideas and products of cultivation and herding. The last hunters were the first farmers.

3 Agriculture appears initially among more complex groups of hunter-gatherers in areas with substantial resources -- the land of plenty -- rather than in marginal or poor environments. Popoulations in a high risk environment will seldom try new subsistence strategies that bear even greater risk [of failure]. New strategies are initiated in situations where risk is affordable. Complex hunter-gatherers are characterized by larger populations, intensification of subsistence and technology, sedentism and some level of social circumscription. Sedentism is regarded as a prerequisite for the advent of agricultural societies. It existed in many areas where farming originated and spread.

4 A change from community to household levels of economic organization may have accompanied the transition to agriculture including a shift from communal sharing to familial or individual accumulation. Economic intensification and competition were frequent companions of the Neolithic revolution. Wealth accumulation and status differentiation appear at the individual, household, and lineage levels. The transition to agriculture may well be closely related to the beginning of hereditary inequality in human society .....

* occupying the borderland of a relatively
stable territorial or cultural area

** caused by factors from outside the operating system

*** caused by factors inside the operating system

**** the spread of cultural elements from one area
or group of people to others by contact


(1) Foragers and Farmers in Atlantic Europe
M. Zvelibil and P. Rowley-Conwy (1986)
in Hunters in Transition (Pages 67-93)
Editor: Zvelibil (Cambridge University Press)

The History of the Ancient Near East Electronic Compendium