First Farmers











Bacon and Ham spend some quality time with Mama Pork Chop.
© D. Vincent Carlson






















Wheat, corn and rice are the largest crops in the world. Wheat (right), perhaps the first to be domesticated, grows in colder climates.
Courtesy Oregon State University


Danish modern
It's a long haul from the Fertile Crescent to Scandinavia. How did agriculture reach these northern climates? Mainly by diffusion, says T. Douglas Price of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, rather than by colonization by people who brought their seeds, sickles, cattle and storage vessels.

He reaches this conclusion because he sees little change in material culture when agriculture appeared. The tools, homes and clothing in archeological sites do not suddenly shift, as would happen if a new people had arrived with their crops and other baggage.

Three pigs -- an adult and two young'uns.Despite earlier claims that farming spread gradually and inexorably across the continent, Price sees it as a herky, jerky phenomenon, with rapid advances followed by long periods of stability.

After reaching present-day Greece roughly 9,000 BP, farming spread into the southern Balkans around 8,600 BP to 7,600 BP, and from there northward and westward. Think of the progression as a shift from Greek baklava and Hungarian goulash to French crepes and Danish pastries.

Farming finally reached the frontier in Scandinavia starting around 6,000 BP, when the proto-Danes began raising wheat, barley, cattle, pigs and poppies. Evidence for its arrival includes impressions of cereal grains on wet clay and pollen left over from plants that grow only in pastures where cattle are present. No tinned Danish hams have been found -- yet.

Let's farm 'n hunt
During a century or so, farming spread widely through Denmark, but it took 2,000 years for agriculture to replace hunting and gathering as a source of food. "The diet did not change much for a long time after agriculture," says Price. "Wild foods were very important."

If diet did not change, society did, with a growing distinction between rich and poor. Large tombs for individuals and trade in amber, copper and other "prestige items" that appeared after farming all indicate an increase in social stratification. While crafts had been present before agriculture, a rapid increase in food production apparently gave some people time to specialize in them.

Stalks of wheat show the prominent kernels that are the whole point of growing this grain.Price says agriculture seems to have pacified Scandinavia. Burials from the late Mesolithic (middle stone age), around 7,000 BP, indicate that life was nasty, brutish and rather short. At burial sites, "Almost 50 percent have traumatic injuries, violent deaths," says Price. "They were hit in the head by clubs, shot in the chest with arrows. You don't see that as much in the Neolithic [late stone age]." The decline in violence after agriculture is the kind of testimony to the farming lifestyle that Thomas Jefferson would have applauded.

Motivationally speaking?
While Bar-Yosef thinks crops were first domesticated as a result of environmental stress, Price says it's an unlikely -- or at least unprovable -- cause in Europe, where, over the course of 3,000 years, farming became ubiquitous. For one thing, the low population density in Europe makes environmental stress an unlikely explanation for the adoption of agriculture.

Rather, Price looks to social systems, and particularly social inequality. While society had once been fairly egalitarian, powerful, rich people now wanted luxuries and trade goods. This phenomenon is seen in some non-westernized societies today (and in Westernized ones, too). This demand, and the rise of trading networks, created a need for food to trade. (See "Europe's First Farmers" in the bibliography)

From cause to effect
In Denmark, the arrival of agriculture produced a boom in crafts. Price says highly polished flint axes began "showing up by the tens of thousands, yet there was no reason to polish them at all." The axes, and other ceremonial, religious or simply artistic objects were "made and traded over huge areas"

Oddly, agriculture did not seem to help diet. In Denmark, Price says, the increased consumption of carbohydrates caused a wave of rotten teeth.

How about some fried fish to go with those ancient grains?



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