The Terminology of Agricultural Origins and Food Production Systems - a Horticultural Perspective

By Leach, Helen M. | Antiquity, March 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Terminology of Agricultural Origins and Food Production Systems - a Horticultural Perspective


Leach, Helen M., Antiquity


We live, most of us, in agricultural societies; our food comes from the farm. We make gardens, many of us, and we eat some of the plants that we grow there. That farming is not the same as gardening we see in the responses of western observers when they made contact with societies whose food came more from the garden than the farm. A gardener's view of food makes its own story.

For the last half century, the origin of food production has been the pre-eminent world-wide debate occupying archaeologists' attention. What they have written on the subject since the first of the multi-authored volumes appeared (Thomas 1956) is now measurable in feet of shelf-space. Although definitions for 'food production' and 'domestication' have been debated, very few have considered what range of meaning their readers will take from the words 'farming', 'agriculture', 'gardening' and 'horticulture'. This review examines the usage of these terms as applied to the theme of food-production origins, to determine whether there has been consistency in their semantic range, and to enquire whether their historical connotations make them appropriate terms for the next stages of the debate. The horticultural perspective adopted here has been influenced by studies of food production systems in the South Pacific, and the difficulties that European commentators have faced over the last 200 years in describing these systems using European terms and concepts. But the semantic problem is not confined to this region. It has affected the 20th-century debate on the global origins of food production, which has been largely conducted in the language of agriculture.

Two questions are relevant to the problem:

* why has the garden's developmental history in Europe and Southwest Asia been neglected in the archaeological literature? and

* why have Western observers of other cultures been reluctant to describe as gardens, indigenous plots that share more features with Western horticultural practice than with Western agriculture?

Reasons for the neglect of 'horticulture'

Ian Hodder (1990: 46) has reminded us, 'we think the past through language which is both constructed in the present and constructed in the past'. Do our garden words give any indication why agriculture absorbs so much attention? Linguistically, speakers of Indo-European languages have linked domestication with the house, or domus, while agriios and foris represent the wild, relatively untamed fields and forests beyond the house (Hodder 1990: 39). Hodder sees this as a fundamental opposition from the Neolithic on. Where, then, was the garden or orchard? The linguistic evidence relating to the garden is not conclusive. Although Indo-European daughter languages formed their words for garden, yard, orchard, and horticulture from the same root (ghordos - according to Davies 1981: 50-51), the original gloss may have been 'fenced enclosure' rather than 'enclosure for plants' (Buck 1949: 490; Mann 1984/ 87). Yards, gardens and orchards, it seems likely, were perceived as belonging within the homestead enclosure, as components of domus. Gardening and orcharding may have been classified as domestic activities. Not surprisingly, women traditionally played a greater role here than in the fields, actively as part of their contribution to domestic production and nurturing, and passively as creatures to be safely confined within enclosing walls, fences, or hedges.

A less speculative explanation for the neglect of garden origins is that the garden - orchard complex developed much later in Southwest Asia than the agricultural field system. Zohary & Hopf (1994) provide a conservative estimate for the presence of gardens (growing leaf vegetables like lettuce, fruits such as melons, and flavouring plants like onions, leeks, and garlic) in Mesopotamia and Egypt by 2000 BC. If one accepts that the garlic cloves and onion scales from the Cave of the Treasure near the Dead Sea are Chalcolithic in date (Bar-Adon 1980: 223; Leach 1982: 9), then earlier horticulture must have existed; neither onion nor garlic have a known wild progenitor in the eastern Mediterranean, and garlic requires vegetative reproduction from cloves or inflorescence bulbils, being unable to set seed (Zohary & Hopf 1994: 185).

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