For as influential and beneficial as agriculture has been for the human race, we’re not actually sure why we started farming in the first place. Obviously people would have been happy to have better access to food for their communities, have time for skill specialization, etc., but wanting more food doesn’t explain why people would start farming one year instead of another. Since people started raising crops before they could necessarily write about doing so, researchers have had to start looking at less direct data to figure out what influenced the rise of agriculture. If the resulting models are correct, they not only help eliminate some long-standing hypothesis about the birth of agriculture, but they may be applicable to other questions about early human activities as well.
Making an analytical model
The first step in this research was to look for patterns in the intersections of cultural traits, environmental conditions and population densities in modern or recent foraging societies. Peoples that largely relied on hunting, fishing or gathering to feed themselves were used as verifiable reference point to see what conditions would be expected for a society to carry on without agriculture. Of particular interest were specific factors like environmental stability and how often people traveled in comparison to population density. All these dynamics were assembled into a predictive model that could first be tested against the observed data to ensure that further predictions about ancient populations were grounded in reality.
Researchers then used historical data from around the world to see how environmental conditions could influence a population’s food supply. Agriculture is known to have developed independently at least 12 times in human history around the world, so conditions were analyzed for each of those instances. While many specifics differed, such as the specific year, cultural norms, etc, people from New Guinea to Central America to the Middle East all followed at least one clear trend: their entry into agriculture followed improving environmental conditions.
Predicting more about the past
A possible origin story may have then started with people enjoying enough food stability in their natural environment to have a bit of extra time and population growth. That allowed for more exploration of new ideas or techniques, eventually leading to more revolutionary discoveries like crop cultivation. It seems simple enough, but this possible origin is very different from previously proposed explanations, such as agriculture being the a response to near starvation, or simply arising at random in human history.
The models and analysis that revealed these patterns could likely use further refinement, but researchers are feeling quite confident about their long-term utility. They believe that it could be applied to events further back in time than the 21,000-year-old rise of agriculture, possibly looking at other major developments in human history. By analyzing how humanity changed in response to larger environmental trends, this kind of modeling may help us make sense of otherwise sparse and spotty archaeological evidence.
Source: On the origins of agriculture, researchers uncover new clues by Colorado State University, Science Daily