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Thread: Earliest agriculture

  1. #1 Earliest agriculture 
    Forum Radioactive Isotope skeptic's Avatar
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    There seems to be a widely accepted view that agriculture began about 11,000 years ago, probably in the Middle East, growing wheat. Before that, the theory goes, humans were tribal hunter/gatherers. Probably nomadic.

    I think this is a calumny practised against our ancestors. If one person in a thousand today is a genius, then 100,000 years ago, one person in a thousand was also a genius, since the genetic changes since then have been small. Why could not such a genius discover simple forms of agriculture and teach them to his/her fellows?

    I am inspired by two stories, in which I have personal experience.

    1. Cassava in Fiji. This valuable crop is a major food source to the Fijians. They harvest it with a machete. They pull it out, roots and all, and cut the plant with one swipe, allowing the edible roots to fall into a basket. They replant it by cutting the stalk into 3 or 4 pieces, each of which they stick into the ground, and each of which grows into a new Cassava plant with a full load of new edible roots. This is done with a machete, but could easily be done with bare hands, or a flint knife by more primitive ancestors.

    2. My watercress. A gravel beach near my home has a spring and stream above it. The stream supports a scant population of watercress, not growing well due to the tangle of vegetation cutting off light. Fragments fall onto the beach, though, in full light, with fresh water flowing under the gravel, and grows luxuriant clumps, which I harvest. Delicious! Winter storms, though, send waves crashing over the beach, killing the cress. I have gotten into the habit now, after those storms, of pulling out small clumps from the stream and transplanting them into the gravel, where they flourish. This needs only bare hands - no tools.

    So why do we not accept that our ancestors of 100,000 years ago, with their occasional genius member, cannot do similar basic agriculture? Very little energy is need to stick a fruit or nut tree seed in the ground. Or take a cutting and stick it into the ground.

    I suspect that the "agricultural revolution" of 11,000 years ago was just one more stage in the evolution of agriculture. My view is that the only thing really new about it was that wheat can be stored indefinitely, unlike most food plants. It was the storage of food, rather than agriculture itself, that was new, and fuelled the growth of civilisation.

    Anyway, that is my view.


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  3. #2  
    Forum Freshman chakazul's Avatar
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    I think human technology is a cumulative process, or a gradual evolution. When people copy other people's ideas, giving them twists, and spread them out, the accumulation of ideas begins. Occasionally there will be genius who can suggest ideas that no one thought before, like "how about we stick two plants together and see what happen?" or "why don't we collect many seeds and grow them in mass?", but that will be subject to another kind of accumulation -- the technologies or common practices that are currently available. Without properly developed irrigation systems (mechanics + hydrodynamics), deep shared knowledge in weather and plants, and proper ways to store extra food like storage or pickling, any ground-breaking idea will appear to be just a crazy idea.
    Perhaps there's a Moore's law not only apply to computer technology but all kinds of human technologies.


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  4. #3  
    Forum Sophomore Eversbane's Avatar
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    11kya is only the earliest evidence of artificial selection (via the breeding of a cultigen) we have been able to identify. Any inferrence that no one before this date engaged in practices that had similar effect would of course be false - first because it would be necessary that such practices be in place for some time to produce the cultigens that have been identified, and second because that would be a negative argument. What can be said truthfully is that there are no materials from 100Ka yet discovered that can be said to be evidence of artificial selection.

    However, it should be quite clear that our ancestors of 100ka were collecting and transporting plant materials. Their fossils definitively indicate that they were consuming plant materials, and archaeological evidence indicates that they were transporting plant materials to base camps (the most common examples having been preferrentially preserved in caves and rock shelters). There is direct evidence within these archaeological contexts that thery were transporting plant materials to the camp :: therefore :: they were engaging in practices that were at the least very, very close to what could be termed agricultural (failing only if conscious transplanting is required to meet the definition of 'agriculture'). It goes by definition that such collection and transportation imposes a selection on the subject plants. It is only that we have not yet recovered materials from 100Kya that constitute evidence that this selection produced a cultigen that we can identify as such.

    Did it not occur to anyone 100Kya to transplant plant materials near the base camp so that they would be more convenient? Did it not occur to anyone 100Kya to be selective about what was transplanted?

    It would seem to me that such questions are almost irrelevant, as selective transplanting is very nearly an inevitable result of collection and transportion. Even if it's just seeds that survive the digestive tract, the transportation and processing of plant materials would necessarily lead to the camp site being stocked with representitives of many of the various plant materials collected. Even if seeds are consumed away from camp, if they survive the digestive tract, they will end up back at camp anyway. Certainly, since humans of 100Kya are known to have been transporting and processing animal products, it is certain that they were doing the same with plant materials. As with the casava, anything that could propagate from processing refuse would soon populate the camp site.

    So the only valid inferrence one can draw is that the paleobotanical evidence for 11Kya is more common that for 100Kya. Whether that translates into variances in practices such that one could say that humans of 100Kya were not "doing agriculture" depends in large part on the definition of agriculture and has a great deal to do with variance in preservation, but without the evidence one can only speculate.

    It cannot be denied that Humans of 100kya were gathering plant materials and transporting them - that evidence exists. All that is missing is evidence that these practices effected a selection that can be discerned in the paleobotanical materials available.
    Nearly all of the above lines of evidence can be questioned, and all have more than one possible cause (although some may have no cause at all).
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