In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Agriculture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Variation in Agricultural Practices
  • Agriculture and Intensification Theory
  • Agriculture as a Social Activity
  • Origins of Agricultural Industrialization
  • Modern Agricultural Industrialization
  • Agricultural Biotechnology
  • Political Ecology of Agriculture
  • Ethnoecology and Agriculture
  • New Agrarianism and Sustainability

Anthropology Agriculture
Andrew Flachs, Glenn Stone
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0093


Because food production is so central to human life, scholars have had a long interest in agriculture, its origins, and its effects on population and society. Archaeologists generally emphasize two major revolutions in agricultural history: the Neolithic revolution in which plant and animal species were domesticated and agriculture spread and the Industrial Revolution that allowed food to be produced in ever greater quantities for a capitalist society. Although this article pays special attention to the range of preindustrial farming, some of the most important developments in this field, environmentally and socially, relate to the ongoing process of agricultural industrialization. Although agriculture can refer generally to production in a field, such processes are inextricable from horticulture, or garden production, and animal husbandry. Scholars of early agriculture and energetics often ask why people farm at all, when hunting and gathering seems to be a highly effective and efficient form of production. Others continue this line of questioning when considering the diversity of agricultural modes, asking why and how agricultural production reaches this variation in efficiency, yield, and external input. Various demographic, climatic, and social theories have been forwarded to address this key issue in agricultural development. When considered as a social process, agriculture can be understood as part of larger cultural elements including religion, state projects, industrialization, urbanization, and the spread of global capitalism. Conversely these social processes can be seen as elements of agriculture as well, especially when scholars examine disparities in access to the means of production, famine, usufruct rights, and social organization as a response to production and ecology. Industrialized, capital intensive agriculture, as well as some of its contemporary alternatives, is of special importance to social science as it seems to produce both vast quantities of food and socioeconomic hierarchies that reimagine farms as corporations.

General Overviews

Although distinctions are sometimes made between agriculture (field cultivation) and horticulture (gardening), this division is an arbitrary distinction and the focus here is on references that deal with cultivation of plants and animals in general. Although humans have emerged as the consummate cultivators, we evolved as hunter-gatherers; as Rindos 1984 observes, in this we differ from several species of insect that evolved as cultivators. Even among hunter-gatherers, various types of proto-cultivation have been described, and some practices involve such light control of natural processes as to challenge common conceptions of what agriculture is. Paiute Indians in California had a well-developed system of irrigation of wild grasses (Steward 1930). In the New World domestic livestock played very little role in development of early cultivation systems, but crops served as a food source for animals that were harvested in what Linares 1976 calls “garden hunting.” The origin of agriculture has been a central concern of archaeology for over a century. Theories of agricultural origins cannot be neatly classified because different causal mechanisms are often combined. Evolutionary theories have ranged from those citing cultural progress or readiness (Childe 1965) to more recent writing on coevolution of humans and their domesticates. Climate change theories in Childe 1965 and Binford 1968 mostly focus on varied aspects of change in physical environment at the end of the Pleistocene era that contributed to warmer and wetter conditions while Anderson 1952 notes the presence of agricultural centers of cultivation. Population pressure theories, sometimes with climate change components, have been abundant (Binford 1968, Cohen 1977), although the more recent work Hayden 2003 stresses that agriculture did not begin with staple food crops and early agriculture was probably not more productive than foraging.

  • Anderson, Edgar. 1952. Plants, man and life. Boston: Little, Brown.

    This book has been influential in ethnobotany and in scholarship on the origins of agriculture. Following the work of Nikolai Vavilov, Anderson argues that genetic and phenotypic evidence suggests several regions of early domestication and that early cultivation may have begun in dump heaps as plants followed human camp sites.

  • Binford, Lewis R. 1968. Post-Pleistocene adaptations. In New perspectives in archeology. Edited by Sally R. Binford and Lewis R. Binford, 313–341. New York: Aldine.

    In one of the most influential articles in 20th-century archaeology, Binford presents a general theory of agricultural origins. It links post-Pleistocene sea level changes to population pressure on coasts and resultant inland immigration.

  • Childe, V. Gordon. 1965. Man makes himself. 4th ed. London: Watts.

    This book is an overview of human prehistory, influential in its use of a materialistic perspective. Tracing human production, Childe argues that technological and cultural progress were mutually reinforcing. Originally published in 1936.

  • Cohen, Mark N. 1977. The food crisis in prehistory. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    Cohen’s book was a major attempt to explain origins of agriculture in various parts of the globe as a response to population pressure. This book argues that social organization and material culture allowed humans to use culture to expand their carrying capacity.

  • Hayden, Brian. 2003. Were luxury foods the first domesticates? Ethnoarcaheological perspectives from Southeast Asia. In Special issue: Luxury foods. Edited by Marijke van der Veen. World Archaeology 34:458–469.

    DOI: 10.1080/0043824021000026459a

    This article is one of several influential works by Hayden in which he argues that agricultural origins were driven not by food needs but by the desire for wealth items to enhance social status. This work thus argues against earlier models based on direct relations between population and agricultural growth. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Linares, Olga F. 1976. “Garden hunting” in the American tropics. Human Ecology 4.4: 331–349.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01557917

    Linares uses archaeological data to show that in coastal areas of the ancient New World, early cultivators hunted animals that fed on their crops as a form of semi-domestication. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Rindos, David. 1984. The origins of agriculture: An evolutionary perspective. New York: Academic Press.

    This book presents Rindos’s important rethinking of domestication and the spread of agriculture. Rather than as a result of human agency, agriculture results from coevolution of plant and human populations and spreads because it offers higher yet more unstable production.

  • Steward, Julian H. 1930. Irrigation without agriculture. Papers of the Michigan Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters 12:149–156.

    Steward documents a surprisingly elaborate system of irrigation of wild grasses among the Owens Valley Paiute Indians. He viewed this practice as being one step removed from agriculture without practicing it, but some later scholars have seen it as actual agriculture.

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