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When tillage starts, all else follows (Editorial)

by | Jun 7, 2019

At a certain point in time — about 12,000 years ago — mankind began the shift from hunting and gathering their main sources of food to an agriculture system, controlling — as best they can — crops they planted.
It’s been deemed the most significant event in human history, not only helping families and communities survive and flourish, but it fostered the pursuit of medical, societal and technological advances.
It prompted statesman Daniel Webster, a U.S. Secretary of State under three presidents, to famously say, “Let us not forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man. When tillage begins, other arts will follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization.”
Recently, a University of Connecticut Ph.D student in anthropology set out to get to the root of the shift by looking at one area of the world, the eastern United States.
“A lot of evidence suggests domestication and agriculture doesn’t make much sense,” says Elic Weitzel, a Ph.D. student in the University of Connecticut’s department of anthropology. “Hunter-gatherers are sometimes working fewer hours a day, their health is better, and their diets are more varied, so why would anyone switch over and start farming?”
Weitzel looked for evidence to support either of two popular theories.
One theory posits that in times of plenty there may have been more time to start dabbling in the domestication of plants like squash and sunflowers, the latter of which were domesticated by the native peoples of Tennessee around 4,500 years ago.
The other theory argues that domestication may have happened out of need to supplement diets when times were not as good.
Was there an imbalance between resources and the human populations that lead to domestication, Weitzel asked.
Weitzel tested both hypotheses by analyzing animal bones from the last 13,000 years and taken from a half-dozen archeological sites in northern Alabama and the Tennessee River valley, where human settlements and what they left behind give clues about how they lived, including what they ate.
He coupled the findings with pollen data taken from sediment cores collected from lakes and wetlands, cores that serve as a record about the types of plants present at different points in time.
The findings were — surprise, surprise — mixed, showing an increase in forest cover that promoted a healthy game species population but also declining water levels in lakes and wetlands, relating to a shift from diets rich in water fowl and large fishes to subsistence on smaller shellfish.
Despite the mixed results, the findings supporting domestication happening in times when there was less than an ideal amount of food is significant, says Weitzel.
Agriculture, despite being hard work and sometimes more time intensive than the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, likely became a necessary option to supplement human diets when imbalances like these occurred.
The broader context of this research is important, says Weitzel, because looking to the past and seeing how these populations coped and adapted to change can help inform what we should do as the climate changes in the coming decades.
The broader context to us is posing the question: What has been made possible by the earliest farmers and those that followed relieving their fellow men and women of the duty of finding their own food every day?
That would be a study worth doing if we didn’t already know the answer: Everything.

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