In a variety of regions around the world, local groups of humans were experimenting with controlling the growth and yield of certain wild cereal grains and animals. Although each region is ecologically distinct, they all share one common limiting factor: reliable access to water. Ecological niches that revolve around high water tables provide access to a great variety of plants and animals. It seems that small groups of seminomadic hunter-gatherers were acutely aware of their environment, inasmuch as they had to track harvesting periods as well as local migrations. After many presumed attempts at controlling the growth of a certain few seed plants, these roaming peoples set the stage for future farming applications that would provide large amounts of cereal grains to sustain people when hunting and gathering proved unreliable. That eventually led to domesticating docile artiodactyls. Groups of people quickly turned into large communities, and eventually into huge, permanent civilizations—which was a recipe for nothing short of disaster later down the road.

It is commonly regarded that early farming economies provided a wealth of new plant and animal varieties. However, the fact is that the ramifications of changing from a hunter-gatherer society to large-scale permanent settlements are great. First, farming-based communities were already reacting to regional ecological degradation and species depletion that began with hunter-gatherers killing off large mammal animal biodiversity. After the advent of agriculture, farmers had to destroy large amounts of plant diversity to provide room for cultivating their few seed plant species. That in turn affected regional animal biodiversity. Second, farming provided predictable access to food resources, which in turn caused local population explosions. With increases in human population came endemic diseases that were easily spread throughout the communities. The host of diseases that most likely owe their success to the first agronomists include: various bone density diseases; dental attrition (caries and antemortem loss of teeth); diseases resulting from contaminated water, from both human and animal feces; and sexually transmitted diseases. One positive ramification comes in the form of fermented grains. Chuck Hilton of Grinnell College, suggests that fermenting grain into an intoxicating elixir was an ingenious way of increasing caloric intake that was not only pleasurable but also lengthened the storage life of grains. The question then: Is the glass of grog half empty or half full? Being in the midst of an extinction event with agriculture acting as a strong catalyst for ecosystem degradation, loss of species, and global warming, perhaps the glass broke a long time ago and we are now faced with picking up the pieces.

—Ken Mowbray

See also: Biogeography; Botany; Extinction, Direct Causes of; Global Climate Change; Holocene; Mass Extinction; Urbanization


Cohen, Mark Nathan, and George J. Armelagos, eds. 1984. Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture. London: Academic; Eldredge, Niles. 1991. The Miner's Canary: Unraveling the Mysteries of Extinction. New York: Prentice Hall; Harlan, Jack R., Jan M. J. de Wet, and Ann Stemler, eds. 1976. Origins of African Plant Domestication. The Hague: Mouton; Smith, Bruce D. 1995. The Emergence of Agriculture. New York: Scientific American Library; Vavilov, Nikolai I. 1992. The Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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