Peter Bellwood’s First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies seeks to focus on the origins and dispersals of ancient agricultural communities with respect to a variety of fields of study to establish a historical interpretation from a comparative perspective. Although Bellwood admits to having training only in the discipline of archaeology, the book also considers the areas of comparative linguistics and biological anthropology.
Through this collaboration of data from different areas of study, the book is framed around a multidisciplinary hypothesis, which Bellwood refers to as the “early farming dispersal hypothesis. ” This assumption states that “the spreads of early farming lifestyles were often correlated with prehistoric episodes of human population and language dispersal from agricultural homelands. ” (2) Throughout First Farmers, Bellwood provides support for this hypothesis by discussing different centers of agriculture in the world with data from archaeology, linguistics, and anthropology.
He also discusses theories and findings of other historians and scientists to propose either evidence for or contradictions to his ideas. Bellwood provides an abundance of information about his thesis to his audience, while considering observations made by others. Very early in the book, Bellwood explains that the current world population cannot be supported purely by means of hunting and gathering, and as a result, agricultural systems have developed, allowing the genetic modification of crops and animals to optimize their production.
With this idea, he proposes several questions; What is agriculture and what is it capable of supporting? How and why did agriculture develop? What is its relation to hunting and gathering? What is the relationship between a hunter gatherer and an agriculturalist? How and why does a hunting and gathering society transform into an agriculturalist one? Bellwood presents the significance of agriculture to a growing population and relates the idea to health and disease. He concludes that early agriculturalists were fairly ealthy due to the absence of major crop diseases and epidemic diseases known to have come from domesticated animals. Bellwood also displays graphs illustrating population increase in several populations and discusses the low level of osteological stress markers among these early agriculturalist societies. He then presents the necessary circumstances under which agriculture could have developed. These situations include, intended planting and a regular annual cycle of cultivation, stabilization of warm and rainy climates, increasing settlement sedentism, and growth in population size.
To answer this question of the origin of agriculture, Bellwood also introduces a number of views from different scholars. He displays the idea of David Rindos, who believed in the “gradualist and Darwinist view of co-evolutionary selection and change, in which plants were thought to have co-evolved with humans for as long as they have been predated by humans, adapting to the different seed dispersal mechanisms and selective processes set in train by human intervention. (24) Bellwood establishes that although there may be some overlap between hunting and gathering and the adoption of agriculture, it is very unlikely that a society would choose to continuously and seasonally switch from one way of living to the other, supporting the idea of increase in settlement sedentism. This suggests the question of under what circumstances did hunter gatherers decide to move towards agriculture.
First Farmers characterizes the different types of hunter gatherers that were considered into three categories according to their location and resources that made agriculture possible. It is concluded that these varying groups of hunting and gathering societies transformed into agriculturalist ones due to different reasons, such as cultural pressures, social situations, and environmental conditions.
To further discuss the origin of the development of agriculture within particular regions of the world, Bellwood introduces the five major centers in the archaeological record; the Fertile Crescent of Southwest Asia, the middle and lower parts of the Yangzi and Yellow river basins in China, New Guinea, the tropical regions of the Americas, with a focus on Mexico and northern South America, and the Eastern Woodlands of the United States.
First Farmers considers each major center in terms of the continents in which they are located. Famously referred to in archaeology as the “Fertile Crescent,” Southwest Asia is “by far the best-known region in world prehistory for the transition to agriculture. ” (44) This major center of agriculture covers the Jordan Valley, inland Syria, southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, and western Iran. Its plant domesticates consist of cereals, wheat, and legumes that prosper under the Mediterranean climate.
Factors that serve as evidence for societies in this region changing from a hunting and gathering population to an agriculturalist one include major increases in maximum settlement sizes, architectural innovations, and the appearance of monuments and communal structures, which all support the idea of an increase in settlement sedentism. In the region of Europe and Asia, it is postulated that probably both adoption by hunter gatherers and the dispersal of farmers resulted in the development of agriculture here.
A closer look at the specific locations and origin of agriculture in the area, exposes three external sources of crops; Southwest Asia, northern Sub-Saharan Africa, and East Asia. The African continent is the least-studied major center of agriculture and only recently was the Sahel zone and the Savanna zone that stretches between the Sahara and the rain forest considered to be homeland for a variety of important native crops, such as African rice, pearl millet, and sorghum.
In East Asia, the focus of the study of the origin of agriculture in the region lies in the middle and lower basins of the Yellow and Yangzi rivers, and the several smaller river basins. The climate changes that affected the present and postglacial sea level in the area has provided China with the optimum conditions for cultivating wild cereals, the progenitors of the domesticated millets. For the Americas, the evidence for a transition from hunting and gathering to farming is less sharp than they are in the previous Old World examples. Domesticated crops of this region include maize, varieties of squashes, gourds, and beans.
Different specific sites are discussed in First Farmers to further give evidence for the early agriculture which occurred in the region. Whereas the first eight chapters of First Farmers discusses the early history of agricultural dispersal from a number of major centers in the world, the last three chapters of the book exclusively presents the other fields of study that were considered in the early farming dispersal hypothesis. It presents the correlations between each discipline and subject in terms of the spread of farming and agriculture.
Although, there was a lack of standpoint in certain arguments that were brought up, these weaknesses may only be due to Bellwood’s own admittance that he is not an expert in all the disciplines that were considered in the making of this book. Through specific graphs and illustrations, analysis of others’ theories and ideas, and consideration of other fields of studies, Peter Bellwood achieves to provide sufficient evidence to support his multidisciplinary hypothesis and successfully provides a historical interpretation from a comparative perspective in First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies.