Anthropology P380:

The transition from foraging to food production: examples from the Near East

Last time we discussed how after the height of the last glaciation, ca. 18,000 years ago, we see evidence of real economic specialization -- almost entrepreneurship ! People re-occupying regions with the retreat of the glaciers (e.g. in northern Europe) and taking advantage of rapidly changing ecological conditions.

Consequence of increased territoriality in some rich regions = origins of sedentary communities -- give rise to socially complex hunter-gatherer societies.

In general this period is referred to as the Mesolithic (Epi-Paleolithic=North Africa & Near East; Microlithic= sub-Saharan Africa; Hoabinhian=SE Asia; Jomon=Japan; Archaic=N. America... etc!) It has been called "broad spectrum" exploitation -- but a bit of a misnomer, since they seem to specialize in staple foods...

= characterized by some technological changes indicative of FOOD SHIFTS

  • microlithic tools, bow & arrow
  • grinding /pounding equipment (early in Australia, North Africa)
  • first pottery containers in Japan (Jomon culture, 13,000bp)

... technologies that allow the intensification of exploitation of hard-to-get resources, such as seeds, nuts. Bryan Hayden argues this allowed creation of abundant/stable resource base that could not be affected by socio-economic competition using resources

"Complex hunter-gatherers" focus on abundant, widely available resources... with abundant offspring and short maturation times (r-selected species)... such as salmon, insects, grass seeds, nuts.... over-exploitation almost impossible to pre-industrial technologies = "collectors" (Binford) or "accumulators" (Hayden).


  • resilience
  • risk reduction
  • amelioration of environmental extremes
  • increased resource predictability & productivity

solutions :

  • diversification of resource base through intensification
  • labor intensive foods
  • storage = collecting, moving goods to consumers
  • farming = ultimate collector strategy

Example = Near East ("Levant") where we see a shift from relatively mobile, small band (egalitarian?) hunter-gatherers (Kebaran culture) to settled "hamlet" communities of hunter-gatherers increasingly dependent on harvesting and storing wild cereals, in addition to hunting, the Natufian culture... exploiting a rich, and very diverse resource base, some Natufians were able to accumulate wealth, and we see the first real evidence of social hierarchies... "haves" and "have-nots." But they were NOT agriculturalists -- they didn't PLANT foods, they harvested wild ones, and they didn't keep domestic animals, they hunted.

Near East:

gradual global warming after 18,000bp -- still cool/dry.

Kebaran Hunter-Gatherers

Geometric Kebaran 14,000 - 12,000 bp

signs of emergence of complex h/g's:

  • reduced nomadism
  • exploitation of rabbits, birds, etc
  • limited use of cereal grains (increasing?)
  • population increase
  • some status trade items (dentalium shells)


global warming ca 13,000 bp -- woodlands & cereals expand

Natufian 12,000 - 10,000 bp

complex, socially differentiated h/g's (accumulator/feasting complex)

  • sedentism, some larger sites, structures (of different sizes/functions)
  • more sites in marginal zones -- take over h/g's (pop growth?)
  • new technology
    • storage
    • stone bowls & ostrich eggshell containers
    • microliths, sickles
    • grinding & pounding equipment
  • exploitation of cereals, nuts, acorns,legumes, fish
    • cereals = carbos (beer!), lower protein (ripen early spring on coast, summer in hills)
    • nuts, acorns ripen in fall
  • Gazelle specialization, with catastrophic age profiles
  • domestic dogs (HUNTING?)
  • trade & status paraphernalia
    • shells from Mediteranian & Red Sea
    • Anatolian obsidian
  • socio-economic inequality in burials and habitations
    • some paved structures, plastered walls (incl burials)
    • polished stone dishes & cups
    • stone figurines
    • personal jewelry
    • initially buried in small groups, later individual interments

ca 11,000 deteriorating climate shrinks woodland/cereal zone

  • Natufian settlements at margins of Mediterranean zone abandoned
  • Only core settlements near permanent water sources continue
  • Some suggestions of mounting nutritional stress --
  • increased hypoplasias in skeletons

10,400-10,200 bp Harifian = revert to mobile h/g

10,300 bp PrePottery Neolithic-A Khiamian

  • settlements near water
  • early cultivators ????

10,000 bp PPN-A Sultanian

  • larger settlements : Jericho
  • 1st domestics (only 6%): Emmer Wheat & 2-row Barley


Important issues:

  • different economic strategies in response to changing environmental conditions: fission/fusion & opportunism vs intensification
  • sedentism ... evidence for year-round occupation
    • advantages = territoriality, storage
    • disadvantages = less flexible, stuck in one spot
    • = good for short-term (annual) fluctuations, but NOT long-term - very fragile
  • evidence for population growth: Natufian sites estimated 6% population growth - WHY?
    • shortening of birth interval / increase in fertility:
      • FEMALES have more energy for reproductive cycle
      • = earlier maturation rates, higher fertility rates overall
      • less mobility
      • different type of workload
      • less seasonal food stress (in a good year!)
      • shorter duration of breast-feeding / lactational amenorhea
      • nutritional implications: high carbo/low protein diet for kids ... more tooth decay

Origins of Food Production

Archaeological evidence has been used to demonstrate the origins of food production occurred independently in a number of different regional "centers of domestication" around the world. For example (not a complete list!)
 Near East  wheat, barley, lentils  sheep, goats
 China  millet, rice  pig, chicken
 SE Asia  yam  
 Africa  sorghum, rice, millet, yam  cattle??
 Mexico  corn/beans/squash, tomato, avocado  
 Peru  potato  llama, guinea pig

Visit an excellent agronomy class webpage from UC Davis on the evolution of crop plants.

in Near East

So far we've looked at the record in the Near East which shows a shift from hunting/gathering to complex h/g. Today we're going to look at evidence for the shift to food production. It seems to be

  • step by step introduction to domestic plants, animals come later, while hunting, etc continue
  • rapid process -- within 2000 years
  • not a question of H/G OR farming -- false dichotomy, both coexist
  • local patterns depend on local environment -- e.g. differences between southern Levant (early) and northern ...

= range of behaviors from CULTIVATION ("assistance") to DOMESTICATION = genetic change & dependenc





GENETIC ISOLATION from wild relatives


What distinguishes a wild from a domestic plant or animal?

Key difference = Inter-dependence: Domestication as human inteference with plants' survival strategies / reproductive success ...

e.g. seed dispersal tactics:

 wheat:  brittle rachis

sturdy glume

smaller seeds

(genetic diversity)

 tough rachis

fragile glume

larger seeds

(artificially selected population)

 beans:  exploding pods

thick seed coats


permeable seed coats

 ANIMALS:  run away!

survival of fitest...

 breeding control & managed herd composition (e.g. kill young males)

artificial selection

Eventually genetic changes reinforced payoff for cultivator... such as seed size (increased benefits) and ease of processing (decreased costs) but morphological change not evident in all plants ... e.g. not NUTS (long generation time, not annual) & not vegetative propigation (ROOT CROPS)

COSTS of food production:

  • Lots of WORK (labor-intensive strategy)
  • need for MANAGEMENT (coordinated efforts)
  • GAMBLING RISK Investment in time/energy now
  • LESS FLEXIBILITY/opportunism in response to disaster.... famine


  • Greater predictability in SCHEDULING of resource exploitation
  • INSURANCE: Can produce & store surplus, and accumulate wealth
  • More predictable YIELD of high carbohydrate (energy staple) foods
  • Cooperative strategies can produce more than sum of individual efforts

Examples of evidence of domestication in Near East (that I didn't get a chance to actually present to you in class!... sigh)

9500-8100 BC: Abu Hureyra Syria near Euphrates

= one of oldest villages (BIG) 500x300 m x 5 m thick

  • small, simple, year-round settlement of H/G's
  • kill gazelle in seasonal N/S migrations in spring
  • seeds of wild Einkorn, Rye, legumes + other weedy plants
  • site abandonned (climatic change? fewer resources, less fuel wood)

8900 BC: Zawi Chemi Shanidar hills of Iraq

= old evidence of sheep/goat manipulation from 25% to 60% young sheep = breeding or weird hunting

8200-7500 BC: Tell Mureybit (Euphrates River, N Syria)

  • sickles, limestone mortars
  • 1000's carbonized seeds from earth pits used for parching grains
  • large-seeded Einkorn Wheat = cold-tolerant Mt wheat not native (100km away)
  • 2 row barley, lentils, bitter vetch (just like wild)

7600-5000 BC: Abu Hureyra reoccupied by farmers

  • site 10x larger
  • rectilinear mudbrick houses with gypsum plaster floors
  • specialized crafts, stone vessels, jewelry, plaster... long exchange distances
  • domestic grains
  • domestic sheep/goat dominant by 6600 BC (response to overkill ?)


7650 BC: JARMO Zagros Mts

= settled agricultural village 1.5 Ha with recatuglar mud huts excavated by Robert Braidwood

7500-6750 BC: ALI KOSH

foothills of Zagros Mts on Deh Luran Plain, SW Iran = tell 7 meters deep

  • Plants: domestic emmer wheat & 2-row barley (March-April harvest)plus >45,000 seeds of 40 spp plant, including vetch, canary grass, alfalfa... many are small marshy seeds+ pistachio nut shells (end of summer harvest?)
  • Animals: slaughter patterns suggests domesticated sheep/goats (winter grazing on the plains)+ 5 spp animals hunted, + fishing, waterfowl = local steppe
  • Life:
    • small rectangular houses
    • obsidian from Turkey (700 km away) but only 1% of stone

6000-5600BC ALI KOSH

  • more wheat/barley, fewer legumes and wild plants 40% of seeds = morphological domesticates
  • more sheep
  • bigger houses of mudbrick...
  • SITE ABANDONED.... why? Soil exhaustion?

7000-6000 BCAin Ghazal PPNB

  • large, early Neolithic site in Jordan "Spring of the Gazelle"
  • site = 30 acres with long rectangular houses, stone walls, terraced, wooden posts, covered in mud & lime plaster ... many remodeled during occupation
  • 80 burials ... 22= infants, 20% >50 years old many with skull removed ... skulls found together, decorated in pits
  • Animals = sheep/goats, cattle (domestic morphologically, and selection)also martin, badger, squirrel (forest)
  • Plants = barley, wheat, peas, beans
  • Artifacts = flint sickles very common (10%), arrow points (6%)needles, thimbles, awls, weaving toolsno pottery, but crude plaster container, and ceramic figurines exotic goods (carnelian stone, amber, cowrie shells from Red Sea (250 km), plaster figurines: twig & reed frame, covered in plaster = 12 figures & 13 heads (beneath house floor)20 large statues (3 feet tall) highly stylized, but each face different (blue green paint)

THEORIES of Origins of Domestication

So, how can we explain what happened?

Historical Shift from:

  • WHY? to HOW?

Elements of

  • KNOWLEDGE (culture)
  • ENVIRONMENT (climate change, carrying capacity)
  • DEMOGRAPHICS (population pressure)

Early "single cause" models:

included the concept of Discovery / Invention and referred to an "Agricultural Revolution"

  • agriculture = progress, h/g are naive
  • agriculture = inevitable

e.g. V. Gordon Childe (1920's - 50's): "Oasis" or "Propinquity Model" or "Garden of Eden"

  • at end of Ice Age, things drying up, and crush of man/plant/animal at H2O
  • problems: all h/g's today know that plants grow from seeds, and they CHOOSE NOT to plant them (e.g. New Guinea vs N. Australia, yams)

e.g. Robert Braidwood (1950's) "Nuclear Zone Hypothesis"

  • cultural threshold / rubicon
    • technological skill (grindstones)
    • environmental knowledge
    • slug principle or "settling in" (chicken on nest... comfy... great thoughts!)
  • environmental change ... saw no dessication, but "fertile crescent:"
    • hilly flanks = zone with constellation of wild progenitors
    • proper environment = cultural laboratory

Dug at Jarmo in 1950's -- predicted earliest agricultural experiments in hill zone ... found early village/farmers, but now much earlier agriculture elsewhere...

Climate Change Hypotheses e.g. Henry Wright

e.g. Zagros Mts cold/dry & treeless to11,000 bp warmer/moister, cereals & nuts

  • forced change? (unlikely)
  • speeded up process already underway?
  • changed ecological constraints?

Demographic / Behavioral Ecology Arguments

influenced by fieldwork with hunter-gatherers in the 1960's and characterization of the "original affluent society" at Man the Hunter conference

e.g. Population Pressure: E. Boserup first suggested that population growth could be an independent variable responsible for economic changes e.g. grow food to feed mouths. Then Mark Cohen took up the cry..."Prehistoric Food Crisis" -- argued that it wasn't population density per se, but the saturation of locat environments, so that emigration was no longer a viable solution...should be detectable archaeologically

  • synchrony of world wide population growth at end of Pleistocene
  • why abandon the stability of hunter-gatherer life?

Complex Systems Models:

e.g. "Broad Spectrum Revolution" / "Marginal Zone Hypothesis" L. Binford & Kent Flannery (1960's 1970's) ... arguments based on demographic packing

  • H/G adaptation likely to change IF there is a reduction in available foods OR population density/distribution change (carrying capacity)
  • world "filling up" at end of Pleistocene... expect centers of population growth in rich resource zones (oak pistachio woodlands) = donor areas. marginal areas = overflow zones = likely to feel disequilibrium pressures = likely to be areas with first experiments in cultivation

Near Eastern environmental challenge:

11,000 - 7000 bp, unpredictable environmental variation

demographic constraints of territoriality & population growth

Co-evolution Model e.g. David Rindos (1980's)

  • agriculture = product of long period of symbiotic interactions
  • as humans disturb environment, it has unintended consequences WEEDS

Social Models (e.g. Brian Haydn) Big Man or "feasting" model...

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Last updated: 10 November, 1999

Copyright 1998 Jeanne Sept