The Beginnings of Agriculture: New Data, New Ideas
WENNER-GREN INTERNATIONAL SYMPOSIUM #141
March 6-13, 2009
Hacienda Temozon, Temozon Sur, Yucatan, Mexico
PUBLICATION: The Origins of Agriculture, New Data, New Ideas. Current Anthropology, Volume 52, No, S4, October 2011. Edited by T. Douglas Price and Ofer Bar-Yosef
Leslie C. Aiello (Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA)
Ofer Bar-Yosef, organizer (Harvard U., USA)
Anna Belfer-Cohen (The Hebrew U., Israel)
Peter Bellwood (Australian National U.)
Jean-Pierre Bocquet-Appel (CNRS, France)
David J. Cohen (Boston U., USA)
Gary W. Crawford (U. of Toronto-Mississauga, Canada)
Tim Denham (Monash U., Australia)
Carolyn Freiwald, monitor (U. Wisconsin, USA)
Dorian Fuller (U. College London, UK)
Nigel Goring-Morris (The Hebrew U., Israel)
Greger Larson (Durham U., UK)
Gyoung-Ah Lee (U. Oregon, USA)
Fiona Marshall (Washington U., USA)
Richard H. Meadow (Harvard U., USA)
Mehmet Özdoğan (Istanbul U., Turkey)
Dolores R. Piperno (Smithsonian Institution, USA)
T. Douglas Price, organizer (U. Wisconsin, USA)
Peter Rowley-Conwy (Durham U., UK)
Bruce D. Smith (Smithsonian Institution, USA)
Jean-Denis Vigne (Muséum National D’Histoire Naturelle, France)
Ehud Weiss (Bar Ilan U., Israel)
Melinda A. Zeder (Smithsonian Institution, USA)
Zhao Zhijun “Jimmy” (Chinese Academy for Social Sciences)
n the middle of March 2009, a group of 22 archaeologists, archaeobotanists, archaeozoologists, a geneticist, and a physical anthropologist took a six-day trip. We stayed in the same geographic location — a lovely hacienda near Merida in the Yucatan of Mexico. We were well cared for and fed. But it was an intense and demanding journey and, at the same time, one of those rare opportunities for like-minded individuals (we use that term loosely) to get together and explore a subject of shared interest, even fascination.
The focal point of the conference was the origins of agriculture. We hoped to bring together new data and new ideas to push our understanding of this remarkable phenomenon further along. The transition from hunting to farming is perhaps the most important in our human past. Virtually everything we know and do today stems from this extraordinary transformation.
A multitude of new developments concerned with the origins and spread of agriculture have taken place in recent years. New fieldwork and new sites in new and old places, more radiocarbon dates, and new methods have documented earlier transitions to agriculture in parts of Asia, the south Pacific and the Americas. Studies of microscopic plants remains, especially starch grains and phytoliths, have revolutionized identification of domesticated plants. Advances in the genetics of domestication, utilizing ancient DNA to examine the relationships among prehistoric domestics, are beginning to resolve standing questions about where and when. There are at least 10 different places now around the globe with reasonable claims to being an original center of domestication. The time is ripe to assemble his new information, to sift and winnow, to summarize our current understanding of the origins and spread of agriculture, and to move ahead.
Our group came to the conference with a number of biases — there was an Old World bias, an East Asia bias, a plant bias, a male bias, an age bias, one wag even suggested an anti-camel bias. Some might conclude that our conference was not successful. At the end of our time together, we did not learn why agriculture developed. We did not even agree on whether its causes are global or local. There were two groups, particularists and globalists, who saw explanations of the origins of agriculture largely from one of these two perspectives.
During the meeting itself and looking back now, however, there is a strong feeling that the conference was indeed a success and that each of us came away better informed about the prehistoric transition to farming. A number of factors were involved in that success. The participants were passionate, the ideas powerful, the information thought-provoking. We came to learn new facts, examine a wide range of variables, and use our knowledge to evaluate current explanations and to explore new ideas for understanding what took place at the origins of agriculture. Above all we wanted to think in new directions about this large, complex, and obstinate issue. Specific, individual knowledge and bias were critical for our discussions.
Our goal for the conference was to develop and explore a rich and productive dialog among scholars from diverse branches of archaeology and related disciplines focused on the beginnings of farming. That happened. One of the more important aspects of our meeting was the leveling of disciplines that took place. Archaeobotanists, archaeozoologists, and archaeologists, all more or less equally represented, broke down the walls that sometimes hinder discussion among these specialties and moved onto new ground. We were further informed by the presence of a human demographer and an expert on ancient DNA.
We were a volatile mix of scholars, from many times and places. There was for the first time at an international meeting a major emphasis on the origins of agriculture in East Asia. Lesser known regions such as Papua New Guinea, Africa, and Eastern North America were included in our discussions. Lots of new information was presented from East Asia, Africa, Central and South America. The antiquity of domestication has been pushed deeper into the past in many areas. Today, an eerie synchronicity in the timing of the first domesticates around the end of the Pleistocene is emerging. Another commonality among the cradles of agriculture is the rich environments in which farming originates. Experiments in domestication do not take place in marginal areas, but amid ancient concentrations of population and resources across the globe.
Genetic studies of modern and ancient DNA in domesticated plants and animals are providing remarkable information on species distribution and evolution. Genetic markers for domestication are starting to be identified. At the same time, a note of caution regarding genetic studies permeated the conference and was reiterated by our resident archaeogeneticist.
A number of potentially important variables involved in the shift from foraging to farming were discussed at the conference. These include sedentism, storage, population density, population pressure, resource abundance, resource availability, processing and harvesting technologies, climate and environmental changes, ownership of produce and resource localities, potential domesticates, competition, inequality, risk reduction, nutritional requirements, choice, chance, and a receptive social/cultural context. The most important factors in the transition, from the perspective of the authors in this volume, include available protodomesticates, human sedentism, higher population density, resource abundance, geographic and/or social constraints, processing and harvesting technology, storage, and wealth accumulation. One of the most interesting phenomena we noted, however, was not pattern but variation. In the one or two places where data on the transition is relatively rich, there appears to be a period of chaos, a zone of variability at the origins of agriculture. There seems to be a time for the auditioning of many new options in human adaptation.
Three recent discoveries from the earliest Neolithic in the Near East completely change our understanding of this time and raise enormous new questions. The colonization of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus by late PPNA and PPNB people carrying domestic plants, as well as domestic and wild animals by boat is an extraordinary story. Excavations at late PPNA-PPNB Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey from the same time period have revealed a series of remarkable shrines or centers associated with large stone architecture and remarkable art. The burial ground of Kafar HaHoresh in Israel documents enormous new variability in the treatment of the dead and indications of emerging social inequality at this time.
Small conferences like this are the ones that we remember, that leave an imprint, that generate messages and ideas that form and transform our views of the past. We believe that the participants in this conference returned home with renewed optimism about the state of research — both data and ideas — on the origins of agriculture. It is our hope that enthusiasm will be conveyed through the continuing work of the participants and will be passed to their colleagues and students. In this way, our conference will have a large impact on the archaeological community and we can help to direct future research along a well lit path.
Any conference such as this one is the result of the efforts of a number of people. We would especially like to thank Leslie Aiello whose presence we enjoyed at the conference and whose constant interest, attention, and frequent participation were much appreciated. Our conference ran remarkably smoothly and enjoyably. Kudos and enormous thanks to Laurie Obbink of Wenner Gren who is responsible for the logistics and function of these meetings. She has been doing a magnificent job for many years. Carolyn Freiwald of the University of Wisconsin-Madison attended the conference as an invited graduate student assistant and her presence was appreciated by all. Thanks also to the staff of the Hacienda Temozon who went beyond the call of duty to ensure a pleasant stay for all of us with wonderful food, flower-strewn rooms, and much individual attention.