Going Agricultural – Farming Notes, Past, Present and Future

This is a quick note to point readers in the direction of several posts that have appeared online in recent days, on the origins and spread of agriculture, and the part language may have played in the process,  in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Although I’ve recently concentrated on writing about our Palaeolithic origins, if there’s one behavioural trait that separates modern humanity from its archaic counterpart, the widespread adoption of agriculture over the past ten millennia has set us far apart from all that went before, and is more directly responsible for our urbanised civilisation and attendant corporate woes than anything else that presently comes to mind. Moreover, and beyond our city walls, the devastating impact of agriculture on rural landscapes worldwide is a problem that concerns us all, with for example, the clearance of the Amazon rain-forest for cattle a particular thorn in our side, whilst our growing appetite for bio-fuels looks set to have no less a deadly impact as we turn even more land over to the growing of necessary crops.

First up is this post at Gene Expression, European man perhaps a Middle Eastern farmer, in which Razib Khan discusses the findings of a recent paper at PLoS Biology, A Predominantly Neolithic Origin for European Paternal Lineages – for which this is the abstract:

The relative contributions to modern European populations of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers from the Near East have been intensely debated. Haplogroup R1b1b2 (R-M269) is the commonest European Y-chromosomal lineage, increasing in frequency from east to west, and carried by 110 million European men. Previous studies suggested a Paleolithic origin, but here we show that the geographical distribution of its microsatellite diversity is best explained by spread from a single source in the Near East via Anatolia during the Neolithic.

Taken with evidence on the origins of other haplogroups, this indicates that most European Y chromosomes originate in the Neolithic expansion. This reinterpretation makes Europe a prime example of how technological and cultural change is linked with the expansion of a Y-chromosomal lineage, and the contrast of this pattern with that shown by maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA suggests a unique role for males in the transition.

Razib offers some background to the ongoing debate…

For the past few decades there has been a long standing debate as to the origins of modern Europeans. The two alternative hypotheses are:

* Europeans are descended from Middle Eastern farmers, who brought their Neolithic cultural toolkit less than 10,000 years ago.

* Europeans are descended from Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, who acculturated to the farming way of life through diffusion of ideas.

…and further notes:

In this unsettled landscape comes a new paper which turns some assumptions about Y chromosomal variation in Europe on its head. The focus is on a subclade of the R1b haplogroup, which has its highest frequencies in Western Europe, in particular along the Atlantic fringe. The pattern of variation has led many to infer that this lineage, in particular the R1b1b2 haplgroup, is a marker of the Paleolithic populations of Western Europe. The high frequency of this marker among the Basques in particular is seen as evidence of this, because this group speaks a language which is a pre-Indo-European isolate (the Basques are used as a Paleolithic reference group in many papers). But perhaps not…

…One issue to note is that it seems likely that if the model presented here is true, that R1b1b2 is newcomer from the Middle East which rapidly expanded in frequency across Western Europe, it’s going to be hard to getting the clarity you need from molecular clock based methods because the demographic processes occurred rather rapidly. We know from archaeology that agricultural societies could sprout up almost instantaneously, as if they simply transplanted their culture to new locales. Some of this likely occurred via sea, using the Mediterranean and the Atlantic fringe…

…The authors point out that in places like Japan and India there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence for agriculture resulting in the expansion of particular lineages, so the preponderance of acculturation in Europe as the mode of transmission seems atypical…

…One analog might be the emergence of mestizos in the New World, who have predominantly European male lineages and native female lineages. Finally, one question a friend brought up: if the higher frequency of R1b1b2 is a function of the wave of advance, why is it the same haplogroup all along the wave front? Standard population genetic theory tells us that fragmented small groups will tend to lose genetic diversity and fix particular alleles, but those alleles are not going to be the same. It seems that it is more plausible that there were serial bottlenecks through coastal migrations, and eventually these expanded inland once they stumbled onto the northwest European plain. But that’s just speculation.

For further discussion, please see Dieneke’s whileYann Klimentidis mentions both this paper and another, namely Genetic discontinuity between local hunter-gatherers and central Europe’s first farmers.

Next it’s over to Gambler’s House, and an article titled The Supposed Linguistic Evidence for the Spread of Agriculture, whose introductory notes state the following:

The prehistoric peoples of the American Southwest were agriculturalists.  Different societies may have calibrated their mix of farming, hunting, and gathering differently, but they all seem to have done all three eventually, and for most it’s quite apparent in the archaeological record that farming was the predominant method of subsistence.  The crops they grew were corn, beans, and squash, the classic triad of North American agriculture.  These plants are not native to the Southwest, however, so they must have been introduced at some point from Mesoamerica, where they originated.  The introduction of corn, in particular, must have also involved the introduction of agricultural techniques, since it can’t grow without help from humans.  All this is pretty uncontroversial among Southwestern archaeologists.

The nature of the introduction of agriculture, however, has been a point of more dispute.  The main arguments have to do with how long it took after the introduction of maize for the societies growing it to become totally dependent on it and thus become primarily agriculturalists rather than hunter-gatherers.  One view, espoused by Chip Wills at UNM, sees the introduction of corn as being gradual, perhaps filtering up from one hunter-gatherer group to another, and increasing dependence on it as taking place in the context of hunter-gatherer subsistence decisions and environmental fluctuations, with the total switch to a fully agricultural lifestyle not taking place until maybe as late as the Pueblo II period.  The other view, associated most strongly with R. G. Matson of the University of British Columbia, sees the introduction of maize as having been rapid and involving a totally different lifestyle from Archaic hunter-gatherers from the get-go.

There follows an in-depth discussion of the theories of Australian Professor of Archaeology, Peter Bellwood, who contends that…

… the enormous geographical extent of some language families by associating them with the spread of particular agricultural traditions.  This has been somewhat controversial, particularly in regard to Indo-European, as it produces a very specific answer (given Bellwood’s specific assumptions) to the vexing question of where a given language family originated, often called its Urheimat.  Since Bellwood argues that hunter-gatherers are unlikely to adopt agriculture, whether on their own or when exposed to it by contact with farming groups, his model predicts that the Urheimat of a given language family must be somewhere in the region where its agricultural tradition originated.  For Indo-European this means the Fertile Crescent rather than the Eurasian Steppe, which has been the preferred answer for many Indo-Europeanists on various grounds.  This has led to much controversy.

And continuing the language thread, we return to Gene Expression, where another article, Complex societies = simple languages, goes on to discuss a paper at PLoS ONE, Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure, for which this is the introduction:

Although the largest languages are spoken by millions of people spread over vast geographic areas, most languages are spoken by relatively few individuals over comparatively small areas. The median number of speakers for the 6,912 languages catalogued by the Ethnologue is only 7,000, compared to the mean of over 828,000 [1]. Similarly, for the 2,236 languages in our sample (Figure 1), the median area over which a language is spoken is about the size of Luxembourg or San Diego, California (948 km2). The mean area is about the size of Austria or the US state of Maryland (33,795 km2).

Languages also differ dramatically in the proportion of individuals who speak the language natively (L1 speakers) to those who learned it later in life (L2 speakers) (Table S1). Although there are numerous counter-examples (Text S1), languages spoken by millions of people have a greater likelihood of coming into contact with other languages and of having numerous nonnative speakers compared to languages spoken by only a few thousand people.

This is not surprising: a language spoken by more people is more likely to encompass a larger and more diverse area and include speakers from varying ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. Conversely, languages spoken by a thousand or even fewer individuals tend to be spoken in highly circumscribed locales (Text S2). Overall, languages with smaller speaker populations are more likely to be spoken by more socially cohesive groups [2] than languages that have millions of speakers.

And by a curious coincidence, news comes to today of the Evolang 2010 Conference due to take place in Utrecht, Netherlands, between this coming April, 14-17th.

To finish up, there’s a nice post over at PaleoFuture, The Victory of Chemistry over Agriculture, which begins by noting:

To many people of the year 2010 the 1953 book, The Road to Abundance, is a heretical, nightmarish vision of the future. Chemicals and factory farming are seen as the logical next step in the evolution of food production for mankind.  Jacob Rosin, co-writing with Max Eastman, describes the eventual “victory of chemistry over agriculture,” and mankind’s “bondage to the planet.”

The ultimate goal of Rosin’s ambition was to be “more efficient than nature.” In his advocacy of a completely synthetic diet Rosin called into question both the definition and the benefit of “natural foods.”

See also: Telegraph – Giant Cattle to be Bred back from Extinction – via John Hawks

This post in turn links to another, “Factory” Farms of the Future (1961) from which the image at top is taken.


Balaresque P, Bowden GR, Adams SM, Leung H-Y, King TE, et al. (2010) A Predominantly Neolithic Origin for European Paternal Lineages. PLoS Biol 8(1): e1000285. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000285

Genetic discontinuity between local hunter-gatherers and central Europe’s first farmers.
Bramanti B, Thomas MG, Haak W, Unterlaender M, Jores P, Tambets K, Antanaitis-Jacobs I, Haidle MN, Jankauskas R, Kind CJ, Lueth F, Terberger T, Hiller J, Matsumura S, Forster P, Burger J.
Science 2009 Oct 2;326(5949):137-40.

Lupyan G, Dale R (2010) Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure. PLoS ONE 5(1): e8559. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0008559

2 thoughts on “Going Agricultural – Farming Notes, Past, Present and Future

  1. Nice post. Just one correction. Peter Bellwood is an archaeologist, not a linguist, though he is best known for espousing, along with Colin Renfrew, the integration of linguistic, genetic, and archaeological evidence to address questions of the origins of farming societies.

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