Much like the origins of language, the origins of agriculture are murky. There are many theories on why nomadic hunter-gatherers transitioned to sedentary agriculturalists but scholars still don’t know exactly why it happened. This transition is commonly called the Neolithic Revolution. In my research for this article, sources suggest that there were multiple factors involved in the transition: factors like environmental changes, population pressure, and voluntary adaptation. One thing scientists do know for certain is that the greater environment was changing.
Using ice cores from glaciers, geological evidence and techniques like carbon dating ocean sediment, environmental scientists have been able to determine that the Neolithic Revolution coincided with a climate transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene era. With the glacial retreat that marked the end of the Pleistocene and the beginning of the Holocene, there was an influx of mineral-rich fertile soil throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere. As the Earth warmed, people were able to explore farther north than ever before. Archaeological evidence has shown several areas around the world that began experimenting with agriculture approximately 10,000 years ago. Though the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East (which spanned modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Jordan and parts of Egypt, Turkey and Kuwait) is most frequently cited as the epicentre of the invention of agriculture, evidence of agriculture in other areas of the world have also been found from around the same time period, including in Melanesia, the Americas and parts of East Asia. As mentioned earlier, though a change in environment was likely a factor, it doesn’t explain why some groups remained hunter-gatherers while some moved into agriculture. Going hand in hand with environmental changes, a changing ecosystem could have meant that growing human populations exceeded the carrying capacity or the population that an ecosystem can provide for sustainably.
Another potential factor to explain this transition is voluntary adaptation. Voluntary adaptation is exactly what it sounds like: adaptation based on free will. Unlike biological evolution, voluntary adaptation can occur in populations many times in a single generation. In all likelihood, the way societies responded to external pressures like climate change could have been the same if the environment was getting more hospitable in some areas and less hospitable in others. You can still see voluntary adaptation in both nomadic and sedentary societies today regardless of the quality of the environmental conditions. A great example is the various Indigenous tribes of southwestern North America. The Navajo were primarily a nomadic society, traditionally raiding their sedentary neighbours like the Hopi peoples who built and lived in pueblos that often resembled modern day apartments. Both lived in the same environmental conditions yet they chose two different solutions for survival.
These days, we tend to take advantage of modern agriculture without even thinking about what our societies would look like without it. Agriculture allows us to have more food security and grow our populations exponentially larger than would be possible without it. With more food security comes more time to focus on intellectual pursuits, social activities, building more permanent shelter and raising healthier children. Ten thousand years later, we’re still refining agriculture and food production. Instead of selecting for more productive crops over several generations, we’re now able to alter the genetic make-up of crops in a lab: crops that are more productive, have shorter growing seasons and are more pest resistant. The way we harvest food has also continued to evolve. Since the invention of agriculture, we’ve gone through yet another revolution by harnessing steam power to drive new and more complex machinery that has helped farmers save time by mechanizing the seeding, harvesting and maintaining of crops. We are arguably on the precipice of yet another revolution with the explorations of vertical farming, hydroponics (growing in water rather than in soil), and farming in space.
Without modern agriculture, we wouldn’t be working and living in cities. Instead we’d be spending most of our lives looking for our next meal rather than having the time to experience all that modern life has to offer. Agriculture has given humans the advantage of thriving rather than just surviving.
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Sara Richards is our Social Media Coordinator and Visual UI Designer based in Edmonton, Alberta. She has a background in industrial design and sociology and is a recent graduate from the University of Alberta. In her free time she loves to do film photography and snuggle with her cat, Lasagna. Sara is passionate about putting the fun in functional to design new and interesting things. Follow her on instagram!
Tayson Martindale is a cartoonist and graphic novelist from Edmonton, Alberta. He loves storytelling and by far his favourite way to tell a story is through the medium of comics. His first graphic novel 'BOX BOY' was released in 2018 and he is excitedly anticipating the release of his next book in 2022. You can find him on instagram and facebook!
He writes "As I was reading the article I was struck by how neat and interesting it is to see the evolution of agriculture over the years. When I read the line marveling about how one day in the future we will have agriculture in space this image popped into my head. Obviously that eventual progression probably won't look like this, but the juxtaposition of past and future in the same image is a neat visual, I think."
Effects of Continental Glaciation on Agriculture
Was Agriculture Impossible during the Pleistocene but Mandatory during the Holocene? A Climate Change Hypothesis
The complex origins of domesticated crops in the Fertile Crescent
Persistent Controversies about the Neolithic Revolution
A Brief History of Indigenous Agriculture*
Native American Cultures - Facts, Regions & Tribes*
On a hunt for North America's Indigenous crops*
*A Note on North American Indigenous Farming: It’s important to recognize the sheer quantity of information that we no longer have because of the effects of Imperialism and the horrendous acts of violence against Indigenous cultures that have been occurring since Europeans first landed here. Oral history is how many of these tribes passed information down through generations and because of forced assimilation and active cultural genocide, so much valuable history has been lost. I encourage you to reach out to the Indigenous peoples in your area to learn more about how they lived, interacted and cared for the land.