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Challenging Anthropology’s Assumption that the Domestication of Plants Preceded Animal Domestication as the Primary Factor Marking the Beginning of the Neolithic Revolution

I “Herd” It Through the Grapevine: Challenging Anthropology’s Assumption that the Domestication of Plants Preceded Animal Domestication as the Primary Factor Marking the Beginning of the Neolithic Revolution

            Often in any social science, deductions are made based on scanty evidence, personal experience, or faulty logic, and the field of anthropology is often, historically, no different.  Over time, improved techniques in excavation, reconstruction of ancient sites, computer modeling, forensics, and the scientific methodology applied to the field have allowed many anthropologists to reexamine some formerly held conclusions about Paleolithic and Neolithic peoples that have opened the way for new interpretations of evidence.  For instance, the changes in traditionally held views of Homo neanderthalis have moved from violent, dumb brutes to a more humane picture of these peoples as they likely were: intelligent, highly adaptable, social beings.  The same just might be true about other previously held theories in anthropology, including one fundamental belief that has formed the basis for the demarcation between the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras: the domestication of plants which preceded the domestication of animals. 

            For instance, Elena A. A. Garcea of the University of Cassino, Italy, observes, “Animal herding in the Near East is more or less contemporaneous with agriculture, although it was originally thought to be later” (111).  She makes a distinction between “animal herding” and “full domestication,” placing the latter in about the last half of the tenth century B.P. (111).  Although there may be degrees of animal husbandry which normally place herding of flocks outside of the pure venue of domestication, there may purportedly be little distinction among Neolithic peoples, who probably recognized the difference between wild herd animals and those that are actively tended by the tribal unit.  Garcea contends that:

the practice of intensive management of “predomesticated” species of both    aurochs and caprines, which were not morphologically modified, very rapidly and very early spread from the Zagros mountains to the eastern Mediterranean basin before the end of the tenth millennium B.P. (111)

This is important, because it is believed that in this area of the Mediterranean, particularly in northwestern Africa, agriculture was not yet introduced when herders were tending their animals.  Additionally, more arid conditions in northern Africa were not as conducive to agriculture as in the Nile valley or the Near East:

One of the main differences from the Near East and the north-western Mediterranean basin is that agriculture was not the primary form of food

production and was even never practised [sic] in most of northern Africa during

the Early and Middle Holocene. Early farming activities were only practiced

in the northernmost part of Egypt, which was the only area of northern

Africa comparable to the Near East. (Garcea 138-39)

Alternately, although the cultivation of wild crops in northern Africa was practiced at this time, the domestication of plant grains such as sorghum and others was never fully exploited in this region, even into the western Egyptian desert (Garcea 139). It seems unlikely, therefore, that plant domestication preceded animal domestication in as far as this area of the world is concerned.  “Instead of agriculture,” asserts Garcea, “nomadic pastoralism was the most successful form of food production in most of northern Africa,” in particular, those species such as sheep, gazelle, hartebeest, and oryx, among others (139-40).  Evidence for such pastoralism includes excavated remains of animal pens and “extensive exploitation” of Barbary sheep, yet perhaps the first animals to be fully domesticated were cattle (Garcea 140). 

            Once again, though, cattle herding was developed independently of Near East influences in northern Africa during a time when the domestication of plants had not yet occurred.  This has been discovered through both molecular and morphological examination, where mitochondrial DNA indicates a separation of cattle breed between western Asia and Africa about 22 TYA, and even linguistic evidence “supports early cattle pastoralism” (Garcea 117).  In fact, the earliest date for cattle in Africa has been established at about 9,500 B.P. (117). 

            Of course, even though the dates for actual herding and animal domestication predate plant domestication in some areas of the world such as north Africa, this does not necessarily answer the question why.  Although Garcea asserts that drier areas “could provide good seasonal grazing, establishing favorable prerequisites for animal domestication or adoption of domesticated herds,” it stands to reason that perhaps native grasses upon which the animals would have fed may have been able to sustain the human inhabitant just as well, or a drought-resistant substitute for indigenous wild flora could have been possibly been found through the means of good plant management (125).  After all, agriculture is said to have come about, in part, because of the tribal unit’s need to feed itself and stave off uncontrollable environmental conditions such as drought and pestilence, which would have wreaked havoc on populations of both game animals and seasonal, wild plants.  The answer to the question of why, then, may not be so difficult.

            Perhaps local human populations long possessed the ability to herd and domesticate animals – particularly animals which, by nature, are already predisposed to herding, such as the North African Auroch – because it was animals upon which tribes relied for their primary source of dietary protein. 

            Also, comparative cultural anthropology may unlock some of puzzles of the origin of animal domestication versus plant domestication by observing cultures today that almost strictly herd animals rather than farm.  For instance, the Bedouin people of North Africa shun agriculture and prefer a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle, roaming across the dry land with their animals which compose the primary meat and dairy staples of their diet.  Ancient peoples, too, may have noticed female mammals nursing their young just as human mothers do, and from there may have come the impetus to herd these animals – especially fertile females – just for this purpose:  to harvest milk.  Although traditionally, “the earliest firm evidence of dairy farming, from art and written texts, isn't until about 6000 years ago,” new techniques are being devised, says Heather Pringle, a writer for Science magazine in Vancouver, British Columbia (Pringle). 

            Of course, it was in the Near East – not Africa – where “the idea of the Neolithic Revolution was born,” and many other parts of the world, especially the New World, did not see the rise of agriculture until perhaps only a few thousand years ago (Pringle 1446).  Yet the well-accepted notion that plant domestication preceded animal domestication may be faulty for two primary reasons.

First, although it is well understood that domestication of animals differs from the mere taming of wild animals in as far as the former begin to differ genetically from their wild counterparts in order to be considered truly domesticated, it should be noted that, generally speaking, plants are able to reproduce much faster than mammals.  Multiple generations of any particular wild grain, for example, may be modified through selective pollination over and over again until, in a relatively short period of time, the genotypic changes that signify a real, genetic modification of the species mirrors the phenotypic changes one sees from without.  However, this speed with which plants may reproduce does not always apply to animals, particularly animals chosen for domestication.  Virtually all of these species have a limited number of offspring to which they can give birth in any given year, and for some of these species, it may be several years until the animal is sexually mature: that is, until the animal is old enough to mate and produce its own viable offspring.  This difference is critical, because it requires less time for most plants to be genetically modified than selected herd mammals, thereby delaying the time it would take anthropologists and geneticists to notice definitive signs of animal domestication, for it could feasibly have taken centuries to selectively breed animals enough so that they are genetically distinguishable from their wild ancestors.  In other words, it is possible that in the time a tribal unit would have begun domestication of the progenitors of sheep or goats, for instance, they could have domesticated a wild plant species in a fraction of the time, thereby possibly making it appear that agriculture may have preceded animal domestication in areas where the traditionally accepted dates of plant domestication closely precede that of animal domestication.

Secondly, and perhaps more important, new and sometimes controversial research has pushed back the dates of the domestication of animals, such as the pig.  In place of the more common method of determining the earliest dates of animal domestication – size – Melinda A. Zeder of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has developed a new method, “a distinctive pattern of mortality that distinguishes herds from hunter's prey” (Pringle):

            The obvious strategy is the one still used around the world today for managing

livestock: raising females to maturity and keeping them until they quit producing offspring, while butchering most males young and keeping only a few older males as breeding stock (Pringle).

It would not have taken pastoral people long to figure out that the best way to manage animals is to maximize the number of breeding females while minimizing males and post-productive females.  By determining the animals’ sex and age at death, it is possible to extrapolate the date  which tribal units were actively managing animal herds. 

            To test her theory, Zeder examined thousands of goat bones at a 9,800 year old site called Ganj Dareh and compared them to the bones of goats hunted by Paleolithic bands of hunters about 50,000 years ago.  The results:

In the early sites, almost all the male goats were 36 months old or older at the time of death; the less numerous females were younger, suggesting that hunters had targeted male goats in their prime. But at Ganj Dareh, few billies lived past 24 months, while almost all nannies survived to 36 months or more (Pringle).

Zeder concludes that tribes people were allowing females to live longer than their hunting counterparts would, thereby indicating strong evidence that these latter people were using females as breeding stock rather than hunting them for meat. 

Furthermore, corroborative evidence from a similar study with pigs conducted by  Richard Redding of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor helps lend credence to earlier dates for animal domestication.  Anthropologists originally dated the domestication of pigs at the Hallan Chemi site in southeast Turkey at about 9,000 years ago.  Yet by employing Zeder’s methodology, Redding:

analyzed animal remains found in layers at Hallan Chemi and noted that in early layers dating to about 11,500 years ago, pig bones made up just 10% to 15% of the fauna and were almost evenly split between male and female. But in the later layers, dating from 11,000 to 10,500 years ago, pig bones climbed to 20%. They also become very heavily biased toward female, and they become very young (Pringle).

These results actually support the notion that the domestication of pigs in this part of the world may, indeed, have predated domesticated grains. 

            Professor Alan J. Osborn of the University of Nebraska at Omaha believes it is unlikely that animal domestication preceded plant domestication.  He pointed to the fact that grain production brought about as a result of feeding hungry herd animals would not be nearly as efficient a use of calories as the harvesting of grain for human consumption.  This does seem likely.  Grain feeds considerably more people than it can animals, when one takes into account the amount of grain necessary to produce one pound of beef.  The argument for agriculture as the primary marker of the Neolithic period, then, is strong.

            Still, Osborn has admitted that often times the path to scientific discovery is not as originally thought, with previously accepted theories sometimes turning out to be erroneous.  The path to civilization may not have been as easily laid out as some may think, and new evidence and techniques for analyzing that evidence emerges all the time.  It is possible that the road down the Neolithic adventure may be filled with more twists and turns than anyone suspected, so without conclusive evidence, research findings that are vogue today may be debunked decades from now.  The path of human discovery – like our own species’ haphazard beginnings – may prove to be more enigmatic than we might first think.

In the end, it may turn out that in parts of the world everywhere, the domestication of plants actually followed animal domestication.  Nomadic tribes would have had ample access to animals, hunting regularly and perhaps finding the motherless litters of wild herd animals.  It would have been nothing for children, for instance, to take and tame these progenitors of today’s herd animals, and the advantages of keeping, raising, and eventually breeding fauna for consumption may have presented itself as an easier alternative to just hunting. 

In fact, the addition of more meat into the tribe from tamed, captured animals may have led to healthier and longer living human offspring, and the need to feed an ever burgeoning tribe may have necessitated the need for larger herds.  The need to feed these herbivorous herds, then, could have led to the planting of grain crops as the tribe moved from location to location, allowing their herd animals to have grains upon which to feed as the tribe sojourned from place to place over the course of the year.  The benefits of this increased yield in cultivated savannahs and pasture lands could have eventually led to a need to set aside a predominantly nomadic lifestyle for one of sedentarism, and as tribes continually improved their stock by selective breeding for advantageous traits, the ensuing cultivation and domestication of plants would have quickly outpaced their less prolific fauna counterparts, perhaps leading to a proverbial “cart-before-the-horse” theory of plant domestication preceding animal domestication.  Although the domestication of animals may not have come before that of plants everywhere, it is possible that as scientific advances in technology and methodology grow, so, too, will the advances in anthropology bring about new ideas and theories as revolutionary as the Neolithic era itself.  Maybe it will prove to be the domestication of fauna, not flora, that marks the beginning of the Neolithic Revolution.

Works Cited

Garcea, Elena. “An Alternative Way Towards Food Production: The Perspective from the Libyan Sahara.” Journal of World Prehistory. 18.2 Jun. 2004: 107-54. Academic Search Premier. < =33bb9232-6d26-4ded-bcc3-b6661bbdee84%40sessionmgr2>.

Osborn, Alan J. Lecture. University of Nebraska at Omaha. 3 Mar. 2009.

Pringle, Heather. “The Slow Birth of Agriculture.” Science. 282.5393 Nov. 1998: 1446+. Academic Search Premier. 9 Apr. 2009. <

/ehost /detail?vid=4&hid=9&sid=33bb9232-6d26-4ded-bcc3-b6661bbdee84%40session mgr2&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=1342730>.

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