In order for humanity to transition from hunter gatherer groups to agricultural based societies the domestication of plants and animals was needed. The domestication of plants in particular is a fascinating topic.
What most do not know is that many different regions of the world domesticated plants and animals independently. That is, crops were not simply domesticated in a single region and spread to the rest of the world from there.
Archaeologists estimate that over nine regions of the world independently domesticated their own local crops. These regions were:
- Southwest Asia
- Andes and Amazonia
- Eastern United States
- Tropical West Africa
- New Guinea
Other regions domesticated local crops, but only after being exposed to crops previously domesticated from other regions (Western Europe, the Indus Valley and Egypt all fall into this category).
The question that must be asked is: why did some regions domesticate plants much earlier than other regions?
Timeline of The Domestication of Plants
The timeline of the domestication of plants began over 10,000 years ago in ~8,500 BCE when domesticated varieties of wheat, pea and olive plants emerged from Southwest Asia.1
The earliest crops domesticated were ones that were relatively easy to domesticate. Wild wheat, peas, olives and rice were especially easy to change to a more suitable version for humans. Humans in Southwest Asia simply needed to find and replant one variant of wild wheat with stalks that did not break in order to have a reliable source of food.
Other plants were not so easy. Domesticated corn (maize) for example was notoriously difficult to produce a worthwhile variant. It likely took thousands of years for natives to transform the wild ancestor of it into what we know today. The “Three Sisters” of corn, beans and squash like the northeastern Native American nations were well known for, actually originated in Mesoamerica.
Another reason was due to environmental conditions. For hunter gatherer societies that were located in regions with plentiful food sources, there was little need to grow agriculture. Why tend a field when there are easier ways to get food?
Other regions may have been less plentiful leading humans to find ways to increase their number of food sources. Knowing which plants were most favorable for consumption and meticulously selecting the best breeds led to the domestication of the plants we know and eat today.2
The early domestication of plants had major impacts on society as we know it today. Societies that domesticated agriculture earlier had much more time to develop social classes and hierarchies that allowed specialization. This specialization allowed for quicker technological growth and enabled these societies to conquer others more easily.
Timeline of The Domestication of Animals
Along with the domestication of plants, the domestication of animals played a major role in the development of the modern world. The timeline of the first domesticated animals began over 12,000 years ago by no later than ~10,000 BCE when various regions like Southwest Asia and North American peoples domesticated dogs.
The first domesticated animal species to appear was the dog. It’s general consensus among historians that humans in several parts of the world independently domesticated dogs by at least 10,000 BCE, though it may have even been earlier than that. The domestication of the dog led humans to further attempt the process with other animals.
Large domesticated animals (defined as 100+ lbs) were critical to the development of human society. They provided food (meat and milk products), fertilizer, transportation and physical muscle for planting crops with plows. In addition, they evolved alongside humans giving them resistance to lethal diseases.
Among large mammals hundreds of different candidates reside across the continents. Despite this, societies have only domesticated fourteen large mammals: the pig, sheep, cow, horse, goat, Arabian & Bactrian camels, llama/alpaca, donkey, reindeer, water buffalo, yak, banteng, and the guar.2
Of note, these animals do not divide equally across the continents. Thirteen of the fourteen were located in Eurasia. One (llama/alpaca) was located in the Andes of South America. North America, Africa and Australia had exactly zero large domesticated animals of their own.
Archaeologists believe the explanation behind lack of domesticated animals in the Americas and Australia is due to one big event: the extinction of the megafauna. As humans spread and populated both continents, either these people over hunted the abundance of large mammals or rapid climate change led to a massive extinction event.
In Africa, there were fifty-one candidates for domestication… a large number. However, of those animals none have ever been domesticated – even in modern times. As it turns out, animals need to have several certain characteristics in order to be domesticated. Lack any one of those, and domestication will fail. Africa was unlucky to have no animals fit all the criteria.3
Eurasia on the other hand, was fortunate enough to have thirteen different animals meet all the criteria. The fact that these societies had the advantages of so many large mammals gave them a significant edge in population size, technological development and disease resistance as compared to people of other continents.
With all this in mind, it is painfully obvious as to the reasons why Europeans were so easily able to dominate societies from other parts of the world during the age of discovery.
1) Gupta, Anil K. “Origin of Agriculture and Domestication of Plants and Animals Linked to Early Holocene Climate Amelioration.” Current Science, vol. 87, no. 1, 2004, pp. 54–59. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24107979.
2) Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York, W.W. Norton & Co, 1997.
3) Zeder, Melinda A. “THE DOMESTICATION OF ANIMALS.” Journal of Anthropological Research, vol. 68, no. 2, 2012, pp. 161–90. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23264664.