The Fertile Crescent


Domestication is the most important development in human history over the last 13,000 years (Diamond, 2002; Bell, et al., 2005). Domestication is distinct from most means of environmental manipulation such as cultivation, in which wild species are sown in fields of choice. Domestication takes plants and raises those with desirable traits (Weiss, et al., 2006).

Domestication involves the control of the breeding processes of plants and animals. Populations select the traits and regimes favourable to their needs leading to genetic and hence morphological change (Smith, 1995). The rise of domestication is marked by changes in the characteristics of wild plants and animals. In animals changes in size, docility, coloration, hair properties and changes to mating systems were matched by plan changes: alterations in seed dispersal, an increase in seed/fruit sizes, move form persistent to annual ripening and compact growth habits. (Davis, 1987)

Many theories are around as to domestic development: Oasis, Marginal Area, and Dump Heap (Blackburn, 1993). Some lay an emphasis on co-evolution – the interaction between plant and animal communities, human action and climate. This is highlight by the fact that environmental conditions are identified as being a critical factor in the emergence of agriculture (Blumer, et al., 1991). The development of strong seasonal rainfall regimes during the transition from Pleistocene to Holocene increased growth and availability of cereals, pulses and other earth grown plants (Byrne, 1987). Communities were able to take advantage of these changes until the interruption by the Younger Dryas Period (Gregory, et al., 2009; Wilcox, et al., 2009)

The shift to plant domestication is marked by the surprising aspect that it occurred in across the world within close temporal proximity – between 12,000 and 8000 B.P. in centres of domestication (Flannery, 1986). This has been attributed to the climatic shift. Two such centres are Mesoamerica and South-West Asia (Near East). These locations are thousands of miles apart and agricultural development was independent from one another resulting in differences between them. However there are also similarities which shall be indicated.


South-West Asia has been identified as one of the most important and earliest sites for domestication (Roberts, 1998). Domestication has been identified has having taken place with the Fertile Crescent – a region curving round the Syrian Desert and encompassing the Zagros Mountains, Mesopotamia and Levant, South Turkey.

From c.22ka B.P. there is evidence of utilisation of wild cereals as part of a hunting-fishing-gathering economy in Ohalo (Kislev, et al., 1992) but not full domestication. By 14.5ka B.P. there is evidence of sedentary settlements: Natufian communities in the Levant and Epipalaeolithic groups in the central Fertile Crescent.  They were characterised by well built houses and the presence of three indicators of importance: sickle blades, grinding stones and storage structures. These indicate to a community with an emphasis on the economic contributions of wild cereals and the presence of a strategy to cope with the abundant resources (Bar-Yosef, 1995).

Agriculture and domestication spread rapidly through South-West Asia with established settlements at Abu Hureyra (Euphrates Valley, Syria) by 13.2ka B.P. (Moore, et al., 2000), Jericho and Aswad by 11.1ka B.P. (Smith, 1995) and Ali Kosh (Eastern Fertile Crescent) from 9.5-9ka B.P. Only the latter were domesticated.

In stark contrast Mesoamerica took a further 3.5-4ka to establish domestically. Macrofossil evidence suggests earliest domestication was at Tamaulipas c.6.4ka B.P. and in the Tehuaćan Valley around 5.4ka B.P.

Unlike in South-West Asia there was no rush in Mesoamerica abandon hunting and gathering and take up farming which was a ‘once-and-for-all’ episode which occurred within two to three millennia at the end of the Pleistocene (Roberts, 1998).

The approach of South-West Asia was not instantaneous. There were periods of experimentation on the cultivation and exploitation of domesticates. However, the Mesoamerican approach was far more gradual as a result of the lack of benefits in switching to domesticated approaches.

Animal Economics

The reluctance to move to a more domesticated approach in Mesoamerica came from the scarcity of animals. Namely Llama (lama) and guinea pig (cavia) were in short supply and were unimportant food sources. As such they were never able to be integrated into husbandry in the way that cattle (bos) were on other continents for example (Roberts, 1998). In reality the Mesoamerican economy relied little on animal domesticates.

In South-West Asia however, animals formed a significant part of the agricultural system. They included cattle, sheep (ovis), goat (capra), pig (sus) and dog (canis). The size and age-sex structure indicates that they were herded rather than hunted (Clutton-Brock, 1987).  At Abu Hureyra 13.2ka B.P. gazelles accounted for 80% of the settlements animals whilst wild sheep and goats formed the remaining 20% (Moore, et al., 2000). This had reversed from 10.6ka – 9.3 ka B.P. The gazelle population had been decimated as a result of increasing populations during the Holocene and the rise in demand for sustenance. The decline produced the stimulus for the domestication of sheep and goats. Pigs were domesticated in the wooded landscapes in the central Fertile Crescent. The earliest emergence at Cayönü, Turkey 9.5ka B.P. Cattle followed later between 9ka and 8.5ka B.P. at Catalhöyük. Both animals were to be found at Abu Hureyra around 9.4ka B.P.

Whilst animal domestication flourished mainly under the South-West Asia regime, both centres experienced a vast increase in domestic plants and crops although both adapted at different rates.

Crop, Crop, Crop

In Mesoamerica again domesticated crops were not a major part of the economy until very late on. Garden cultivation of maize, squash (cucurbita), chilli pepper (capsicum) and avocado (persea) were initially added to existing forms of food procurement (Pickersgill, 1989).

Domesticated varieties formed part of the main economy at various sites at different times. Squash, chilli peppers and manioc by c.2ka B.P. at Tehuaćan. At Tamaulipas domestic bottle gourd and squash was produced c.6.4ka B.P. and later maize in 4.3ka B.P. Economies of agricultural significance had established themselves by c.3.5ka B.P. They were dominated by high production crops and cereals. Irrigation was practiced and more permanent villages were founded as food levels could now sustain them.

Of all the plant domesticates of Mesoamerica, none were more important and influential than maize. Ancestrally descendant from teostinte, it was small (<3cm) and had fragile ears (cob) with seeds located in the rachis (Martienssen, 1997).  Over time selective pressures enlarged maize cobs, a preference for larger seeds selected (Brown, et al., 2009). A critical threshold was reached in 4.3ka B.P. Maize was the most productive of any other resource, giving yields of 2000kg ha-1. It was at this point that maize was fully capable of supporting the settlements (Bray, 1977).

In South-West Asia there were three main domestic cereals: emmer wheat, einkorn wheat and barley. Early evidence exploitation dates back to the start of the Holocene with used cereals differing from those naturally occurring around them. Selective pressures saw major morphological change. Brittle rachis became harder to stop seeds from escaping, taking place over a period of 0.2ka -0.3ka (Hillman, et al., 1990).

Other companion crops, whilst not as productive as the wheat, were domesticated: pea, lentil, chickpea, bitter vetch and flax. Domestication was a result of the need to increase abundance and reliability of supply. This was a coping strategy for locations such as Abu Hureyra where, due to the Younger Dryas period, less favourable environmental conditions were experienced (Jalés, 2007).

Barley, emmer and einkorn wheat were domesticated at Jericho and Aswad in the Fertile Crescent by 11ka B.P. Evidence suggests Barley was tamed in the western parts by 11.3ka – 11.1ka B.P. at Netiv Hagud and Einkorn and Emmer wheat by 10.7ka – 10.2ka B.P. at Ain Ghazel, Natal Oran and Cayönü (Moore, et al., 2000).  In the East Lentils were used by 9.9ka B.P. and pea, chickpea, bitter vetch and flax c.9ka B.P. at Ali Kosh. The time from 9-8ka B.P. formed the basis of arable agriculture in the region in Greece, the Nile Valley, Turkmenistan and the Indus Valley of Pakistan (Zohary, et al., 1994).

Both centres are similar in that they have paid put more focus on the plant domesticates rather than animal ones. South-West Asia adopted plant agriculture quicker than Mesoamerica. This in part due to changing climatic conditions forcing communities to adapt. Mesoamerican communities were able to breed traits into their crops to allow them to sustain larger more sedentary populations.

Concluding Remarks

Overall it can be seen there are both similarities and differences in the adoption of agriculture between the two centres of domestication of South-West Asia and Mesoamerica.

Firstly both are categorised by a changing climate as a result of the Younger Dryas period. This prompted a shift in attitudes and practices forcing communities to adapt and move to a more resilient system of food and resource procurement. Whilst climatic changes did not dictate the terms of agricultural change it did help frame it.

Secondly both centres moved to domesticate plant species as a way to secure food and other resources. Some crops were very successful and led to morphological change as desire traits were encouraged and bred into new generations of the crops.

Both centres have recognisable hearth area where agriculture began which date to the early Holocene.

Furthermore, animals were incorporated in both regions. However Mesoamerica saw little animal domesticates due to their scarcity. South-West Asia however used domesticated animals much more widely and those of a greater diversity.

The major difference is the dates in which domestication took place. South-West Asia was quick off the mark in adopting a more domesticated approach. Whilst not instantaneous, there were stages of experimentation, it took only a couple of millennia to move from hunter, gatherer fishing settlements to farming communities. In Mesoamerica it took longer, around 3.5ka and started much later and is characterised by lack of smooth approach. The switch in Mesoamerica took place more in stages than the continuous approach of South-West Asia.

Further are the differences in the crops domesticated by each centre; however these are determined by pre-existing wild plants and climatic conditions present at the time. The local populous is limited by whatever is available to them at the time.

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