Domestication and Agriculture

Domestication is a process through which human intervention generates novel plant and animal species that are morphologically distinct from their wild precursors. The results are not just larger seeds or smaller animals; rather, the captive populations, be they plant or animal, undergo artificial selection by their captors, as well as automatic changes that occur naturally in order for them to survive. These changes do not only occur at the phe-notypic level; they also, naturally, originate at the molecular level. But more important, domestication marks an adaptive syndrome that involves significant changes in the long-term relationships between humans and the plants and animals they have domesticated.

Typically, when seed plants are domesti-cated—which, by the way, includes most major crop plants grown today—two automatic responses occur. Plants are selected for those that (1) retain their seeds long enough to be harvested and (2) package their seeds in convenient clusters. These plants are then continuously selected over time for those seeds that sprout more quickly, grow quickly toward the sunlight, and quickly produce shade to outcompete their neighbors. This means that domesticated seeds tend to have thinner, more permeable seed jackets and have greater developmental food reserves for quick growth than their thick-skinned wild precursors, which can survive several seasons in topsoil before sprouting. Obviously, Late Holocene humans needed plants that they could control, both in growth and yield. In the achievement of that goal, another important part of plant domestication involves soil science. Our early agronomists unknowingly altered soil texture, mineral content, and acidity by ridding the land of other indigenous plant life: plants we typically refer to as weeds. Once started, the process had to continue, or else it would end in disaster. This process probably started long before the advent of agriculture, when groups of hunter-gatherers may have burned particular areas knowing that after a fresh burn, the soil is rich and the plant foods they were familiar with grew back quickly and with higher yields.

Agriculture is defined as the practice of large-scale soil cultivation. Archaeobiologists today believe that small groups of semiseden-tary hunters and gatherers established home bases in regions with rich aquatic habitats, which would also have provided access to a variety of animal protein, such as fowl, fish, and reptiles. Over time, the knowledge gained of wild plant (and animal) resources allowed for the selection of seed stock for its propensity to grow quickly and produce greater yields. This enabled humans to stay in one place throughout the year. Paradoxically, having the ability to control the growth, and subsequent storage, of food resources over long periods led to major increases in the size and number of groups.

The domestication of wild grasses provided a reliable source of plant foods, which concomitantly led to the domestication of certain animals, such as goats and sheep, whose ways of life were already well known, since they had been hunted for hundreds of years. Animals were probably chosen on a trial-and-error basis, with those of interest being easy to cull, manage, and breed. Domestication of animals is easily identified in the archaeological record by comparing wild precursors to domestics. Domestic animals—sheep, pigs, and goats, for instance—become smaller in overall size. Body parts are identifiably smaller, because of the selecting for smaller, docile animals that are easier to care for. For instance, cheek teeth in wild pigs are extremely large, and their skulls are long and narrow. After domestication, teeth are half the size of that seen in the wild pig, and their skulls are much shorter. In the archaeological record, sites at which domestication first began show evidence of typical husbandry techniques, such as a predominance of older females over younger males. The skeletal evidence tells us that most male animals were killed earlier in life than females, because males typically become more difficult to handle as adults. Ultimately, the emergence of agriculture and the domestication of wild artiodactyls provided very successful periods of socioeconomic growth that obviously aided in human population explosions never before witnessed. However, the advent of agriculture also harmed regional animal and plant biodiversity, setting the stage for another major extinction event. Agricultural economies have also contributed to numerous osteological pathologies in the human skele

Map 1

Map 1

Origins of Agriculture

Seven regions around the world show evidence of independent agricultural origins.

Origins of Agriculture

Seven regions around the world show evidence of independent agricultural origins.

ton that are atypical when compared with skeletons from prefarming archaeological sites.

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