6.1 The Roots of Agriculture

The traditional story about agriculture goes something like this: initially, people were hunter-gatherers who lived short lives because they had to scrounge for food from what nature provided. At some point, someone in the tribe made the discovery that people could plant crops. This led to better food supplies, less work, and more leisure time to develop higher civilization. Geographers now know that this traditional story gets it backward in many ways. Hunting and gathering is a comfortable way of life, while agriculture is often an adaptation of necessity with significant negative ramifications.

To start, we need to define “agriculture.” The traditional story proposes that there is a significant leap forward – sometimes called the “agricultural revolution” or “Neolithic revolution” – when societies invent agriculture. However, it is more accurate to see agriculture as one stage on a continuum of intensification. Intensification refers to the amount of production per unit of land that is extracted for human use. Raising the level of intensification practiced by society requires increased manipulation of natural processes by humans. We can imagine a scale of intensification running from a wilderness where the only human activity is hikers picking a few berries to eat on their way, to a modern industrial farm that mass-produces corn.

Hunter-gatherers do not merely wander the landscape, picking up whatever food and other resources they happen across. Hunter-gatherer societies have the sophisticated knowledge of the plants and animals found in their territory, and when and how they can be harvested. While they are somewhat at the mercy of the earth’s cycles and the bioclimatic zone in which they live, hunter-gatherers do not just wait for nature to provide them with resources. Instead, they are astute observers of weather and the seasonal migration patterns of animals and growth patterns of plants, and they may deliberately manipulate the environment to encourage the production of the plants and animals they want.

Australian Aborigines practiced such a high level of intensification using fire that they were able to manipulate animals to gather in one place for easier kill or capture. Other hunter-gatherer societies had quite high levels of intensification as well. For example, the Native Americans of the Northwest Coast, such as the Tlingit and Haida, sustained high population levels usually characteristic of agricultural societies because they had found ways to extract vast amounts of resources from their environment.

Agriculture is defined as the cultivation of crops and efforts to breed better strains. Cultivate means “to care for,” and a crop is any plant cultivated by people. If society continues to increase its level of intensification, eventually it will find itself practicing types of production that we would recognize as agriculture. This is what occurred in different regions dating from 10,000 to 8,000 BC in the Fertile Crescent and perhaps 8000 BC in the Kuk Early Agricultural Site of Melanesia. There are various debates within the scientific community between human geographers, sociologists, and anthropologists as to why agriculture arose throughout these various locations, called hearths, around the world. Despite the debate, in each hearth area, the transition from a largely nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life to a more settled, agrarian-based one, included not just the cultivation and domestication of plants, but also the domestication of animals.

Figure 5.1 Map showing centers of origin of agriculture and its spread: the Fertile Crescent (11,000 BP), the Yangtze and Yellow River basins (9,000 BP) and the New Guinea Highlands (9,000–6,000 BP), Central Mexico (5,000–4,000–3,000 BP) by Joey Row (CC BY)

We can make some general assumptions that the cultivation of plants and domestication of animals was because of environmental or cultural push factors. It was likely a combination of both, since a variety of agricultural hearths were grown around the world and under different circumstances. From a climate science perspective, the likely catalyst of agriculture was that around 10,000 years ago, the earth was shifting away from the Pleistocene Ice Age and into a warming period called an interglacial period.

Still, the question lingers: why would a society intensify to the point of developing agriculture? Agriculture increases the output of food per unit of land. Farmers can get more food and other resources, and hence support more people, out of a given chunk of land than hunter-gatherers can. Agriculture is thus associated with a boom in population. However, if a population declines, a society may de-intensify to hunting and gathering.

Take, for example, the native people of the Amazon basin. When they were first encountered by European explorers, the explorers assumed that, since agriculture was a better system of production, any society without agriculture must never have learned of it. However, the pre-Columbian Amazon was home to massive agricultural civilizations. Vast numbers of these people, perhaps 90 percent, were killed by European diseases, which spread faster than the explorers. With so many people gone, the surviving Amazonians decided they might as well return to hunting and gathering since they no longer needed the high intensification of agriculture to support their population.

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Introduction to Human Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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