Domesticated landscapes

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 be domesticated;
  • 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 be  





Sissano Lagoon, Sandaun Province, Papua New Guinea, 1990

Late afternoon collecting of lagoon fish from a fish weir at Sissano Village (© 1990, John Edward Terrell)

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.