7 March 2010

Hunter-gatherers, farmers and... something in between

When it comes to thinking about the origins and expansion of agriculture, one is influenced by the powerful appeal of the word revolution. We were all taught at school that there was an Agricultural, also called Neolithic, Revolution that started somewhere in the Middle East and then propagated to the adjacent areas. This hearth of farming and pastoralism would eventually become the so-called 'cradle of civilization'. There were other places in the world where agriculture and animal domestication developed independently (South Asia, China, the Americas) but not at such an early date and with such far-reaching consequences. From the perspective of today, it is logical to see the events associated with agriculture as a revolution that involved profound changes in every possible sphere of human economy and society. But in what ways was it a revolution for the human populations who were involved in the process? I have recently read an enlightening book that analyses this issue in detail: Barker, Graeme (2006). The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory. Why did Foragers become Farmers? Oxford: OUP. It's the kind of book that anyone interested in prehistoric languages should read.

It would be difficult to summarize the book in a few lines. It is a comprehensive study of the whole process of foraging-farming transition in all the world's regions. One of the main conclusions of this study is that there is not a general pattern for this transition but a variety of possible scenarios. According to the traditional view, the one established since Gordon Childe's coining of the term Neolithic Revolution, agriculture and farming were transmitted from its core area by a process of demic diffusion of wave of advance, whereby groups of farmers, pushed by demographic or climatic pressure, spread into new territories either displacing the local population or causing a process of quick acculturation. This model was proposed for all domestication areas in the world, especially for the one that involved the Fertile Crescent and its contiguous areas of propagation, especially Europe and Africa. It seems, however, that the archaeological evidence does not support this kind of model on a general basis.

First, it seems that most of the research in this area in the last century has been biased by a series of preconceived ideas about the topic. Most archaeological research has focused on South-East Asia (the Levant and Fertile Crescent region), whereas other areas have not been researched so thoroughly. On the other hand, the archeological evidence was traditionally interpreted on the lines of a simple contrast between foraging and farming populations. However, the use of more modern techniques, for example the study of the DNA of animals and plants or the analysis of sediments or pollen deposits, and the better understanding of the hunter-gatherer communities of modern times provided by anthropological studies, offer a much more complex picture of the process. In any case, it was not a single event, or the result of a single expansion process: (p. 378) "The traditional model of Neolithic agricultural colonists from South-West Asia spreading inexorably across Europe is extremely difficult to reconcile with the complexity of the evidence now available for the beginnings of agro-pastoral farming here". Something similar can be said about East and South-East Asia: (p. 229): "The central and eastern Pacific was a 'melting pot' of local domestications and cultigen acquisition from both west and east, not a one-way movement of agricultural colonists", and about South Asia. What we have in general is a variety of subsistence strategies that were adopted at different times and places. In some cases there was a quick transition to a farming-pastoralist economy, in others there was a long coexistence of foraging economy with some forms of basic farming. At the beginning of the Holocene, most human populations were acquainted with more or less elaborate techniques of plant collection and processing that paved the way, especially at the psychological level, for the later introduction of farming. The patterns of nomadism or sedentism also varied considerably. Some of the early farming populations show significant patterns of mobility, whereas some foraging populations were more sedentary than previously acknowledged. A few decades ago, the animal and plant remains found in archaeological sites were confidently understood as domesticated or wild species, which allowed a very simple explanation of the facts. A closer analysis, with more accurate technologies and a more multidisciplinary approach, tells us a different story. Our understanding of prehistoric societies is changing. The contrast between farmers and hunter-gatherers is not as clear-cut as once thought, and it seems that there were (and in some places of the world there still are) many possibilities in between: (p. 413) "a major problem with the demic diffusion model (...) of agriculture has been its focus on the transition to farming as some kind of unique sequence of movements in an otherwise static world".

In a previous post I commented on the importance of agricultural expansion in connection with language. The demic diffusion model, involving the expansion of farming-pastoralist populations into vast territories, has been applied in different linguistic areas of the world, e.g. the Indo-European area (Renfrew's Anatolian Hypothesis), and especially the Afro-Asiatic group, where it has found a more general acceptance (I'll write a post about this group of languages in the near future). The question is: can the expansion of agriculture be the main reason behind the expansion of these language groups? Some linguistic arguments have been used in order to support this view, especially the ones provided by linguistic paleontology: it has been suggested, for example that the IE and Afro-Asiatic 'proto-languages' have some common vocabulary for farming, which would imply that the speakers of this proto-language were already farmers. I have had the chance to look at some of these lists of 'farming vocabulary', e.g. the ones proposed for IE, and it seems to me that they are anything but conclusive. In many cases, they are words that could perfectly fit a foraging type of subsistence, especially if we understand foraging in more complex ways, as Barker has suggested in his book; in other cases, they can be explained as examples of language diffusion.The Afro-Asiatic and Nilo-Saharan groups of languages seem especially interesting as a testing ground for the various proposals (p. 322) "the theory that the earliest speakers [of Afro-Asiatic languages] were farmers depends on the assumption that terms identified in proto-Afro-Asiatic such as grains, grasses, and grinders must automatically refer to domesticates and their processing, rather than to wild plant collecting, whereas in the formative stages of the language group a correlation with wild grass collectors is just as likely (...) In both language groups, terminologies with indisputable agricultural connotations can only be identified in the more developed stages of the member families".

As I said, I will discuss some aspects of the Afro-Asian and Nilo-Saharan groups in some future posts.

Note: the second picture shows a hunting scene from the Cova dels Cavalls, in the Valltorta Valley near Castellón (Spain), a beautiful example of the Levantine prehistoric art. I really enjoyed visiting this place, and the nearby museum, a few years ago; the third picture, taken by me the other day, is from the Abrigo del Ciervo, near Dos Aguas (Valencia).

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