The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory. Why did Foragers become Farmers – BARKER (DP)

BARKER, Graeme. The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory. Why did Foragers become Farmers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 598p. Resenha de: BUDJA, Mihael. Documenta Praehistorica, v.34, 2007.

The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory addresses some of the most debated questions as to why, how, when and where foraging societies decided that Ôthe advantages of food production outweighed the options available to them as foragersÕ. Graeme Barker first discussed these questions in his Cambridge PhD on the transition from hunting to farming in central Italy. Some years later he focused on the evolution of farming in Europe. His recent book is an attempt to bring to bear a global holistic approach to the problem of why foragers became farmers. The book is in ten parts: (1) Approaches to the Origins of Agriculture, (2) Understanding Foragers, (3) Identifying Foragers and Farmers, (4) The ÔHearth of Domestication Õ? Transitions to Farming in South-West Asia, (5) Central and South Asia: the Wheat/Rice Frontier, (6) Rice and Forest Farming in East and South-East Asia, (7) Weed, Tuber, and Maize Farming in the Americas, (8) Africa: Afro-Asiatic Pastoralists and Bantu farmers?, (9) Transitions to Farming in Europe: Ex Oriente Lux?, and (10) The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why did Foragers become Farmers?

In the context of a short review, the range and rich detail of this book precludes further summary, and to engage in debate on any one section would be invidious. Suffice to say that the author believes that the process of transition to farming demands a regionally comparative approach. For every region, he suggests, we need to understand Òchanges in climate and environment, the nature of the plant and animal resources available, and how they were exploited by people on either side of the presumed transitional phase(s) from foraging to farming”. And, that “if we are to understand why prehistoric foragers become farmers” we have to “imagine how they must have viewed their world and the challenges and choices available to them”. There is no reason not to agree with these postulates.

The author develops a strong case for the development of agricultural systems in many regions as transformations in the life-styles of indigenous forager societies, and hypothesises that these were as much changes in social norms and ideologies as in ways of obtaining food. He argues at the same time that the transition to farming was a process consisting of many unwise, foolish and fatal decisions, and that what actually happened was not the discovery nor the invention of food production, but a by-product of decisions made without an awareness of their consequences (p. 392, quoting J. M. Diamond).

The author surprises us by reviving two old concepts and models, agricultural revolution (cf. V. G. Childe) and acculturation (cf. S. Piggott [Ancient Europe. 1965], missing from the bibliography). He argues strongly against the concept of demic diffusion and/or the wave of advance model (cf. A. J. Ammerman and L. L. Cavalli-Sforza). For him, the main problem with the demic diffusion model is Òits focus on the transition to farming as some kind of unique sequence of movements in an otherwise static world.Ó (p. 413).

By adopting a global perspective, the author integrates in the book a series of general and basic data that were discussed in the eighties and nineties in archaeology, anthropology, botany and zoology, climatology, and archaeogenetics. Unfortunately, he overlooks relevant information as much as the recent discussions of origins and diffusions of “Mesolithichic” and “Neolithic” Y-chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA haplogroups, and global human population trajectories in the context of the processes of the transition to farming. Human genetic studies show that the modern European paternal and maternal genetic landscape was not the result of farmers invading from the Near East, and that demic diffusion is not a realistic scenario for interpreting the transition to farming in either Europe or Central Asia. The lively debate on the “8.200 calBp climate event” Ð which undoubted correlates chronologically with the transition to farming on a global scale, and certainly affected environmental conditions Ð is not taken into account. How the event affected contemporary hunter-gatherers and farmers and the transition to farming still awaits an answer.

There is no question, however, that The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory is a big step towards an unbiased interpretation of the processes of transition to farming in prehistory both regionally and globally.

Mihael Budja –  University of Ljubljana.

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