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The development of agriculture has often been described as the most important change in all of human history. Volume 2 of the Cambridge World History series explores the origins and impact of agriculture and agricultural communities, and also discusses issues associated with pastoralism and hunter-fisher-gatherer economies. To capture the patterns of this key change across the globe, the volume uses an expanded timeframe from 12,000 BCE–500 CE, beginning with the Neolithic and continuing into later periods. Scholars from a range of disciplines, including archaeology, historical linguistics, biology, anthropology, and history, trace common developments in the more complex social structures and cultural forms that agriculture enabled, such as sedentary villages and more elaborate foodways, and then present a series of regional overviews accompanied by detailed case studies from many different parts of the world, including Southwest Asia, South Asia, China, Japan, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, and Europe.
This introduction traces the origins of agriculture and the character of early agricultural communities across the world and surveys the development of the more complex social structures and cultural forms that agriculture enabled. Like modern scientists, however, some experimenters either unwittingly or intentionally manipulated the genetic make-up of plant and animal populations, selecting for traits and characteristics that were more productive or more pleasing and thus preferred. Food production has been linked to significant changes in landscapes and populations that eventually supported the rise of urbanism and enabled human populations to expand from 6 million to over 7 billion today. Alan Outram describes how, whether keeping a few livestock within a mixed farming system or maintaining large herds and flocks in systems of specialized pastoralism, the key limiting factors that have to be solved are access to grazing land and, for times of the year when the natural grazing is insufficient, adequate supplies of fodder.
Archaeological evidence and historical accounts have been used to examine the impact of trade and ecology on the decline of West African iron industries. Environmental changes including an increasingly desiccating climatic shift and widespread deforestation as a direct result of fuel procurement over centuries of iron-smelting and European coastal exploitation, seriously affected the survivability of these industries. While the increasing importation of European iron bars and other manufactured goods necessitated a certain amount of technological innovation, the only viable long-term response and adaptation to the ecological devastation became the increased reliance on imported supplies of iron.
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