Agriculture and animal domestication in the development of complex societies

23rd December 2016

“Nomadic habits, whether over wide plains, or through the dense forests of the tropics, or along the shores of the sea, have in every case been highly detrimental. While observing the barbarous inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, it struck me that the possession of some property, a fixed abode, and the union of many families under a chief, were the indispensable requisites for civilization. Such habits almost necessitate the cultivation of the ground; and the first steps would probably result… from some such accident as the seeds of a fruit tree falling on a heap of refuse, and producing some unusually fine variety. The problem, however, of the first advance of savages toward civilization is at present much too difficult to be solved.”

Darwin, 1874:133)


Varied ideologies exist concerning the origins of agricultural management, and the domestication of plants and animals. There are an even greater number of theories concerning the role that this single event played in the development of complex civilizations. As a result of such a vast variation of thought, a common dilemma that many scholars have faced, and one that Barker (2006:411, cited Fagan & Durrani 2014:189) stresses, is that they have often, when attempting to explain the causes of agriculture and animal domestication, succumbed to the temptation to “put a little bit of everything into the pot … stir well … and bring to the boil with a little bit of climatic change”. The problem with this line of thinking is that the consideration and validation of any theory attempting to explain a shift from foraging, requires proof of a strong and continuous drive toward obtaining alternate sources of food. Especially in consideration of the negative effects that such changes wrought on social and communal living. Food production, while ultimately beneficial, was also the leading cause in continued increasing population densities, disease, famine and starvation.



When first encountering Childe’s (1934) catch term, “Neolithic Revolution”, in text or speech, it is difficult to not be drawn toward a mental images of collective groups of hunter-gatherers undertaking of some type of accelerated and dramatic socio-cultural transformation. Such notions of mercurial ideology, while impressing greatly on earlier scholars who perceived this to be a diversification of the economic basis of “civilization”, was only a rapid transformation in terms of the total age of mankind. The development and implementation of food production[1] over more traditional means of hunting and gathering was, in reality, a much more gradual process. Changing environmental, social, and demographic conditions at the end of the Pleistocene precipitated important long term lifestyle modifications in hunter gather societies, and saw an increasing dependence on agricultural food sources, particularly in locations afflicted by constant and unpredictable environmental changes (Fagan & Durrani, 2014:204). While providing an unquestionably fundamental, but variable role in the development of complex societies, the importance attributed agricultural management[2] and animal domestication[3] is ultimately dependent on which theoretical framework a particular researcher ascribes to. Smith (1989:1566; Smith, 2005, cited Zizumbo-Villarreal & Colunga-Garcia, 2010:813) describes the importance attributed to these changes in claiming that the shift from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian economy was “one of the most significant events in human history”. This paper aims to define these terms then present and discuss the social, economic, technological and intellectual/ideological evidence for this development.

Archaeological hypotheses, as recently as the late 1800’s, affirmed a belief in the notion of a lone pioneer who, in a moment of genius, sought to plant and cultivate crops from seed. Although such misconceptions are no-longer given credence, the key element – the human decision making process in the face of various selective pressures, still maintains a certain power of truth for many contemporary researchers. Most modern theories focus on the complex processes that caused gradual changes in human subsistence patterns. Fagan and Durrani (2014:189) relate that “Increased localization, considerable technological innovation and a trend toward sedentary settlement in areas with abundant and seasonally predictable food resources” all appeared as a consequence of domestication and early food management strategies. Other researchers cast no dispersions in arguing that these collective denominators indirectly arose as a result of agricultural practice and narrate an impressive, though complex, transformation. Despite contemporary research trends toward the belief that similar socio-cultural metamorphosis transpired independently in a number of different regions around the world, it is generally acknowledged that this occurred in primarily tropical and subtropical locations that already maintained a high biological and cultural diversification (Zeder, 2006; Smith, 2005; Zizumbo-Villarreal & Colunga-GarciaMarin, 2010). Other researchers, such as Jarred Diamond (2002) and David Rindos (1984), however, remain unconvinced, continuing to maintain a differing point of view. Rhindos (1984:86) proposed that domestication was an unintentional response to a developing relationship between humans and plants. He claimed that “people could not intentionally domesticate a crop. However they could and surely did, favor those individual plants that were most pleasing or useful to them” (Rindos, 1984:86). Diamond (2002:700) asserts that in reality, such perspectives are fundamentally flawed, and states that it implausible, even impossible, for food production to have emanated simply as a result of conscious decision. Diamond (2002:700) justifies his summation by explaining that, “since the world’s first farmers had around them no model of farming to observe, … they could not have known that there was a goal of domestication to strive for, and could not have guessed the consequences that domestication would bring for them”.

Figure 1. The shaded areas in the image above indicate a general location for central regions of independent plant and/or animal domestication. Current research has identified not less than ten centers, globally.

(source Zeder, 2006:114)

Successful domestication and breeding programs rely heavily on the domesticator being able to provide three key elements; (1) Constraint on the movement of the target populations; (2) Regulation of their breeding; (3) Control of their feeding to shape future generations (Fagan and Durrani, 2014:197). Each of these elements is difficult to provide under the highly mobile lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies, tending to favor their implementation within more sedentary or fixed societies. In most cases alterations to natural reproduction patterns of plants and animals, also results in an adverse capacity for survival under natural conditions. This makes almost all domesticated populations, dependent on humans for species survival (Harlan 1992:3). It is therefore an accurate, albeit highly simplified, description to state that, domestication is the mutualism which develops under certain circumstances between human domesticators, and wild or semi-wild populations of plants or animals.

Although all definitions of domestication recognize the existence of a co-dependent relationship between human domesticators and the plant or animal population being domesticated, distinct and frequently oppositional viewpoints arise. Zeder (2006:108) clearly notes that in such cases existent relationships may be “characterized along various scales of investment by either the human or the plant or animal partners”. While these scales typically overlap during the domestication process, they are also frequently noted to operate independently of each other, to form distinct representations of evolving mutualism (Zeder 2006:108). Zeder (2006:108) remarks that there is little value in “attempting to distinguish just where and along what scale domestication occurs [since doing this] is not only difficult, but may not be very useful”. In a later paper Zeder (2011) concedes that, preceding the domestication of social animal species, such as goats and sheep, there is a high likelihood that an extended period of what would be best describe as “herd management” transpired, during which humans and animals developed and strengthened a mutual dependence. The adverse is also true that, for the most part, solitary and antisocial animals continue to remain undomesticated.

Figure 2. The axis of variation. Definitions of domestication typically fall along one of the three axis.

(source Zeder, 2006:106)

Figure 3. The continuum depicting the evolving mutualism between human groups and plant/animal populations

(source Zeder, 2006:108)

Earliest explanations focusing on the role of environmental change are usually attributed to Vere Gordon Childe. Childe posited that as a result of post pleistocene aridification, humans, plants and animals were brought together around a common water sources, in what he termed “positions of ‘enforced juxtaposition’ that promoted ‘symbiosis between man and beast’, resulting in domestication” (Childe, 1934; cited Zeder 2006:108). Criticisms of this theory included that it focused heavily on animal domestication without seeking to fully explain an origins for plant domestication, and that it was based on unsubstantiated climatic information. More recent research indicates that at the end of the Pleistocene both frequency and intensity of rainfall increased rather than decreasing as provided for in Childe’s model[4].

Fagan and Durrani (2014:189-192) outline numerous other theoretical frameworks which all define a causation, leading to agriculture and animal domestication, and the eventual development of complex societies. Agriculture, defined simply, can be stated as the commitment to the relationship which is developed between plants and animals (Scarre, 2010:183). Scarre (2010:183) clarifies this further in stating that Agriculture “involves changes in the human use of the earth, and in the structure and organization of social society … and the invention and adoption of new technologies for farming and / or herding (plows, field systems, irrigation). This results in more villages, more people, and an increased pace along the path to more complex social and political organization”.

Figure 3. A graphic representation of Childe’s “Oasis Model” also referred to as the “Propinquity Theory”

Advancements in agricultural development enabled a growing sedentary population, and as more permanent dwellings were developed, new social units came into being. Such circumstances also led to much larger settlements, which brought previously isolated or fragmented populations into closer proximity with their neighbors, with increasingly frequent contact. Many of the emerging new social units emphasized a direct personal ownership of land by individuals. According to Fagan and Durrani (2014:295), it was Childe who proposed the fist “relatively sophisticated theories about the origins of civilization”. In these theories Childe theorized that a second revolution – the “Urban Revolution” – followed on the heels of the Neolithic Revolution during which time the world witnessed “the development of metallurgy, and the appearance of a new social class of full-time artisans and specialists who lived in much larger settlements: cities” (Fagan and Durrani, 2014:295). In the Sumerian Cities of Mesopotamia, for example, Childe theorized that as a result of a peasant farming class, increased surpluses of food were able to be maintained. Taxation and tribute along with technological development such as more advanced irrigation techniques led to further centralization and the emergence of an upper, economic based, ruling class (Fagan and Durrani, 2014:295).

Other researchers such as Han (1914) also considered the division of labor, especially the gendered division of labor, and regarded this as the basis of economic life. He emphasized the role of women, in particular, in foraging societies in gathering and food-storing activities. Han asserted that this laid the basis for hoe cultivation. As a side note it is important to note that he also considered men to be the founders of legal and political institutions, as well as of the later development of plough agriculture. Such forms of development to him were not simply technological but rather “rested on specific religious beliefs and rituals” (Schweitzer, 2004:71).

A number of contemporary archaeological researchers consider the emergence of task specialization to parallel signs of cultural complexity. They believe that in cases where specialist artisans have begun to appear, societies are often sufficiently complex that they become associated with the formation of states. A good example of this is the Egyptian belief that the patronizing of artisans was a means to develop social prestige and rank (Fagan and Durrani, 2014:295).

In almost all global civilisations, examination of both the archaeological and ethnographic record provides information that suggests, the move forward from hunter-gatherer societies to becoming agrarian farmers eventuated in “more work, lower adult stature, worse nutritional condition, and heavier disease burdens” (Diamond, 2002:700). Despite such disadvantages, the progressive transition to farming, in many areas, such as the Near East, corresponds with significant advantageous transitions that concurrently occurred in population growth, and centralization (Zeder, 2006:113). As a direct result of successful cultivation[5], food production as opposed to gathering, allowed for the maintenance of much higher population densities in many locations. Fagan and Durrani (2014:195) further outline that, despite the additional costs associated with agricultural management and domestication programs, such programs readily lent themselves toward economic strategies that both increased and stabilized the available food supplies.

Alternative frameworks are based on various ideas surrounding population dynamics and the effects of resource depletion and population growth. Such theories are founded in Binford’s, 1968, Edge-Zone hypothesis (Price & Bar-Yosef, 2011:166-167). According to Binford, the foundations of agricultural production resulted from insufficient resource availability in “marginal zones”. Binford’s theory claims that this stemmed from people migrating away from “optimal zones” that were experiencing rapid population growth. This principle was similarly echoed in Mark Cohen’s “Food-Crisis” model. He concluded that excessive population increases were experienced globally, not just in “marginal-zones”. This Zeder (2006:111) proposes forced people “to abandon more nutritious hunting and gathering strategies, and assume the burden of tending to domesticated plants and animals”. Philip Smith (Scarre, 2005:186-187; Price & Bar-Yosef, 2011:172) set out the notion that the origins of agriculture should be focused on population growth and the pressure that this exerts on a society. According to various researchers (Scarre, 2005; Smith, 2005; Price & Bar-Yosef, 2011), the human population in the Near East region had sporadically, but continuously increased during the previous 20,000 years, and that this was one of the primary contributing factors that forces hunter-gatherers to abandon their existing lifestyle. Societies eventually found that their traditionally employed methods of food procurement were no longer suitable to satisfy the needs of the community and, as a means to supplement this, additional food sources were needed. This resulted in attempts at heard and agriculture management.

From the onset, systems of agricultural management were limited by technological development and required that farmers concentrate their efforts on small plots of land for agriculture, livestock grazing and even mixed farming in areas where this was the common practice. The use of smaller areas required the predetermination of property lines and boundaries and the careful recording of individual ownership of these areas, in the event that problems associated with inheritance arise. The insufficient availability of arable land often led to disputes resulting in decisions to found new settlements. As populations began to remain settled in areas for protracted periods of time other changes also began to appear. Typically one of the first of these changes was the implementation of a heavier took kit and more permanent housing structures which replaced the highly mobile, lightweight possessions associated with hunter-gather societies. Additionally the further development and incorporation of new tools such as hoes, grind stones, and ground edge axes, into already existing toolkits, proved even more beneficial to the burgeoning agricultural communities than they had been to earlier hunter- gathering societies (Fagan & Durrini, 2014:204). Technological developments relating more directly to a communities way of life also arose from the more sedentary lifestyle that they now pursued. According to Fagan and Durrini (2014:199), the early farmers of Southwest Asia worked with dry mud to construct permanent housing for the community. These houses although small, and box like in design, remained cool during the temperate summer months and warm during the cool dry winters. They also had a flat roofs which would have allowed the inhabitants to sleep on the roof during the summer, utilizing natural breezes to remain cool. Less substantial housing, they write, were constructed using reeds for roofing (Fagan & Durrini, 2014:199).

Another example can be found in the ancient gardens at Kuk Swamp in the Wahgi Valley of the Highlands of New Guinea. Researchers here uncovered evidence a village of around forty houses, along with features such as the outlines of old irrigation and drainage channels. Investigations have provided unequivocal evidence of five separate periods of agricultural usage at this site between 10,000 and 7,000-6,400 BCE[6] (Renfrew & Bahn, 2012:258-259). Researchers have interpreted the evidence found as showing, that not only was the ground actively transformed, through gradual deforestation, and farmed, there is also evidence that plant species such as bananas and yams may have been transported from the lowlands and planted in this area (Renfrew & Bahn, 2012:258-259). Technological and social advancement linked to agricultural development intensified the demand for imported, exotic materials. The difficulty in obtaining such prized items can be pointed at as the origin of the development of comprehensive, even “inter-state”, trade networks, which directly resulted in the later development of a trading or merchant social class. More subtle developments such as the advent of simple pottery also led to advancements in food preparation and storage. Fagan and Durinni (2014:201) assert that such developments “came into use at different times in many … separate places”. The table below provides an estimate of some dates.

Table 1.

Location Group Date
China Yangtze River People 18300 to 13800 BP
Japan Jomon Hunter-Gatherers 12500 BC or earlier
Southwest Asia Farming communities 6000 BC

(Fagan and Durrini 2014:2001)

Like all theoretical approaches there are a number of researchers who deny the causative influences of climatic alteration, and the effects of resource depletion and population growth. This group seeks an ideological approach founded in base human characteristics, especially, they believe, in an “innate compulsion for self-aggrandizement” – particularly in their use of feasting to achieve socio-political goals (Zedar, 2006:111; Hayden 2003:466). Proponents of these theories believe that such factors were responsible for agricultural management transitions and the domestication of plants and animals. Most of these theories focus on the ideology that agriculture is only capable of developing within areas where abundant resources already exist. The abundance ignites the “selfish-gene”[7], where “accumulators”, are able to further enhance personal advancement, or display social power or dominance (Scarre, 2005:187). Under this model, domesticated resources were not typically considered to be dietary staples, rather a more tenable explanation would be that they were highly desirable, and even rare and exquisite, delicacies (Hayden, 2003:458)

While it is important to understand that the initial onset of the agricultural revolution dates to a period many thousands of years earlier, researchers must keep in mind that as a species humans have collectively exhibit a trait for opportunistic development. The first instances of agriculture management may have been one of a number of simple results derived from of the necessitation of providing a means of increasing available food resources. Many researchers would agree that such necessitation stemmed naturally from traditional foraging behaviors under the unstable and changing conditions of the early Holocene. Others would be more likely to propose that some form of external stimulus or push, such as volatile or deteriorating climatic conditions, or a sizable increase to the population demographic of the region was required to drive the process forward. A third group may argue the social factors and the ongoing process of individual decision making heavily influenced the emergence of the practice of agriculture management, and others still that the origins of agriculture and domestication were entirely an accidental process. Regardless of their independent viewpoints the widest belief is that the combined processes of agriculture management emerged not once or twice, but rather many times, as various species of plants and animals were domesticated separately, in individual, and distinctive regional settings. It is from each of these starting points, that the development of agricultural and production economies emerged to later evolve into recognizable complex societies.


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[1] Food Production can be defined as the purposeful cultivation of cereal, grasses and edible root plants intended for consumption.

[2] Agricultural management relates to the intentional environmental alterations effected by humans for their benefit, and which seek to directly increase a given species ability to survive, or its biomass production, under the dominant environmental conditions of a particular region (Harlan 1992).

[3] Domestication is understood, especially in evolutionary / intentionality theories such as those propounded by Rindos, as the continuous biological evolutionary process, influenced by human preference, which emphasizes specific features, or sets of alleles, and involves an alteration to the genotype and physical characteristics of plants and animals that provides wild populations with phenotypes that are desirable as they become dependent on human domesticators for reproductive success (Fagan & Durrani, 2014:197; Scarre 2010:183)

[4] The ”Oasis theory” (or Propinquity Theory) was originally proposed by Raphael Pumpelly in 1908, reiterated by Newberry in 1924, and popularized by Childe in 1928.

[5] Cultivation involves the intentional preparation of fields and other areas suitable for agriculture, for, sowing, growing and harvesting for food related crops, and for the storing of seeds, fruits or other plant parts for later use (Scarre, 2010:183).

[6] There is some belief that there may be a sixth and even older phase of swamp garden

[7] Richard Dawkins (1976)