The Origin and Evolution of Cultures

By Robert Boyd; Peter J. Richerson | Go to book overview

17
Was Agriculture Impossible
during the Pleistocene but
Mandatory during the
Holocene?
A Climate Change Hypothesis

With Robert L. Bettinger

Evolutionary thinkers have long been fascinated by the origin of agriculture. Darwin (1874) declined to speculate on agricultural origins, but twentieth-century scholars were bolder. The Soviet agronomist Nikolai Vavilov, the American geographer Carl O. Sauer, and the British archaeologist V. Gordon Childe wrote influential books and articles on the origin of agriculture in the 1920s and 1930s (see Flannery, 1973, and MacNeish, 1991: 4–19, for the intellectual history of the origin of agriculture question). These explorations were necessarily speculative and vague but stimulated interest in the question.

Immediately after World War II, the American archaeologist Robert Braidwood (Braidwood et al., 1983) pioneered the systematic study of agricultural origins. From the known antiquity of village sites in the Near East and from the presence of wild ancestor species of many crops and animal domesticates in the same region, Braidwood inferred that this area was likely a locus of early domestication. He then embarked on an ambitious program of excavation in the foothills of the southern Zagros Mountains using a multidisciplinary team of archaeologists, botanists, zoologists, and earth scientists to extract the maximum useful information from the excavations. The availability of 14C dating gave his team a powerful tool for determining the ages of the sites. Near Eastern sites older than about 15,000 B.P. excavated by Braidwood (Braidwood and Howe, 1960) and others were occupied by hunter-gatherers who put much more emphasis on hunting and unspecialized gathering than on collecting and processing the seeds of especially productive plant resources (Goring-Morris and Belfer-Cohen, 1998; Henry, 1989). Ages are given here as calendar dates before present (B.P.), where present is taken to be 1950, estimated from 14C dates according to Stuiver et al.'s (1998) calibration curves. The Braidwood team showed that about 11,000 years

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