The Mists of Time

The writing of this post was only ever a matter timing – a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’. Once I’d started an occasional series of blog posts about the origins of agriculture, I knew I’d have to write one (or several) about the very beginnings, the true origins – the first farming in the history of the world.

Now that time has come, and we shall reach back through the mists of time towards the earliest farmers (and, to be precise, I’m only thinking about arable farming this time)… prompted by an unexpected link, posted on the Association for Environmental Archaeology’s Facebook page, and a recently purchased new book.

Firstly, the book:

Cappers, R.T.J. & Neef, R. (2012). Handbook of Plant Palaeoecology (Barkhuis, Groningen).

This splendid volume, lavishly illustrated and still surrounded by an aura of new-book-smell, is a thorough guide to plant palaeoecology – or, as some (like me) prefer to call it, archaeobotany. It discusses everything from taxonomy, biology and ecology to preservation, identification and interpretation. Examples are drawn from various sources, in particular the authors’ fieldwork in Egypt, where walnut bark is apparently used for “cleaning teeth and reddening lips”. See the photo on p.12 where such bark is for sale at a Cairo market, advertised as “Lady Toots-brush” – surely the perfect name for a pop diva.

Anyway, I digress. I recommend this book and may come back to it in future posts, but its main relevance to this post is that it has a section entitled “Modelling the dawn of farming” (pp.375-80), a handy summary guide to, well, the dawn of farming. It’s a pretty complex area of debate, and not my particular area of expertise, but some basic points are worthy of note

  • The period in question is the Neolithic, more specifically the self-explanatory “Pre-Pottery Neolithic” period, over 10,000 years ago.
  • The area in question may broadly be described as Western Asia, with particular importance being commonly attached to the biblical lands of the so-called “Fertile Crescent”, running from the valley of the Jordan, north up the Levantine coast, bending around south-east Turkey and Syria, and following the Euphrates and Tigris down to the Persian Gulf. I’m afraid I haven’t got a map, but a quick image search of the web will rustle some up.
  • The basic process at work is something like this: hunter-gatherers gathering wild food plants and sowing their seeds, and harvesting the result, and so on; this proto-agricultural process, somewhere between wildlife management and full-blown farming, resulted in the domestication of crops – whereby certain (genetic) characteristics offered a competitive advantage under cultivation, but not in the wild. For example, in the wild it’s advantageous to have good seed dispersal mechanisms, to increase chances of germination in the next generation. But under cultivation, this is disadvantageous: successful reproduction comes not from shattering your seeds all over the place, but from having your seeds harvested and resown as seed-corn. For an excellent, informed discussion of crop domestication see Fuller 2007.

Now, this topic raises a number of pressing questions. Radiocarbon-dated crop remains indicate, on current evidence, that the cultivation and domestication of, e.g. wheat, occurred first of all around the Levant – but it’s less clear whether the same ‘discovery’ occurred at other places independently, or whether everyone else got the idea from the Levant. The latter model is a bit – dare I lapse into the vernacular? – a bit old school. A bit “diffusionist”, as they say on the street. But to support the other model, the ‘multiple independent origins’ model, you’d need to find and date other domesticated crop remains.

So now to that article that I was led to unexpectedly via Facebook: “Farming Was So Nice, It Was Invented At Least Twice“, on ScienceNOW, reporting on an original research paper in Science itself (Riehl et al. 2013).

The item reports new research that supports the ‘multiple independent origins’ model: a long, well-dated sequence of plant remains from a site in Iran, suggesting cultivation and domestication not so long after its more westerly Levantine counterpart, and apparently independently invented. Suggestive, but not conclusive – partly because radiocarbon dates aren’t quite precise enough. If you’ve got access to Science, another paper in the same issue by George Willcox helps to put all this in perspective (Willcox 2013).

So, Farming Unearthed has finally scratch-ploughed the surface of the very origins of agriculture. There’s clearly a fascinating and epic story waiting to be told here, with ambitious new research constantly building up our picture (did I mention genetic profiling?), and if/when I have time I’d love to explore this all in more detail.



Fuller, D.Q. (2007). ‘Contrasting patterns in crop domestication and domestication rates: recent archaeobotanical insights from the Old World’, Annals of Botany 100, pp.903-924.

Riehl, S., Zeidi, M., & Conard, N.J. (2013). ‘Emergence of Agriculture in the Foothills of the Zagros Mountains of Iran’, Science 341 (no.6141), pp.65-67.

Willcox, G. (2013). ‘The Roots of Cultivation in Southwestern Asia’, Science 341 (no.6141), pp.39-40.

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