This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Agriculture is, along with ceramics production, sedentism, and herding, a major component of the Neolithic as it is defined in Europe. Therefore, the agricultural system of the first Neolithic societies and the dispersal of exogenous cultivated plants to Europe are the subject of many scientific productions. To work on these issues, archaeobotanists rely on residual plant remains—crop seeds, weeds and wild plants—from archaeological structures like detritic pits, and, less often, storage contexts. To date, no plant with an economic value has been identified as domesticated in western Europe except maybe opium poppy. The earliest seeds identified on archaeological sites dated to about 5500–5200
The Neolithic pioneers settled in an area that had experienced previously a long tradition of hunting and gathering. The Neolithization of Europe follows a colonization model. The Mesolithic groups, although having exploited more or less intensively the plant resources, such as hazelnut, did not significantly change the landscape. The impact of their settlements and their activities are hardly noticeable through palynology for example. The control of the mode of reproduction of plants has certainly increased the prevalence of Homo sapiens, involving, among others, a demographic increase and the ability to settle down in areas that were, until then, not well-adapted to year-round occupation. The characterization of past agricultural systems, such as crop plants, technical processes, and the impact of anthropogenic activities on the landscape is essential for understanding the interrelation of human societies and the plant environment. This interrelation has undoubtedly changed deeply with the Neolithic Revolution.
David E. Clay, Sharon A. Clay, Thomas DeSutter, and Cheryl Reese
Since the discovery that food security could be improved by pushing seeds into the soil and later harvesting a desirable crop, agriculture and agronomy have gone through cycles of discovery, implementation, and innovation. Discoveries have produced predicted and unpredicted impacts on the production and consumption of locally produced foods. Changes in technology, such as the development of the self-cleaning steel plow in the 18th century, provided a critical tool needed to cultivate and seed annual crops in the Great Plains of North America. However, plowing the Great Plains would not have been possible without the domestication of plants and animals and the discovery of the yoke and harness. Associated with plowing the prairies were extensive soil nutrient mining, a rapid loss of soil carbon, and increased wind and water erosion. More recently, the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and no-tillage planters has contributed to increased adoption of conservation tillage, which is less damaging to the soil. In the future, the ultimate impact of climate change on agronomic practices in the North American Great Plains is unknown. However, projected increasing temperatures and decreased rainfall in the southern Great Plains (SGP) will likely reduce agricultural productivity. Different results are likely in the northern Great Plains (NGP) where higher temperatures can lead to increased agricultural intensification, the conversion of grassland to cropland, increased wildlife fragmentation, and increased soil erosion. Precision farming, conservation, cover crops, and the creation of plants better designed to their local environment can help mitigate these effects. However, changing practices require that farmers and their advisers understand the limitations of the soils, plants, and environment, and their production systems. Failure to implement appropriate management practices can result in a rapid decline in soil productivity, diminished water quality, and reduced wildlife habitat.
Simon Holdaway and Rebecca Phillipps
Northeast Africa forms an interesting case study for investigating the relationship between changes in environment and agriculture. Major climatic changes in the early Holocene led to dramatic changes in the environment of the eastern Sahara and to the habitation of previously uninhabitable regions. Research programs in the eastern Sahara have uncovered a wealth of archaeological evidence for sustained occupation during the African Humid Period, from about 11,000 years ago. Initial studies of faunal remains seemed to indicate early shifts in economic practice toward cattle pastoralism. Although this interpretation was much debated when it was first proposed, the possibility of early pastoralism stimulated discussion concerning the relationships between people and animals in particular environmental contexts, and ultimately led to questions concerning the role of agriculture imported from elsewhere in contrast to local developments. Did agriculture, or indeed cultivation and domestication more generally (sensu Fuller & Hildebrand, 2013), develop in North Africa, or were the concepts and species imported from Southwest Asia? And if agriculture did spread from elsewhere, were just the plants and animals involved, or was the shift part of a full socioeconomic suite that included new subsistence strategies, settlement patterns, technologies, and an agricultural “culture”? And finally, was this shift, wherever and however it originated, related to changes in the environment during the early to mid-Holocene?
These questions refer to the “big ideas” that archaeologists explore, but before answers can be formed it is important to consider the nature of the material evidence on which they are based. Archaeologists must consider not only what they discover but also what might be missing. Materials from the past are preserved only in certain places, and of course some materials can be preserved better than others. In addition, people left behind the material remains of their activities, but in doing so they did not intend these remains to be an accurate historical record of their actions. Archaeologists need to consider how the remains found in one place may inform us about a range of activities that occurred elsewhere for which the evidence may be less abundant or missing. This is particularly true for Northeast Africa where environmental shifts and consequent changes in resource abundance often resulted in considerable mobility. This article considers the origins of agriculture in the region covering modern-day Egypt and Sudan, paying particular attention to the nature of the evidence from which inferences about past socioeconomies may be drawn.
Noa Kekuewa Lincoln and Peter Vitousek
Agriculture in Hawaiʻi was developed in response to the high spatial heterogeneity of climate and landscape of the archipelago, resulting in a broad range of agricultural strategies. Over time, highly intensive irrigated and rainfed systems emerged, supplemented by extensive use of more marginal lands that supported considerable populations. Due to the late colonization of the islands, the pathways of development are fairly well reconstructed in Hawaiʻi. The earliest agricultural developments took advantage of highly fertile areas with abundant freshwater, utilizing relatively simple techniques such as gardening and shifting cultivation. Over time, investments into land-based infrastructure led to the emergence of irrigated pondfield agriculture found elsewhere in Polynesia. This agricultural form was confined by climatic and geomorphological parameters, and typically occurred in wetter, older landscapes that had developed deep river valleys and alluvial plains. Once initiated, these wetland systems saw regular, continuous development and redevelopment. As populations expanded into areas unable to support irrigated agriculture, highly diverse rainfed agricultural systems emerged that were adapted to local environmental and climatic variables. Development of simple infrastructure over vast areas created intensive rainfed agricultural systems that were unique in Polynesia. Intensification of rainfed agriculture was confined to areas of naturally occurring soil fertility that typically occurred in drier and younger landscapes in the southern end of the archipelago. Both irrigated and rainfed agricultural areas applied supplementary agricultural strategies in surrounding areas such as agroforestry, home gardens, and built soils. Differences in yield, labor, surplus, and resilience of agricultural forms helped shape differentiated political economies, hierarchies, and motivations that played a key role in the development of sociopolitical complexity in the islands.