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3.1.3: 3 Geographical Sites and Ecological Components of Agricultural Domestication

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  • Just as for the dates and historical processes that led to domestication, the sites of plant and animal domestication are known from a similar interdisciplinary mix of perspectives, from archaeology to genetics. The map in Figure 2.1.2 and Table 1 show current knowledge of seven important areas of early agriculture where the world’s major crops and animals were domesticated. The question of crop and livestock origins and movements presented in this module is still an active and interesting area of research and more remains to be discovered. Most important of these areas was the Fertile Crescent of the Tigris-Euphrates river system and surrounding uplands in Southwest Asia---present-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. This region was responsible for the domestication of several major crops (wheat, barley, oats) and almost all the major domesticated animals (cattle, sheep, goats, pigs) that are incorporated today into major food systems worldwide (for the definition of food system see module 1.2). Like other areas it also included domesticated plants in particular that were significant components of local food systems and diets---such as bitter vetch and chickpeas—that did not become major global staples. China, which we identify as a single geographic area, was responsible for the domestication of rice, soybeans, millet and several other domesticates that included tree crops such as the peach. Pigs were domesticated independently in China, meaning the pig population there that evolved to domesticated forms was separate from that of the Fertile Crescent. It is likely that China contained two separate areas of major importance in our global overview: the Yangtze River basin and the Wei (Yellow) River valley.

    Four other major world regions were also vitally important as sites of early agriculture and in the domestication of major crops and animals. Southeast Asia including New Guinea and the Pacific Islands are an expansive geographic area where staples such as various species of yam, citrus, bananas, and sugar cane were domesticated (see Table 1). A significant-size region of sub-Saharan Africa was also quite important, contributing crops such as sorghum, coffee, and species of millet other than the ones domesticated in East Asia (see Table 1). Geographically this area of sub-Saharan Africa includes the savanna areas of West Africa as well as the highlands of Ethiopia and Kenya. Locally within this region, such domesticates as teff and fonio, a pair of grain crops, became highly regarded foodstuffs.

    crop map.jpeg

    Figure 2.1.2.: Map of the crop centers of origin as described by botanist and breeder Nikolai Vavilov: (1) Mexico-Guatemala, (2) Peru-Ecuador-Bolivia, (2A) Southern Chile, (2B) Southern Brazil, (3) Mediterranean, (4) Middle East, (5) Ethiopia, (6) Central Asia, (7) Indo-Burma, (7A) Siam-Malaya-Java, (8) China and Korea. Credit: Wikimedia Commons: Vavilov-center (Creative Commons CC BY 3.0)

    In South America, the combination of the Andes mountains and the Amazon basin was an important area of early agriculture and domestication that included potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and manioc (or cassava). The Andes and Amazon also included many locally important domesticates such as quinoa and acai (the fruit of the acai palm) that recently have gained popularity as elements of global food systems. The area of Mexico (extending to the U.S. Southwest and southern Arizona in particular) and Central America is also important. This area’s contributions included corn (also known as maize) and domesticated species of bean, chili pepper, and squash in addition to the turkey. Eastern North America was also an important area of early agriculture though most domesticates there did not become familiar items in major contemporary food systems. Sunflower did though become relatively important and some of the domesticated plants of the northern parts of North America, such as cranberry and so-called Indian rice, did become moderately important foods.

    Table 1. Major Geographic Areas of Early Agriculture with Current Knowledge of Where Crops and Animals were Domesticated
    Geographic World Region Early Domesticated Crops Included Early Domesticated Animals Included
    East Asia (and Central and South Asia) Rice; Buckwheat; Millets; Soybean; Peach; Nectarine; Apple (Central Asia); Apricot (South Asia) Pigs
    Southeast Asia and Pacific Islands Taro; Yam; Arrowroot; Banana; Sugar Cane; Coconut; Breadfruit; Orange; Lemon; Lime; Jack Bean; Winged Bean Pigs, Chicken
    Near East Wheats; Barley; Rye; Oat; Pea; Chickpea; Lentil; Vetch; Cherry; Almond Pigs, Sheep, Goats, Cattle
    Sub-Saharan Africa: the East African Highlands and Sahelian Savanna Sorghum; Pearl and Finger Millet; Teff; Ensete; Coffee; Yam; Pigeon Pea; Cowpea; Fonio Cattle
    South America, principally the Andes mountains and the lowlands of Pacific Coast and Amazonia Potatoes; Quinoa; Peanut; Lima Bean; Manioc (Cassava); Pineapple; Sweet Potato Llama, Alpaca, Guinea Pig
    Mexico and Central America, mountain ranges and adjoining foothills and lowlands Maize, Mesoamerican Common Bean (Kidney Bean) and Chile Pepper; Squash Turkey
    Eastern North America Sunflower, Sumpweed, Marsh Elder, Goosefoot or Lamb’s Quarter

    At this juncture, it’s important to note some important points for understanding the environment-food interactions that arise from our discussion thus far of hunting-gathering, domestication, and early agriculture. This geographic and historical context highlights the importance of the independent establishment of early agriculture through domestication in multiple geographic areas across diverse world regions. Our description of current knowledge emphasizes the importance of seven world geographic areas, but other variants of this accounting are possible. Crop origin areas could potentially be more numerous, for example, if we counted additional distinct sub-areas of China, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South America. It is interesting that the major modern population centers, the Eastern United States and Northern Europe, seem to have been less important than other world regions in the domestication of the major staple grains and vegetables. As noted above, the question of crop origins and the relations of humans to crops via domestication, breeding, and knowledge of how to cultivate crops remains an active and fascinating area of research.

    Our description also highlights the domestication of a handful of specific species of major crops (approximately 100 species) and major animal domesticates (14 species). These domesticated species are the same ones we still recognize today as the most valuable cornerstones of our current food systems as well as being central elements in their environmental impacts. When local crops and livestock are added the numbers of these domesticates is significantly higher (upwards of 500 species). Still, the number of species in this new agricultural biota paled in comparison to the thousands of species that have been the basis of human livelihoods in hunter-gatherer systems. In other words, early agriculture meant that humans narrowed their focus on a select group species in the biotic world, namely the ones that were most productive and could be most feasibly and effectively produced and consumed. In doing so, humans intensified the level of interaction, knowledge, and cultural importance of these crop species as a fundamental human-natural relationship at the base of food systems from prehistory to the present day.

    In a variety of subsequent units of this course we will be considering the diversity of crops and animals in agriculture as we explore the agroecology and geosystems of food production (Section II) and the role of human-environment interactions amid such challenges as climate change, food security, human health, and environmental sustainability (Section III). In this module, we keep our focus on early agriculture and domestication. Our present focus will also require that we use the model of Coupled Natural-Human Systems (CNHS) through the remainder of Module 2.1 followed by continuation and expansion of this focus in the next module (Module 2.2) where we discuss a few of the major historical transformations leading to the world’s current situation with regard to the environment and food (Module 2.2).

    Knowledge Check

    Domesticate/Word Region matching. Identify with the world region code (see the abbreviations in the first column of Table 1) the general area of domestication of the following important food plants and animals. Drag the words into the correct boxes.

    Corn (also referred to as maize):
    Kidney Bean:
    Chile Pepper:

    Word Bank:

    Near East; East, South, and Central Asia - present-day Kazakhstan; East Asia; Southeast Asia and Pacific Islands; Mexico and Central America; South America; Southeast Asia and Pacific Islands; Near East, Sub-Saharan Africa; Mexico and Central America; Mexico and Central America