Current Anthropology – ‘Rethinking the Origins of Agriculture’ October 2009 Edition

Volume 50, Number 5 of Current Anthropology takes as its theme the continuing debate surrounding one of the most important cultural and technological innovations of modern humans, the mass production and storage of plant foods beginning in earnest after the Natufian era, which has ultimately given rise to what we currently refer to as modern civilisation. Recent archaeological research, and especially advances in the field of genetics, promise to offer much clearer and more accurate insights into the origins of agriculture and its effects on people, animals and plants following the  abandonment  of the fluid forager lifestyle for something altogether more rigid and sedentary. Here’s an extract from the introductory note by CA editor Mark Aldenderfer:

Much recent research on the domestication process has focused upon the identification of more reliable and robust indicators of domestication. A good example of this approach is a collection of papers titled Documenting Domestication: New Genetic and Archaeological Paradigms (University of California Press, 2006), edited by Melinda Zeder, Daniel Bradley, Eve Emshwiller, and Bruce Smith. Although specialists continue to refine traditional indicators of domestication, such as the increase in seed size of plants or the decrease in body size of animals undergoing domestication, the search for robust indicators is undergoing its own revolution—the increasingly sophisticated analysis of the genetics of the process.

As it has with understanding the evolutionary history of our own species, the analysis of the DNA of plants and animals has created a wealth of new insights into the domestication process of many species. Genetic analysis has been particularly important in helping to resolve a perennial question of the domestication process of many species—whether there was a single region from which a species emerged or multiple, independent loci of domestication. The resolution of this question can help to better define the causal factors of the process and may well show that the same species was domesticated under very different conditions in different places. If nothing else, genetic analysis can create testable hypotheses of the domestication process that could not have been envisioned only a few decades ago.

As will be clear from reading through the submissions, there is a wide range of opinion as to exactly what caused humankind to adopt such a radically different set of behaviours from those that had served perfectly adequately up until the Late Upper Palaeolithic, and I hope to cover some of the ongoing discussions in due course. Of particular interest is the adoption of feasting practices and the extent to which they may – or not – have mitigated and facilitated new societal dynamics, and why despite the poorer health and lower life-expectancy experienced by the first farmers, agriculture nevertheless persisted throughout the Neolithic world.

To view the list of contents just click here – to gain full access a subscription is required, which in this case is only $38.00 for a year’s electronic access to the new issues, as well as an extensive archive.

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