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The transition to agriculture and its consequences

The transition to agriculture and its consequences

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This essay aims to show that the transition to agriculture was a gradual process, the result of the collective actions of individuals over millennia. It aims to show that its adoption led to new perceptions of the natural and social worlds, leading in turn to new social formations and institutions, some of which remain in existence today.
This essay aims to show that the transition to agriculture was a gradual process, the result of the collective actions of individuals over millennia. It aims to show that its adoption led to new perceptions of the natural and social worlds, leading in turn to new social formations and institutions, some of which remain in existence today.

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
Russell ORegan08267995SOC20110The Development of Human SocietiesMid Term Essay4. How did the transition to agriculture come about? What were its mainconsequences?
It is difficult to see how the formation of complex societies would have been possiblewithout the development of agriculture. Agriculture is the most important adaptationhumanity has made to its environment. The introduction of agriculture alteredhumanity’s perception of its surroundings. It also physically alter these surroundings,the clearing of one tenth of the earth’s land surface for the plough has meant that theagricultural revolution has literally transformed the natural environment (Christian2004: 207). It also altered social structure (Christian 2004: 207). Its introductionchanged the relationship between animals, plants and humans, leading to increased pace along the path to more social and political organisation (Scarre 2005, 183).Increased carbohydrate consumption fuelled greater mental activity, further catalysingsocial change. This essay aims to show that the transition to agriculture was a gradual process, the result of the collective actions of individuals over millennia. It aims toshow that its adoption led to new perceptions of the natural and social worlds, leadingin turn to new social formations and institutions, some of which remain in existencetoday.While it is true that hunter-gatherer-fisher subsistence technology can supportsedentary human settlement, only agriculture has the ability to provide subsistence for larger, more densely populated polities. Agriculture is thought to have beenindependently developed, to varying degrees, in Mesopotamia, the Yangtze/Yellowriver hub in China, the New Guinean highlands, the African Sahel, Mesoamerica,eastern USA, and the Andes (Scarre 2005: 186, 190-1; Diamond 1997).
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It spreaddifferentially, by a ‘complex blend of migration, diffusion, and local invention andreinvention’ (Christian 2004: 210). In the case of New Guinea, it spread no further than the area in which it originated, the highlands, in the case of Mesopotamia, itsagricultural package has been adopted to varying degrees on all of the earth’s
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There are, of course, many counter arguments to this, it could be argued that it was developedindependently in Mesoamerica, Mesopotamia and New Guinea only, with the idea spreading to theother areas leading to the domestication of local forms, but this diffusionist model is unlikely.
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continents. Where it was not adopted, economy and society remained in relativestasis.‘Taken as a whole…[historical] change is not rationally planned, but neither isit a coming and going of orderless patterns’ (Elias 2000: 355). Despite the frequentuse of terms such as Childe’s ‘Neolithic Revolution’, the transition to agriculture wasactually very much a gradual social process, much the same as any change intechnology (Diamond 1997: 105-6; see also Elias 1995: 8).
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It is on a scale of millennia that humanity’s reliance on agriculture evolved from supplementaryhorticulture to populations totally reliant on intensive agriculture. However, it is possible to identify periods of accelerated change at various points in the evolutionarytrajectory. The first of these is a sedentary form of hunter-gathering, often with basicsupplementary horticulture, where local resources were sufficiently abundant to provide permanent settlement in that area. Horticulture may be defined as relativelylow intensity agriculture practiced using human labour power only (Christian 2004:238). The second important phase was the adoption of this horticulture as the mainmeans of subsistence. Occurring in parallel was the adoption of pastoralism, theresult of the domestication and exploitation of various animals. Another importantstep is Sherratt’s so-called ‘secondary products revolution’, where non-meat animal products such as milk, hides, wool, dung etc. began to be utilised (Champion et al1984: 120; Dark 1995: 119-20; Christian 2004: 255-6). The related utilisation of animal traction led to more efficient and productive forms of agriculture, in turnleading to greater surplus. This is what has often been termed the agrarian revolution.The general consensus is that both horticultural and pastoral agriculture firstdeveloped in Mesopotamia, in the foothills of the Taurus and Zagros mountain ranges,the so-called ‘Fertile Crescent’. The area benefited from the run off from highland precipitation, as well as sporadic localised rainfall. Large grain wild grasses, commondesert edge species, would have grown in abundance in the area (Diamond 1997:195). In fact, Mesopotamians had access to 32 of the 52 of the world’s largest seededgrasses (ibid: 139-40, after Blumer, M. 1992). The reliability and abundance of thesegrasses, such as wheat and barley led to their intentional cultivation over time.
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Christian argues that despite this, the development of agriculture on the scale of human history as awhole they deserves the title of revolution (2004: 209-10). However, it is gradual when taken in thecontext of the Holocene development of humanity, and even in the context of the history of the presentspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens.
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Experimental botanical studies have shown that the wild ancestors of the plantsdomesticated in the region could have provided as much as one ton of seeds per acre,which would yield 50 kilocalories of food in return for one kilocalorie of effort(Diamond 1997: 136).Plant domestication resulted from the intimate knowledge that foragers had of their ecological environment (Diamond 1997: 144-5). At Tell Abu Hureyra, inmodern Syria, evidence has been uncovered for the collection and use of 157 wild plant species, whose charred remains were uncovered at the site (ibid; Renfrew &Bahn 2004: 287). Rather than being the result indiscriminate gathering, these plantswere deliberately collected and utilised by the inhabitants (Diamond 1997: 144-5).Further evidence of pre-agricultural sedentism in the Levant is provided by the Natufian culture sites, such as Jericho, roughly 12,000 to 10,000 years ago
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(Renfrew& Bahn 2004: 286; Christian 2004: 220). Going back even further, evidence has been uncovered for the use of wild cereals as part of a foraging economy at the site of Ohalo II near the Sea of Galilee dating to c.19,000 years ago (Renfrew & Bahn 2004:287). This is significant, as it illustrates that the development of cereal usage was asocial process evolving over time, becoming more intense and rationalised as itmoved from the gathering of wild cereals to their eventual deliberate cultivation.The domestication of animals was part of an already long running process of exploitation. Higgs asserts that gazelle had been intensely exploited in Mesopotamia prior to the domestication of animals there (as cited in Renfrew & Bahn 2004: 286-7).Goats, sheep, pigs and cattle,
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four of the major five domesticates, were firstdomesticated in Mesopotamia, albeit in different areas (Diamond 1997: 141, 160;Renfrew & Bahn: 287). They were not the first animals to be domesticated, with thewolf having been domesticated in the Palaeolithic. (Scarre 2005: 183). Thedomestication of these four large mammals led to the utilisation of a pastoraleconomic system. Pastoral economies have tended to remain relatively low density polities, due to their semi-nomadic nature and the dearth of dietary carbohydrates,leading to lower birth rates. That said, history’s largest continual land empire, the
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Christian alternates between BP dates and years ago dates, never stating whether or not they arecalibrated or not, which can be quite misleading due to the fact that the difference between BP andcalibrated BC dates can be in the order of hundreds of years. Even Renfrew & Bahn can be guilty of this at times, with Diamond being one of the few to use calibrated dates at all times.
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That is Taurene cattle. Related species of cattle were also domesticated in Asia (Diamond 1997: 160-1 etc.). Also, the dog is not counted among these five, having been developed as a hunting aid rather than as a direct means to provide food, bar in Mesoamerica and possibly Australia.
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