Archaeologists use new methods to explore move from hunting, gathering to farming

July 21, 2015, Arizona State University

One of the enduring mysteries of the human experience is how and why humans moved from hunting and gathering to farming.

From their beginnings humans, like other mammals, depended on wild resources for sustenance. Then between 8,000 and 12,000 years ago, in a transitional event known as the Neolithic Revolution, they began to create and tend domestic ecosystems in various locations around the world, and agriculture was born.

Despite decades of research into this major human advancement, scientists still don't know what propelled it.

The recent work of a research team led by Arizona State University postdoc Isaac Ullah narrows the mystery by showing what variables might have affected the transition.

Ullah is an archaeologist in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Most of his research uses (DST) and centers on understanding the ways in which human societies changed with the advent of plant and animal domestication.

His latest research project, undertaken with Ian Kuijt of the University of Notre Dame and Jacob Freeman of Utah State University and published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, combined the field of DST with existing research on the origins of plant and animal domestication.

For Ullah, DST provided a way around the obstacles researchers have historically faced in defining the origins of domestication: the transition occurred long ago; much of the evidence for the impetus for the transition was not preserved in the archaeological record; and the transition didn't occur everywhere or all at once and seems to have been quite different—involving different crops and animals—in the places where it did occur.

Ullah's team approached the ethnographic record of human subsistence from the perspective that human subsistence systems are , or systems composed of many interrelated parts that react to and interact with their environment.

"We used ideas generated from observations of other dynamical systems - both in the real world and in computer simulations - to create hypotheses about the way data about human subsistence ought to pattern when subjected to specific statistical analyses," Ullah says.

The main phenomena they hoped to find were 'attractors' and 'repellers.' In DST, an attractor is a combination of variable states that is relatively stable over time, whereas a repeller is a combination of variable states that is not.

"In other words," Ullah explains, "DST tells us that there ought to be some combinations of subsistence behaviors and environmental characteristics that are generally stable and some that aren't."

He says that when the researchers initially conducted the analysis, they weren't sure if attractors and repellers would be observable, but from early on, they saw interesting clusterings of societies that suggested the attractor/repeller phenomenon.

What was even more interesting to the team was that they began to see that the clustering was largely controlled by a small number of important variables, such as resource density, mobility and population size.

The team discovered that changes in these variables brought some attractors closer together, created new ones or eliminated others.

That showed them that even though the general possibilities for human subsistence is largely governed by a small number of highly important variables, moving from one subsistence attractor to another is more possible under some socio-environmental conditions than others.

"It is this specific insight that may help to explain why the transition to food production happened in some times and places but not in others, why it happened so differently in all these places and at different times and rates," Ullah states.

Explore further: Nurture, not physical environment, explains human behavior

Related Stories

Evolutionary origins of human dietary patterns

February 15, 2013

William Leonard has conducted extensive research on the diets and ways of prehistoric populations. A paper on his research will be presented Friday, Feb. 15, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement ...

Recommended for you

First look at pupil size in sleeping mice yields surprises

January 18, 2018

When people are awake, their pupils regularly change in size. Those changes are meaningful, reflecting shifting attention or vigilance, for example. Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology on January 18 have found in ...

Hunter-gatherers have a special way with smells

January 18, 2018

When it comes to naming colors, most people do so with ease. But, for odors, it's much harder to find the words. One notable exception to this rule is found among the Jahai people, a group of hunter-gatherers living in the ...

4 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

FredJose
1 / 5 (4) Jul 21, 2015
The story of hunter-gatherer as a beginning for human beings is of course highly speculative and not at all a proven thing. The facts can be interpreted quite differently if approached from another point of view, namely the biblically inspired one.That viewpoint would provide human beings with abundant intelligence right from the word go to enable them to do farming as in fact is recorded in the book of Genesis. Cain was a crop farmer whilst Abel was a shepherd.
The further development would be that after the worldwide flood, people of necessity had to gather what they could whilst beginning to work the land again. Noah is guilty of planting a vineyard and then getting drunk of the wine produced from it. Then when people were dispersed later on, they had to start all over again - hunting and gathering before being able to settle down, make tools and start farming again. Note that all other creatures had the fear of man put into them after the flood - most probably to protect them.
Vietvet
4 / 5 (4) Jul 21, 2015
@FreddyJ

Comments from a mental midget.
24volts
not rated yet Jul 21, 2015
I think the scientist are looking in the wrong direction here. They should be looking at the responsibilities shared between the men and women. Men might have been the main hunters but the women were probably the ones that gathered the fruits, nuts, and berries so to speak. It wouldn't have taken women very long to realise that they could plant some of the foods they gathered back in the ground and have more grow. At that point they wouldn't have to search for food so much and could actually stay in one spot for a while. Women are the civilizing half of the human race.... Once she got a fixed home and hearth I would bet men of the time would have a lot of trouble getting the women of the time to live out of a tent again. And just to add a silly but possible bit - you can't redecorate the inside of a tent like you can a fixed cave, hut or long house.
petepal55
not rated yet Jul 22, 2015
I think nomadic must be a new concept to these people. If a group moves with the seasons over a given area for more than a few years it gives the group the opportunity to plant seeds, not necessarily on purpose, and be back at the harvest season for that crop, and do that for every crop they can plant along their nomadic route. Some plants might need tending so people might stay to care for them. The same might be done for nomadic livestock, fish, or any other valuable resource that's native to an area of their travels. Trading would be inevitable...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.