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The Rise of Food Production Humanity’s Ecological Turning Point. Effects of Food Production. More Available Calories per Person Supports Larger Populations Supports Large Domestic Animals Permits More Frequent Births Permits Storage of Food Surpluses Introduces Diseases of Dense Populations.

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The Rise of Food ProductionHumanity’s Ecological Turning Point

Effects of Food Production

  • More AvailableCalories per Person

  • SupportsLarger Populations

  • SupportsLarge Domestic Animals

  • PermitsMore Frequent Births

  • PermitsStorage of Food Surpluses

  • IntroducesDiseases of Dense Populations

Calories and Population

By selecting and growing food humans eat up to 90% of an acre’s calories vs 0.1%

Food production increased the number of humans supported by a given territory by orders of magnitude, 10 or even 100 times more people.


Domestic livestock provide:



  • Livestock power greatly expanded the area of cultivatable land. (N. American Plains)

  • Large mammals become transport modes (horses & chariots)

Food Surplus

Permits non-food producing vocations:

  • Kings

  • Soldiers

  • Artisans

  • Priests

  • Scribes

    Beginning of social organization

    (Think Cutting Tools)

Most domesticated plants and animals differ from their wild ancestors. Morphological characteristics such as: Smaller (cows and sheep) or Larger (chickens and apples) sizes, smoother and thinner seed coats (peas) are attested to by the remains at numerous known and dated archeological sites.

Carbon Dating – A Review

  • Constant Decay of C14 into N14.

  • C14 isotope made in atmosphere by cosmic rays.

  • C14 taken up by plants in constant ratio with C12, 1 to a Million.

  • C14 half life of 5,700 years

  • C14/C12 Ratio = Age, up to 40,000

Two Problems with Carbon Dating

  • Until 1980s, the process required a lot of material (few grams)

    • Solved by Mass Acceleration

    • Result: re-dating New World food production

  • Atmospheric C14/C12 Ratio Fluctuates

    • Solved by calibration with tree rings

    • Result: re-dating Clovis period events

How to Determine Place of Domestication

The Problem of Chickpeas

  • Domestication occurs in area of wild ancestry (Barley)

  • Plot spread of archeological remains of domesticated variety (Emmer Wheat)

How can Hunter Gatherers Respond



Khosian South Africa

Southwestern United States


Northwest U.S.



Was Hunter/Gathering So Bad?

Only today do peoples of the developed world raise little or none of their own food.

Time budget studies indicate that hunter gatherers may have spent less time obtaining food than farmers.

Remains of the first farmers were smaller, less well-nourished, more diseased and died younger than hunter gatherers.

Alternative Strategies

  • No sharp distinction between nomadic hunter/gatherers and sedentary farmers

  • H/Gs populated world by 13,000 BC

  • Some H/Gs were sedentary Palestine, Japan, Peru

  • Some Sedentary H/Gs never adopted food production NW U.S., SE Australia

  • H/Gs traveled known seasonal routes and partially farmed along the way Apache

Alternative Strategies - II

  • Hunter Gatherers already practiced proto farming both unintentionally (latrines) and intentionally (food selections)

  • There is a portfolio of collecting and farming activities that took thousands of years to build up before a decisive shift (shelling, threshing, grinding, weeding)

Rise of Food Production - 5 Factors

  • Decline of Wild Foods (exterminations)

  • Increased Availability of Domesticatable Wild Plants due to Climate Change

  • Accumulation of Food Processing Methods, Technologies, Implements and Facilities

  • Two-way Link of Population Density and Food autocatalytic process (farmer paradox)

  • Geographic Displacement of Hunter/Gatherers

What did Farmers Select On?

Size – Berries, Peas, Wheat

Taste – Almond, Lima Beans, Potatoes

Fleshiness/Seedlessness – Squash, Bananas, Pumpkins

Oily Seeds – Olives, Sesame, Poppy

Long Fibers – Cotton, Flax and Hemp

Non-obvious Precursors

  • Poppable & Shatterable

    180-degree evolutionary turn

  • Seed Germination Inhibitors

    sow / grow / harvest / sow

  • Independent Reproduction

    Dioecious & hermaphrodites

3 Stages of Crop Development

  • Wheat, Barley, Peas

    • Already edible

    • Easy to grow

    • Fast harvest

    • Storable

    • Self-pollinating

    • Little genetic change required

3 Stages - II

2.Fruit and Nut Trees

  • Olives, Figs, Dates

  • Easy to grow from cuttings or seeds

  • No Harvest for 3 – 10 years

  • Required True Sedentary Lifestyle

3 Stages - III

3.Fruit Trees

  • Apples, Pears, Plums

  • Requires Grafting

  • Grafting Requires Conscious Experimentation

  • Requires Cross-Pollination

“Thus by Roman times, almost all of today’s leading crops were being cultivated somewhere in the world.”

Not another major food plant despite all our technology and power

What to Domesticate?

  • 200,000 flowering plants in the world

  • Only a few thousand are humanly edible

  • Only a few hundred were domesticated

  • Only 12 species accounts for 80% of the world’s tonnage of agricultural products

  • Only 5 cereals supply 50% of the worlds daily caloric intake

Cereal Grasses






Pulses, Tubers, Etc…




Sweet Potato


Sugar Beet


The Big 12

The Fertile Crescent

Where it all begins

Southwest Asia




Eastern U.S.


?Tropical W. Africa


?New Guinea

8,500 BC

by 7,500 BC

by 3,500 BC

by 3,500 BC

2,500 BC

by 5,000 BC

by 3,000 BC


7,000 BC?

Where & When Production Began

Fertile Crescent

  • Applies to crescent shaped region of the highlands above the Tigris and Euphrates valley.

  • First, not only of food production, but also cities, writing, empires and civilization.

  • Ancient climate was cooler and wetter than today.

Why the Fertile Crescent?

  • Mediterranean Climate

  • Wild ancestors of many crops were already abundant and productive

  • Local flora contain a high % of self-pollinators that occasionally cross-pollinate

  • First 8 crops were self-pollinators, and the 3 cereals were high in protein

But Why this Mediterranean Climate Zone?

  • Biggest such climate zone on the planet, leading to a higher diversity of wild plants

  • Has the greatest climatic variation

  • Wide range of altitudes and topographies

  • Wealth of big mammals

    Out of 1,000’s of grasses, 56 species have 10-times median seed size. Of these 32 are found in the Fertile Crescent

Cereals Grasses

Einkorn Wheat

Emmer Wheat






Bitter Vetch



The 8 Fertile Crescent Founder Crops

  • Plus, Big 4 domestic Animals

  • Cow

  • Pig

  • Sheep

  • Goat

This is it, the whole nutritious package

Getting Specific

Tell Abu Hureyra in Euphrates Valley, Syria

  • Between 10,000 and 9,000 BC

  • Collected 700 samples of 500 seeds from 70 plant species

  • Villagers collected 157 seed species from elsewhere, arranged in 3 groups

  • Many local species were not among the seed inventory.

  • They were not farmers

The Animals

Anna Karenina Principle

For most things, success actually requires avoiding many separate possible causes of failure.

All domesticate animals are alike, all non-domestic animals are not, in their own way.

Benefits of Big Mammals

  • Meat

  • Milk & Milk Products

  • Fertilizer

  • Land transport

  • Leather & Wool

  • Military Assault Vehicles

  • Plow Traction

  • Germs (?)

What is Big?

Over 100 pounds

Yes, there are others: ducks, geese, chickens, dogs, cats, rabbits

What is a Domesticated Animal?

“An animal selectively bred in captivity and thereby modified from its wild ancestors for use by humans, who control breeding and food supply.”

It involves human selection of individuals and the automatic evolutionary response to the altered forces of natural selection

Domesticated and tamed are not the same thing

The Major Five:






The Minor Nine:

Arabian Camel

Bactrian Camel

Llama / Alpaca



Water Buffalo




There are only 14 species of big mammals domesticated before the 20th Century

Where do they come from?



Africa51 0

Americas24 1

Australia1 0


When did they join us?

Dog10,000 BCSW Asia, China, N. Am.

Sheep 8,000 BCSW Asia

Goat 8,000 BCSW Asia

Pig 8,000 BCSW Asia, China

Cow 6,000 BCSW Asia, India, N. Africa

Horse 4,000 BCUkraine

Donkey 4,000 BCEgypt

Water Buffalo 4,000 BCChina (?)

Llama 3,500 BCAndes

Bactrn. Camel 2,500 BCCentral Asia

Arabian Camel2,500 BCArabia

6 Criteria for Domestication

  • Diet – 10 to 1 ratio pounds food to meat

  • Growth Rate – Elephant, Gorilla

  • Captive Breeding – Cheetah, Vicuňa

  • Nasty Disposition – Grizzly Bear, Hippos

  • Don’t Panic – Deer, Antelope, Gazelle!!

  • Social Structure:Herds

    Dominance Hierarchy

    Overlapping Range


  • Plant and Animal Domestication provide the basis for human civilization

  • Plant and Animal Domestication provide the Power to drive civilization

  • Plant and Animal Domestication provide the basis for mythology and culture


  • Why did SW Asia experience domestication before anywhere else?

  • Why did SW Asia establish the basic founder package for food production that spread throughout the world?

  • Why did SW Asia provide the Major Five that powered history?

  • Why did Pre-historic Americans and Australians exterminate their big candidate mammals before domesticating them?

  • Why can’t we moderns domesticate anything major despite all or money, science and technology?

Are there pre-established limits upon the ecological reach of humans, within which we must sustainably operate?

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