Seven Agricultural Epicenters

The earliest evidence in the archaeological record of adaptation from a hunter-gatherer to an agriculturally based economy occurs in the Levantine corridor at approximately 8000 B.C.E. For this reason, considerably more discussion will be presented for that region than the others. The fossil record indicates that small groups of hunter-gatherers relied on a combination of wild plants and animals at the beginning of the changeover; eventually, as they became village-based societies, they relied predominately on domesticates. There are seven primary domesticates in the Fertile Crescent. These morphologically and genetically different subspecies of plants and animals are: barley, emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. There was no single event or place at which domesticates came into existence in the area, and none of the seven initial domesticates are known in any detail. However, each of the more than fifty archaeological sites in the region provides a slice of history that, when combined in total, provides for a clearer understanding of the advent of agronomy and animal husbandry.

Regarding the Levantine region, initial plant domestication was more prominent than animal domestication. First and foremost is emmer wheat. It was widely harvested within the same ranges as its wild precursor from Netive Hagdud, Jericho to Qayónü, Gritille, and Jarmo. Emmer wheat, as well as barley and einkorn wheat, changed phenotypically in the structure of the rachis, becoming tougher and more supple, while the grains became plumper with extra meat. Emmer wheat first showed up at Jericho in the Jordan Valley and Aswad at Damascus, in both places at approximately 7800 B.C.E. There is evidence that wild einkorn wheat was harvested at Qayónü long before it was domesticated. The significance of these particular cereal grains is their propensity for generating large yields. Wild barley is found the entire length of the Fertile Crescent. Although the domestication of barley overlaps with the two main types of wheat, two types of barley are domesticated for farming. One had two vertical rows of grain spikes, much like the wild progenitor, while the other subspecies had a six-row grain spike.

As for animals, the four main wild progenitors held distinct ranges. In terms of numbers, the primary animals domesticated were sheep and goats, with cattle coming in close behind. Pigs, on the other hand, seem to have had a unique history in the Fertile Crescent. It seems that wild pigs have an extremely wide range that includes Asia, but they were not found in the eastern portion of the Levantine corridor. It seems that pigs were probably domesticated in both major regions and brought into the eastern region already domesticated. What is clear is that in certain archeological sites, the number of bony elements increases significantly in each of these animal domesticates, depending on the localized region of the Fertile Crescent over time. Detailed archaeological research documents Cayonu as providing the earliest evidence of domesticated pigs, at about 6500 B.C.E. The timing of the domestication of the various animals, however, is in need of refinement. For example, wild cattle are known in the region from 7000 B.C.E., but domesticates show up between 6000 and 5000 B.C.E. A problem with comparing wild animals to domesticates relates to the difficulty in distinguishing between them, given the few elements left for examination. Often it is difficult to separate skeletal elements because they are so similar in overall morphology.

The second region to provide the earliest evidence of animal and plant domesticates is found in East Asia. Although the Fertile Crescent region generated a lot of interest in domesticating plants and animals, East Asia quickly followed independently, with two distinct agricultural ways of life. The first area to be discussed is the Yangtze River corridor (South China), dated at 6500 B.C.E. The Yangtze River valley provided a subtropical climate and temperature, which were ideal for agricultural economies based on rice. Rice is one of the most widely consumed foods in the world today. The origins of rice agriculture are thought to center in an extremely broad region, in which India was always considered a significant contributor. This theory was based on the current distribution of wild rice species. However, today, wild rice species are known from the southern region of the Yangtze River, of which the earliest evidence of domestication has been discovered. Dates from early farming communities suggest 6500 B.C.E. at the newly discovered site of Peng-tou-shan, while previously the site of Khok Phanom Di in Thailand was thought to be the earliest, at 4500 B.C.E. This indicates that Peng-tou-shan was operating and prospering at the same time that Cayonu was in the Fertile Crescent. The animals that were domesticated at this time were pigs, chickens, and water buffalo.

To the north of the Yangtze River one will find the Yellow River valley, which provides the third earliest evidence of farming-based societies. Most sites are found scattered among four different river systems associated with the Yellow River. The earliest sites are dated to around 5800 to 5200 B.C.E. and were discovered in the Hupei Basin. The settlements along the four rivers, while having their subtle differences, all are lumped under the P'eili-kang culture. The region is divided into basically two environmental zones: semidry highland steppe to the west, and temperate deciduous forests of the great plain to the east. The significance of the Yellow River valley P'eili-kang culture is their dependence on millet. In fact, this region provides the earliest evidence of domesticating that particular cereal grain. This northern region also shares their affinity for domesticated pigs, chickens, and water buffalo.

Several thousands of years pass before any evidence for the domestication of plants and animals appears in the New World. At approximately 2800 B.C.E., archaeological research uncovers evidence of squash, beans, and maize domestication in Central Mexico. There is a long history of human occupation in the Americas that is traceable back some 20,000 years before the present. It is thought that by 10,000 B.C.E., human settlements were established in South America at Monte Verde in Chile. Most likely, nomadic peoples in transit occupied Central Mexico long before that. Evidence from the Tehuacan Valley provides more than 20,000 corncobs that document in situ evolution of maize domestication. The earliest evidence of maize cultivation is dated at approximately 2500 B.C.E., taken from cob cores recovered at the Coxcatlan and San Marcos sites. Domesticated cob cores found in modern-day New Mexico were originally dated at 7,000 years before the present, but new radiocarbon dating techniques have refined the date to approximately 2,500 B.C.E. The tremendous importance of research in Central Mexico reveals that the domesticated maize discovered there lacks the ability to disperse kernels without assistance from humans, or possibly animals. In addition, it was once believed that a now extinct species of maize was the wild precursor to modern-day corn, but recent research convincingly proves that the contemporary wild teosinte grass that grows throughout Mexico is the progenitor.

Legumes are also known from this area, but recent dates indicate that the phaesolin group of beans were most likely independently domesticated in two regions at almost the same times: Mexico and the central Andes. Current accelerated mass spectrometry (AMS) dating techniques indicate that the common bean was probably domesticated around 500 B.C.E. In the south-central Andes at 2500 B.C.E., the principal crop plants were manioc and the sweet potato, and this is the first evidence of domesticating a rodent species (guinea pigs) as a food source. Although evidence of plant

A farmer transplanting rice near Dacca, Bangladesh. The origins of rice agriculture are thought to center in an extremely broad region that included South Asia. (UN photo/John Isaac)

domestication dates to around 4,500 years ago, the earliest evidence of domestication activity comes from alpaca and llama remains dated to 5000 B.C.E. in the high-altitude puna grasslands of the Andes. Hunting of wild camelids species (guanaco is the wild precursor of the llama, and the vicuña of the alpaca) dates back 9,000 years. The earliest site of camelid domestication is located at the southern end of Lake Titicaca, at the modern-day Peru-Bolivia border. An intriguing discovery regarding animal domestication in South America focuses on rodents. The cuy, or guinea pig, was long considered an important food source for early hunter-gatherers, dating back to 12,000 years before the present and continuing for 5,500 years. The first evidence of the domestication of this rodent comes from the Ayacucho Valley, dated to 2500 B.C.E. The main inference as to whether this animal was domesticated comes not from its change in overall morphology but from the significant increase in guinea pig bones recovered. It is not until much later sites that the guinea pig bones found allow for the morphological differentiation between them and their wild precursors.

There are four wild tuber species that early Andeans liked to domesticate. Of significance is the potato, which is a major food crop around the world. The wild potato is dated back 10,000 years, with Lake Titicaca the strong favorite for where domestication originated—but then again, the altered domesticate has also been dated to the same time period. More work with AMS dating techniques is obviously needed to resolve this discrepancy.

In the eastern United States at 2500 B.C.E., most evidence points to the farming of sunflowers and wild gourds. Current research points to the earliest settlements in North America having been located in what is today the eastern United States. Some of these sites have been dated to around 15,000 years before the present. Although we know that domesticated maize made its way to the region at around 100 C.E., that occurred much later than the earliest recorded evidence of plant domestication. It appears that small groups of hunter-gatherers were very much interested in varieties of goosefoot (Chenopodium, a family of widely distributed shrubs and herbs that includes the beet and spinach)—especially inasmuch as they seem to have camped and later created permanent settlements around river valley environments. Similar species of goosefoot were independently domesticated in Central and South America, where contemporary varieties still grow. These early farmers were also cultivating sunflowers. At the Higgs site in Tennessee, achenes believed to be similar to modern-day sunflowers were recovered along the Tennessee River and dated to 800

B.C.E. At another Tennessee site, in the Duck River valley, sunflower seeds were dated to 2100 B.C.E., which pushed back the date of ach-ene domestication almost 1,300 years.

The seventh and most recent region to provide direct evidence for domestication of cereal crops and cattle is sub-Saharan Africa, dated at 2000 B.C.E. Current research indicates that hunter-gatherer communities were present in East Africa, and that they quickly turned to farming economies soon after the introduction of barley, goats, sheep, and cattle helped to ignite the development of those pseudoa-gricultural communities. I refer to these early farming communities as pseudoagronomists because the people living in these variable environments did not practice soil management. Rather, they employed plant and animal husbandry techniques that, when all went well, generated annual crop yields that provided food for humans and animals. The necessary skills and knowledge to manage soil over extended periods were acquired long after plants and animals were domesticated. There is some evidence to suggest that the culling and husbandry of cattle took place in the Dhar Tichitt area of West Africa around 1500 B.C.E. We do know, however, that the introduced cereals did not evolve into major subsistence crops in the African sub-Saharan region. Instead, three indigenous crops formed the basis of subsistence: millet, sorghum, and African rice.

African rice is a major crop today, and its domestication has been dated to 200 C.E. from the Jenne-Jeno site on the Niger River in West Africa. Its wild precursor has been tracked to the savanna, where it grows in watering holes during the rainy season. The other two cereals that made a change are directly related to African rice. Both pearl millet and sorghum have been traced to savanna plants adapted to arid climates. Although substantial evidence of early domes tication is lacking, pottery shards from Adrar Bous dated to 2000 B.C.E. show imprints of the domesticated subspecies of sorghum grain. It seems, however, that most evidence from sub-Saharan Africa consistently tells a story of cattle herding and domestication occurring before plant domestication. It is believed by many, though, that with more research, the dates of domestication in this region will be pushed back to at least 3000 B.C.E.

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