How did it come about that farming developed independently in a number of world centers (the Southeast Asian mainland, Southwest Asia, Central America, lowland and highland South America,
and equatorial Africa) at more or less the same time? Agriculture developed slowly among populations that had an extensive knowledge of plants and animals. Changing from hunting and gathering to agriculture had no immediate advantages. To start with, it forced the population to abandon the nomad's life and became sedentary,
to develop methods of storage and, often, systems of irrigation. While hunter-gatherers always had the option of moving elsewhere when the resources were exhausted,
this became more difficult with farming. Furthermore, as the archaeological record shows, the state of health of agriculturalists was worse than that of their contemporary hunter-gatherers.
Traditionally, it was believed that the transition to agriculture was the result of a worldwide population crisis. It was argued that once hunter-gatherers had occupied the whole world, the population started to grow everywhere and food became scarce; agriculture would have been a solution to this problem. We know, however, that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies control their population in a variety of ways. The idea of a world population crisis is therefore unlikely, although population pressure might have arisen in some areas.
Climatic changes at the end of the glacial period 13,000 years ago have been proposed to account for the emergence of farming. The temperature increased dramatically in a short period of time (years rather than centuries), allowing for a growth of the hunting-gathering population due to the abundance of resources. There were, however, fluctuations in the climatic conditions, with the consequences that wet conditions were followed by dry ones, so that the availability of plants and animals oscillated brusquely.
It would appear that the instability of the climatic conditions led populations that had originally been nomadic to settle down and develop a sedentary style of life, which led in turn to population growth and to the need to increase the amount of food available. Farming originated in these conditions. Later on, it became very difficult to change because of the significant expansion of these populations. It could be argued, however, that these conditions are not sufficient to explain the origins of agriculture. Earth had experienced previous periods of climatic change, and yet agriculture had not been developed.
It is archaeologist Steven Mithen's thesis, brilliantly developed in his book The Prehistory of the Mind (1996), that approximately 40,000 years ago the human mind developed cognitive fluidity, that is, the integration of the specializations of the mind: technical, natural history (geared to understanding the behavior and distribution of natural resources), social intelligence, and the linguistic capacity. Cognitive fluidity explains the appearance of art, religion, and sophisticated speech. Once humans possessed such a mind, they were able to find an imaginative solution to a situation of severe economic crisis such as the farming dilemma described earlier. Mithen proposes the existence of four mental elements to account for the emergence of farming: (1) the ability to develop tools that could be used intensively to harvest and process plant resources; (2) the tendency to use plants and animals as the medium to acquire social prestige and power; (3) the tendency to develop "social relationships" with animals structurally similar to those developed with people—specifically, the ability to think of animals as people (anthropomorphism) and of people as animals (totemism); and (4) the tendency to manipulate plants and animals.
The fact that some societies domesticated animals and plants, discovered the use of metal tools, became literate, and developed a state should not make us forget that others developed pastoralism or horticulture (vegetable gardening) but remained illiterate and at low levels of productivity; a few entered the modern period as hunting and gathering societies. It is anthropologically important to inquire into the conditions that made some societies adopt agriculture while others remained hunter-gatherers or horticulturalists. However, it should be kept in mind that many societies that knew of agriculture more or less consciously avoided it. Whether Mithen's explanation is satisfactory is open to contention, and some authors have recently emphasized the importance of other factors.
1.The word "option" in the passage is closest in meaning to