by Chris Marsh
Member of the Permaculture Association
The story of how agriculture began seems very familiar. We know about the Neolithic Revolution,1 a profound change which took place when prehistoric people were already skilled at making stone tools, but before they discovered how to work metals or even fire pottery. They domesticated plants and animals, and domesticated themselves too by making permanent settlements, with the social structures and cultural practices which sustained living closely together. This revolution became possible because of the amelioration of the climate around 12,000 years ago, after the peak of the last glaciation, in the early Holocene, with its relatively stable warm conditions. Agriculture was discovered between 11000 bp and 3000 bp. There were probably multiple primary origins, in the Middle East, central Africa, China, New Guinea, Mesoamerica, and the northern Andes, and then the farming way of life dispersed to cover and dominate more and more of the world.
The old agricultural revolution involved the domestication of remarkably few species of plants and animals: some large-seeded annual grass species, several important legumes, and the major meat sources: cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. These all originated in western Asia, the area which has the world’s earliest evidence for food production. Other regions where agriculture began contributed fewer domesticated species of such importance to the world today (Bellwood 2013 127). Given that agriculture today depends very largely on these same species, domesticated thousands of years ago, we must surely agree that the old revolution brought in a ‘permanent agriculture’.