For many social scientists—and many conservationists would agree—Homo
sapiens is the quintessential disturbing force. From such a perspective, what
we as a species have been doing to Mother Nature at least since the end of the
Pleistocene has been a powerfully disruptive force in what would otherwise be
the Earth’s normal pace and course of historical development.
For example, many people today still see the beginnings of agriculture after
the Pleistocene as a revolution in human history, a turning point marked by two
alternative states or end points, one natural (hunting and foraging), the other
unnatural (domestication and farming).
Unfortunately there is little agreement today on what are the best constituent
definitions of foraging and farming as distinct states or stages of human
subsistence life. Without agreement on what these terms mean, there is no
dependable way to sort people or societies into one or the other of these two
categories—foragers versus farmers—or place any given society, modern or
ancient, in a sensible way somewhere along what many now concede is the logical
continuum between these two ostensibly polarized end-states.
Dr. John Terrell, Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anth- ropology, Dr.
John P. Hart (Director, Research & Collections, and Chief Scientist
[Archaeology] at New York State Museum, Albany, NY), and their research
colleagues now argue, however, that looking for the beginnings of domestication
(or agriculture) is a research pursuit doomed from the start. Why? Because:
- species do not have
to be discernibly altered, morphologically or genetically, before they can
- morphological and
genetic changes that sometimes may be taken as "signs of
domestication" take time to develop, and consequently they show up,
if they are going to show up at all, after the fact of domestication by
human beings; and
- saying that only
plants and animals exhibiting plainly detectable signs of human use and
cultivation can be called "domesticated" risks underestimating
the generality and force of human domestication in the world we live in.
Once it is accepted that people throughout human
history have been exploiting not only a few but in fact many kinds of plants
and animals in varying ways and to varying degrees—only some of which might now
described as "true domesticates’"—then both in effect as well as
in practice Homo sapiens has been domesticating not just a few species
for untold years but entire landscapes for the provisioning of food, useful
materials, and shelter.
What is challenging then is not finding precisely
when and where a few reference species evidently became morphologically or
genetically altered enough (according to some formal scale) to tag them as
domesticates and allow us to label those associated with such visibly altered
species as ‘farmers’ rather than as "foragers."
Instead, the real challenge is developing ways of improving how successfully
archaeologists can use what they discover to learn about what people in the
past were actually doing on the landscapes they inhabited to put food on the
table and a roof over their head.
For further discussion, please see:
John Edward Terrell, John P. Hart, Sibel Barut, Nicoletta Cellinese, Antonio Curet, Tim Denham, Chapurukha M. Kusimba, Kyle Latinis, Rahul Oka, Joel Palka, Mary E. D. Pohl, Kevin O. Pope, , Patrick Ryan Williams, Helen Haines, and John E. Staller (2003). Domesticated landscapes: The subsistence
ecology of plant and animal domestication. Journal of Archaeological
Method and Theory 10: 323-368.
John Edward Terrell and John P. Hart (2008). Domesticated landscapes. In
Handbook of Landscape Archaeology, edited by Bruno David and Julian Thomas,
pp. 328-332. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek.