Editorial

By Stoddart, Simon; Malone, Caroline | Antiquity, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Stoddart, Simon, Malone, Caroline, Antiquity


* In our antepenultimate editorial--more on our successor below--we have chosen to work our way further into the past and focus on a second key global transition investigated by archaeology: agriculture. The transition of state formation--our previous theme--is generally dependent on the increased production of agriculture, and this in itself speaks of its importance. Our invitation to contribute comments has developed its own momentum, demonstrating the pace and diversity of work. Contributors were given a free rein, in terms of opinion, content and level of formality (with or without references). The only constraint was provided by space to address the issue of agricultural origins, transitions and development. Agriculture and farming are themes that have received much recent attention, building on the impetus of work commenced in the mid years of the 20th century, such as Braidwood, MacNeish, Clark and Higgs. These days, the research agenda is very specific, and focuses on particular scientific methods, on restricted geographical regions or periods, or on various emerging post-processual philosophies. Together, the following topical comments offer us a sense of the immediacy and importance of the continuing research and study of agriculture, and, how this endeavour is bringing in a rich and varied harvest.

DOUG PRICE (University of Wisconsin) describes the `Advances and directions of study of early agriculture' and assesses what is actually known of the processes, and what the definitions that we commonly apply to agricultural studies in archaeology really mean within the discipline. He makes the point firmly that it is the `transition' which needs to occupy our attention and that archaeology still needs to engage with fieldwork alongside the molecular level of analysis that is currently stealing the show. He ends with an appeal to young scholars to enter this exciting field of research. He writes:

`As has often been observed, the transition to agriculture was the most auspicious moment in our human past since we first stepped upon the stage. As parsed by Bruce Smith (2001: 199), agriculture provided the lever for the extraordinary development that subsequent human societies experienced in the Holocene. The success of farming is documented by its explosive spread from cradles to the limits of cultivation, and beyond, in a few thousand years. Remarkable as well is its virtually instantaneous emergence in a variety of environments on all the continents save Australia and Antarctica.

`It is equally extraordinary how little we know about this phenomenon. The intent of his brief essay is to consider the current state of studies and to urge that more resources and expanded research be focused on the problem.

`But first some essential definitions and concepts. Domestication is a biological process involving genetic and morphological changes in wild plants and animals. The identification of new plant and animal species documents the domesticates. Agriculture, on the other hand, is a human process. As Barbara Bender explained so well some years ago (1978: 206), agriculture is "not about intensification per se, not about increased productivity, but about increased production and why increased demands are made on the economy."

`The origins of agriculture lie in the biological processes of domestication and concern the time and place that the cultivated plants and herded animals were changed forever. The actual origins of agriculture are such ephemeral moments as to be invisible in the archaeological record. We are in fact everywhere viewing the spread of agriculture, rather than its brief moment of birth. The transition to agriculture is the much broader and more important issue that is concerned with how and why these domesticates spread so rapidly across the continents.

`It is possible to examine the transition to agriculture through a set of basic questions--what, when, where, who, and why? …

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