Behavioral Ecology and the Transition to Agriculture

Behavioral Ecology and the Transition to Agriculture

Behavioral Ecology and the Transition to Agriculture

Behavioral Ecology and the Transition to Agriculture


This innovative volume is the first collective effort by archaeologists and ethnographers to use concepts and models from human behavioral ecology to explore one of the most consequential transitions in human history: the origins of agriculture. Carefully balancing theory and detailed empirical study, and drawing from a series of ethnographic and archaeological case studies from eleven locations--including North and South America, Mesoamerica, Europe, the Near East, Africa, and the Pacific--the contributors to this volume examine the transition from hunting and gathering to farming and herding using a broad set of analytical models and concepts. These include diet breadth, central place foraging, ideal free distribution, discounting, risk sensitivity, population ecology, and costly signaling. An introductory chapter both charts the basics of the theory and notes areas of rapid advance in our understanding of how human subsistence systems evolve. Two concluding chapters by senior archaeologists reflect on the potential for human behavioral ecology to explain domestication and the transition from foraging to farming.


The evolution of human subsistence economies has always been a major topic of anthropological interest. Within this domain the transition from foraging to farming and the emergence of horticultural/agricultural economies has occupied a central place. One of the most intriguing issues concerns the relative simultaneity with which different crops were first cultivated around the world; a situation that produced the view that the adoption of agriculture was a revolution. So significant was this “Neolithic Revolution” that it came to embody the foundations of civilization.

On closer examination, it has become clear that this revolution did not happen quickly, and that centuries passed before the transition from foraging to farming was complete. Research in the Midwestern United States illustrates this point. In many parts of the world the original domesticates eventually became staples (e.g., wheat, rice, maize, potatoes), but in the American heartland the first plants cultivated were so inauspicious that scholars had a hard time believing that they really were cultigens. Moreover, after other crop plants were imported from outside the region (e.g., maize), the initial set was relegated to secondary status and never became true staples.

The lesson from the Midwestern United States is important, and I share Tom Riley’s sentiments regarding the adoption of cultigens. Riley understood that cultigens were added gradually to the diet and that the initial system of cultivation is better termed horticulture and not agriculture: “the connotation of horticulture is one that puts emphasis on the plant (Latin hortus), while that of agriculture is on the land (Latin ager)” (Riley 1987, 297). This may appear to be simply a semantic difference. However, in the same way that foraging theory tends to focus on the capture of individual food items, the initial view of farming will do well to focus on the capture of individual plants. From this perspective farming is gathering in a humanmanaged context.

Years ago I was inspired by Winterhalder and Smith (1981), and recognized that human behavioral ecology (HBE) provided an elegant set of formal models that could be used to examine subsistence behavior in horticultural societies (Keegan 1986). The models provided new and useful perspectives. Moreover, because the models can be used to study foragers and horticulturalists, they provide an important framework for evaluating the transition between them.

HBE focuses on decision making. It attempts to define the coordinates between humans and their subsistence resources as these . . .

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