Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 January 2015
The transition to agriculture is one of the most significant events in the history of humankind, if not the most meaningful. It not only transformed the relationship between humans and their natural environment, but also profoundly and fundamentally altered human social relations and culture. Its significance lies not only in the fact that today – and for the past several thousands of years – the food we eat comes almost exclusively from a small number of domesticated plants and animals, but that human society as we know it could not exist without this reliance on agriculture. While a foraging economy is not without its advantages, it cannot support all of the attributes of the complex human societies that have evolved in different parts of the world. Dense populations and large sedentary settlements, food surpluses that support nonproductive activities and occupations, a stable social hierarchy, and craft specialization are some of the basic features that could develop only within the context of an intensive agriculture economy.
Small wonder, then, considering its monumental impact on humankind’s history, that the transition to agriculture has been studied thoroughly. However, despite almost one hundred years of scientific research, many fundamental issues are still hotly debated: Was the development long and gradual, or was there a relatively rapid “revolution”? Is the transition to agriculture a single global process, or rather the result of many independent local developments? Were people pushed to “invent” agriculture because their living conditions were deteriorating, or were they motivated by the new opportunities it offered? What were the effects of climatic and ecological changes? Many of these questions refer to the interactions between humans and their natural environment: for example, the way that environmental conditions and climatic changes affected human adaptation, but also the way that humans’ actions, such as plant and animal domestication and landscape modification, affected their natural environment. Equally important, though less often addressed directly, are the social preconditions that might have initiated the transition to agriculture or shaped its development. For example, it has been suggested that human experimentation with cultivation and domestication was catalyzed by social competition and the incipient development of social stratification rather than by economic needs.