I. Prehistoric Times > J. The Origins of Food Production
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
J. The Origins of Food Production
For more than 99 percent of human existence, our forebears lived by hunting and foraging, tied to the season of plant foods and the movements of game, fish, and sea mammals. Food production, the deliberate cultivation of cereal grasses and edible root plants, is a phenomenon of the last 10,000 years of human existence. It is in large part responsible for the rapidly accelerating rates of population growth and culture change throughout the world during the past ten millennia.  1
The great Old World archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe (1892–1957) wrote of two great developments in prehistoric times, a Neolithic Revolution and an Urban Revolution. The Neolithic Revolution saw the development of agriculture and animal domestication in the Near East during a period of prolonged drought in the Near East. The Urban Revolution coincided with the appearance of the first cities, writing, and literate civilization in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Childe developed his revolution theory during the 1930s, when much less was known about world prehistory.  2
Child's theory is too simplistic, for it has long been surpassed by more sophisticated formulations, based on a much more detailed knowledge of ancient societies. In one respect, however, Childe was correct. The deliberate cultivation of the soil and the domestication of animals were not, in themselves, revolutionary developments, for every hunter-gatherer was familiar with the germination of seeds and the taming of animals. But the consequences of the new economies were indeed revolutionary, for they were the catalyst for lasting, and dramatic, culture changes.  3
Thanks to radiocarbon dating, we know that agriculture appeared in widely separated areas of the world over several thousand years: in the Near East, China, south and Southeast Asia, and the Americas. Modern theories are based on the realization that many postglacial hunter-gatherer societies were preadapted to food production before anyone started planting wild cereal grasses or penning animals. They were already exploiting such resources intensively, local populations were rising, and there were occasional food shortages in areas like the Near East, where the most favored areas were already at the limits of their carrying capacity.  4
Hunter-gatherers spend much of their time “managing” risk, the risk of starvation, of drought, of sudden changes in animal migration habits. They do so by acting very conservatively, responding to different risks by either moving away or developing new storage technologies for fish, plants, and other foods, and by drying foods like pounded bison or salmon. A straightforward solution to rising populations, occasional food shortages, and unpredictable environments may have been to go one step further, to cultivate familiar plants and domesticate common prey so that people could draw on familiar “stored” resources in scarce months.  5
This process has been documented by archaeologist Kent Flannery at Guila Naquitz cave in Mexico. A small group of hunters and foragers visited this small cave six times over a period of 2,000 years after 8750 B.C.E. Using a sophisticated computer model, Flannery and his colleagues have shown that the local people learned how to schedule foraging for different plant species over the seasons. They lived in an area with unpredictable rainfall, so collective memory based on experience was vital to them. The seeds found in the cave showed that the band used one set of seeds in wet years, another in dry. They tried to manage risk by experimenting with the planting of wild beans in wet years, when the chance of starvation was lower. When this strategy worked, they began planting every year. In time, they relied even more heavily on beans, maize, and squash for their subsistence, to the point where cultivation became more important than foraging.  6
The new food-producing economies proved dramatically successful. People cultivated an extraordinary range of cereal and root crops, many of them for food, others for medicinal, even hallucinogenic purposes. They domesticated animals ranging in size from the ox and the camel to guinea pigs. Ten thousand years ago, virtually everybody in the world lived by hunting and gathering. By 2,000 years ago, most people were farmers or herders and only a minority were still hunter-gatherers.  7
The spread of food-producing economies throughout the world only took about 8,000 years. It spread everywhere except where an environment with extreme aridity or heat or cold rendered agriculture or herding impossible, or where people chose to remain hunters and foragers. In some places, food production was the economic base for urbanization and literate civilization.  8
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.