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The Origins of Agriculture: New Data, New Ideas

Author(s): Leslie C. Aiello

Source: Current Anthropology, Vol. 52, No. S4, The Origins of Agriculture: New Data, New
Ideas (October 2011), pp. S161-S162
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological
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Current Anthropology Volume 52, Supplement 4, October 2011


The Origins of Agriculture:

New Data, New Ideas
Wenner-Gren Symposium Supplement 4
by Leslie C. Aiello
The Origins of Agriculture: New Data, New Ideas resulted from
a Wenner-Gren-sponsored symposium held at the Hacienda
Temozon, Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, March 613, 2009 (fig.
1). The symposium was organized by T. Douglas Price (University of WisconsinMadison and the University of Aberdeen) and Ofer Bar-Yosef (Harvard University).
The major aim of the symposium was to better understand
the origins of agriculture in light of new fieldwork, new sites,
new analytical techniques, and more radiocarbon dates. The
global nature of agricultural origins was a key theme, and a
major focus of the discussions was on East Asia as well as
lesser-known regions such as Papua New Guinea, Africa, and
eastern North America, alongside more traditional areas such
as the Near East and Mesoamerica. The papers presented in
this supplementary issue are designed to provide the latest
information on the antiquity of agriculture covering at least
10 different centers of domestication.
The organizers, Price and Bar-Yosef, note in their introduction that emerging data point to an unexpected synchronicity in the timing of the first domesticates around the end
of the Pleistocene. They also note that, contrary to earlier
thought, the environments in which agriculture originated
were not marginal and that agricultural experimentation took
place in areas of concentrations of populations and resources.
Each major area may also have included multiple loci for
domestication. These were major areas of agreement in a
meeting that was characterized by lively debate over the variety of hypotheses proposed for agricultural origins and
whether global or more area-specific explanations were most
appropriate. As in any good meeting, there were more questions than answers, but this is the sign of a dynamic field.
The degree of collegiality and collaboration among the diverse
symposium participants and the speed at which new data are
accumulating are good signs that our understanding of this
important period in human adaptation will continue to evolve
The Wenner-Gren Foundation has had a long-standing in-

Leslie C. Aiello is President of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for

Anthropological Research (470 Park Avenue South, 8th Floor North,
New York, New York 10016, U.S.A.).

terest in the origins of agriculture and domestication. One of

the earliest meetings organized by the Foundation in July 1960
led to the seminal publication Courses toward Urban Life:
Archaeological Considerations of Some Cultural Alternates
(Braidwood and Willey 1962). Other influential meetings included the Origins of African Plant Domestication (Harlan, De
Wet, and Stemler 1972) and Where the Wild Things Are Now
(Mullin and Cassidy 2007), which invited anthropologists
from all subfields to rethink the concept of domestication in
anthropology. Information on these meetings and others can
be found on our Web site at
Most recently, agricultural origins were explored in a special
issue of Current Anthropology titled Rethinking the Origins of
Agriculture introduced by Mark Cohen (Cohen 2009). The
current supplementary issue continues the discussions and
debates explored in this earlier contribution but is perhaps
more data rich and geographically diverse. Together these two
CA issues provide an excellent contemporary overview of the
state of research in this exciting area of inquiry.
The Wenner-Gren Foundation is always looking for innovative new directions in the field for future Foundationsponsored and organized symposia and eventual CA publication. We encourage anthropologists to contact us with their
ideas for future meetings. Information about the WennerGren Foundation and the Symposium program can be found
on the Foundations Web site (

References Cited
Braidwood, Robert John, and Gordon Randolph Willey, eds. 1962.
Courses toward urban life: archaeological considerations of some cultural alternates. Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, no. 32
(Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research). Chicago: Aldine.
Cohen, Mark Nathan. 2009. Introduction: rethinking the origins of
agriculture. Current Anthropology 50:591595.
Harlan, Jack R., Jan M. J. De Wet, and Ann B. L. Stemler, eds. 1976.
Origins of African plant domestication. World Anthropology Series.
The Hague: Mouton.
Mullin, Molly, and Rebecca Cassidy, eds. 2007. Where the wild things
are now. Wenner-Gren International Symposium Series. Oxford:

2011 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved. 0011-3204/2011/52S4-0001$10.00. DOI: 10.1086/660154

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Figure 1. Participants in the symposium The Origins of Agriculture:

New Data, New Ideas. Front row from left: Laurie Obbink (WennerGren staff), Carolyn Freiwald (monitor), Leslie Aiello, Fiona Marshall,
Ofer Bar-Yosef, Gyoung-Ah Lee, Ehud Weiss, Anna Belfer-Cohen. Middle
row from left: Tim Denham, Peter Bellwood, Melinda A. Zeder, Dolores
R. Piperno, Greger Larson, Richard H. Meadow, Jean-Denis Vigne, Meh zdogan, Peter Rowley-Conwy. Back row from left: David Joel Comet O
hen, Zhao Zhijun (Jimmy), Dorian Q Fuller, Bruce D. Smith, Gary W.
Crawford, T. Douglas Price, Jean-Pierre Bocquet-Appel, A. Nigel GoringMorris. A color version of this photo appears in the online edition of
Current Anthropology.

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