Domestication: It’s not just for Dogs, Chickens and Sheep

“Evolution, consequences and future of plant and animal domestication” by Jared Diamond

Link to original article at page bottom.

Our ‘decision’ to domesticate

The question “why farm?” strikes most of us modern humans as silly. Of course it is better to grow wheat and cows than to forage for roots and snails. But in reality, that perspective is flawed by hindsight. Food production could not possibly have arisen through a conscious decision, because the world’s first farmers had around them no model of farming to observe, hence they could not have known that there was a goal of domestication to strive for, and could not have guessed the consequences that domestication would bring for them. If they had actually foreseen the consequences, they would surely have outlawed the first steps towards domestication, because the archaeological and ethnographic record throughout the world shows that the transition from hunting and gathering to farming eventually resulted in more work, lower adult stature, worse nutritional condition and heavier disease burdens10, 11. The only peoples who could make a conscious choice about becoming farmers were hunter–gatherers living adjacent to the first farming communities, and they generally disliked what they saw and rejected farming, for the good reasons just mentioned and others.

Instead, the origins of domestication involved unforeseen consequences of two sets of changes — changes in plants and animals, and changes in human behaviour. As initially recognized by Darwin12, and elaborated by Rindos13, many of the differences between domestic plants and their wild ancestors evolved as consequences of wild plants being selected, gathered and brought back to camp by hunter–gatherers, while the roots of animal domestication included the ubiquitous tendency of all peoples to try to tame or manage wild animals (including such unlikely candidates as ospreys, hyenas and grizzly bears).

Although humans had been manipulating wild plants and animals for a long time, hunter–gatherer behaviour began to change at the end of the Pleistocene because of increasingly unpredictable climate, decreases in big-game species that were hunters’ first-choice prey, and increasing human occupation of available habitats14, 15. To decrease the risk of unpredictable variation in food supply, people broadened their diets (the so-called broad-spectrum revolution) to second- and third-choice foods, which included more small game, plus plant foods requiring much preparation, such as grinding, leaching and soaking14, 16. Eventually, people transported some wild plants (such as wild cereals) from their natural habitats to more productive habitats and began intentional cultivation17.

The emerging agricultural lifestyle had to compete with the established hunter–gatherer lifestyle. Once domestication began to arise, the changes of plants and animals that followed automatically under domestication, and the competitive advantages that domestication conveyed upon the first farmers (despite their small stature and poor health), made the transition from the hunter–gatherer lifestyle to food production autocatalytic — but the speed of that transition varied considerably among regions18, 19. Thus, the real question about the origins of agriculture, which I consider below, is: why did food production eventually outcompete the hunter–gatherer lifestyle over almost the whole world, at the particular times and places that it did, but not at earlier times and other places?

Much more to read at:


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