and now for something else completely different…

the fruit tree theory of the origins of agriculture:

this is the reigning paradigm here at home at the moment.

i’ve always had a hard time imagining why a bunch of hunter-gatherers would suddenly think: “i know! let’s settle down here and plant some flax seeds!”

-??-

but i can much more easily picture bunches of hunter-gatherers wandering around the fertile crescent (or wherever) — probably mainting territories — and especially defending spots where there were groves of fruit trees (figs, date palms).

all sort of animals, including other primates, defend fruit trees. and why wouldn’t you?! it’s a delicious, nutrious, rich food source:

if i, as a hunter-gatherer, came across a bunch of date palms, i’d probably plant myself next to them to make sure to collect the fruit for me and my family (like these folks are doing) …

… and then maybe i’d think about planting some grain seeds nearby, since i’d be hanging around the neighborhood for a while anyway.

i guess this is a sorta variation on the old oasis theory to explain the start of agriculture, although you don’t need the drying climate part of that theory. presumably somebody has already thought of this fruit tree idea.

(note: comments do not require an email. keep your hands off the fruit!)

Advertisements

35 Comments

  1. Well, let’s see. All (or much of) gathering in hunting-and-gathering societies is about annual crops: fruits, seeds, nuts, not sure about the roots though. Also, choice hunting-and-gathering grounds were almost surely defended and aggressed against, assuming population pressure as a long-term trend (“be fruitful and multiply. . .”). So date palms and the like were probably part of the diet in, say, Mesopotamia, for a long time before what we think of as the domestication of plants and animals.

    It seems to me that the planting of the seeds of annual crops which have to be tended continually (weeds, those pesky things), is the decisive development. Fruit trees take years to mature. Even then, in early horticultural societies, hunting and gathering continued to be practiced along side of, and in every conceivable combination with plant and animal husbandry (this according U. of Chicago archaeologist Robert McAdams and colleagues in a symposium collected in Upon These Foundations).

    But, then, on your side of the argument we have the story of the apple tree in the garden of you know where. So maybe we are both right.

    Reply

  2. Let me clarify. I think the decisive thing is whether you are so dependent on a fixed source of food that you cannot leave it and expect to survive. That sometimes happened even with fishing sites in the Pacific Northwest, where slavery was practiced. Slavery is a good index on large land masses (though not islands). If you can’t live off the fat of the land you can’t run away no matter how mistreated. Hunger is the most powerful force there is.

    In fact I’ve just been reading memoirs of labor camp survivors in China during the 1950’s: though death rates were high inside the camps conditions were so horrendous outside that the people who did run away successfully returned voluntarily after a few days wandering in the wilderness of a famine-stricken society. The survivors — they were all scholars and intellectuals to begin with — have written some superb literature, better than anything that came out of the Soviet Union or Nazi Europe. Er Tai Gao’s memoirs (which I happen to be reading just now) being a prime example; Half of Man is a Woman another. Why didn’t the scholarly Jews of Europe produce an equal literature I wonder? The talented ones all got away before 1939? Primo Levi being the exception. I don’t know the answer to that question. Maybe I haven’t read enough.

    Reply

  3. @luke – “Fruit trees take years to mature.”

    yes, fruit trees take years to mature, but they grow naturally in the wild. in groups in some spots (fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, etc., etc….).

    i wasn’t picturing hunter-gatherers planting fruit trees — not at first anyway. what i’m wondering is why you would bother settling in one spot in the first place? all sorts of animals defend fruit tree resources (like the gibbons in the photo in the post). i would think that ancient humans might’ve, too. and then, when you’re kinda stuck in one spot, you might think about moving some of those tasty wild grains that you nibble on sometimes during your gathering sessions over by “your” fruit trees.

    see what i mean?

    Reply

  4. hbd chick: “i would think that ancient humans might’ve, too. and then, when you’re kinda stuck in one spot, you might think about moving some of those tasty wild grains that you nibble on sometimes during your gathering sessions over by “your” fruit trees.

    see what i mean?”

    Yes, I see what you mean. It may have happened like that, especially in subtropical areas like Sichuan, China, where rice cultivation developed. In the Fertile Crescent I am not so sure: I am always struck by the relative lack of vegetation in those areas, which suggests, to me anyway, that population pressures had forced the weakest bands into marginal areas, where the cultivation of grains became a necessity (necessity the mother of invention) over time, starting with wild grains to be sure. But that’s just a guess. Archeologists might conceivably answer this question by examining the remains of ancient settlements, skeletons, etc.

    Reply

  5. Reflecting further, I think date palms were relatively plentiful in the marshy areas of Iraq where the earliest city states appeared. Point for you.

    In any case for a true civilization to get started it was necessary for there to be a fairly dense collection of agricultural villages extending over a fairly wide area. Conquest only makes sense if one group (band, tribe) can subdue not one similar-sized group but several or even many. The logic of conquest is spelled out in a nifty book called “The Parable of the Tribes.”

    Reply

  6. I should have said “conquest only has consequences” (instead of “makes sense”) if one group can subdue several. Otherwise you are left with an isolated city-state like Jericho. What you want is an unstable situation between neighboring communities: if we don’t do it to them, then they will do it to us. “War is the mother of all things,” said an early Greek philosopher. I think that was true. And remained true right on up through the Cold War (war or the threat of war). Could still be true.

    Reply

  7. I can see the fruit tree idea – people wanting to defend pre-existing concentrated food sources.

    Similarly my view – latrine based innovation – stems from personal experience of going to lots of open-air music concerts in the past.

    I picture it as a place like Gobekli set up as a religious center in the middle of a large population of HGs with yearly festivals where marriages are arranged etc. The mountain itself may have had patchs of wild wheat already but if the festival-goers brought baskets of gathered wild wheat to eat during the week or so of the festival then all those wild wheat seeds will have ended up in latrines dug all over the mountain and every year of the festival the mountain would become increasingly covered in wild wheat. Add a priest or two who decide to settle permanently on the site, add a fence to protect a patch of the wild wheat from animals and hey presto, farming.

    Reply

  8. If you imagine the above it might have seemed miraculous to the people concerned. Every year their holy mountain becoming more and more abundant with edible foodstuff.

    Reply

  9. @article
    hunter-gatherer, came across a bunch of date palms

    There’s fig trees being cultivated from cuttings at 11,400 years ago.
    A mutant fig tree was found and cuttings from it were transported around and planted.

    Ancient Fig Find May Push Back Birth of Agriculture

    “Scott Norris
    for National Geographic News
    June 1, 2006
    […]
    discovered the ancient figs at the Gilgal archaeological site in the Jordan Valley near the city of Jericho
    […]
    The nine carbonized figs were small but ripe and showed signs of having been dried
    […]
    Occasionally, however, a mutation occurs that allows fruit to develop from unfertilized female flowers, a process known as parthenocarpy.
    […]
    Some figs grown commercially today are of this variety. Apparently, so were the Stone Age figs at Gilgal.
    […]
    humans were maintaining the mutant trees by planting live branches
    […]
    Additional fig remains have been recovered from other sites
    […]
    this suggests that choice trees were being transported and planted to increase agricultural yield at different locations. ”

    Ancient fig clue to first farming
    “The carbonised fruits date between 11,200 and 11,400 years old. “

    Reply

  10. @sNoOOPy – so i’m not completely crazy! (not completely.) yay!

    11,000 yr. old domesticated figs. much coolness. thanks, sNoOOPy! (^_^)

    Reply

  11. @g.w. – “If you imagine the above it might have seemed miraculous to the people concerned. Every year their holy mountain becoming more and more abundant with edible foodstuff.”

    yes — would’ve been kinda trippy! (~_^) if it happened, it might’ve confirmed for them all that this was indeed a holy spot and that they oughta keep on doing their ritualistic stuff there. (^_^)

    Reply

  12. @hbd chick figs are ridiculously high in calories.

    They have a good macronutrient ratio to base a ‘paleo’ diet on (or would it only be a ‘neo’ diet):

    figs:
    sugar: 82% (48% fructose)
    starch: 9%
    protein: 5%
    fat: 4%

    Hunter gatherers must have been fat with a lot of diabetus until they discovered grains to get the sugar ratio down.

    Reply

  13. @sNoOOPy – “Hunter gatherers must have been fat with a lot of diabetus until they discovered grains to get the sugar ratio down.”

    heh. (^_^)

    Reply

  14. @article all sort of animals, including other primates, defend fruit trees.

    Chimps like to eat a lot of figs, which is a staple of their diet.

    How to Eat Like a Chimpanzee
    “By Rob Dunn | August 2, 2012
    2-Figs—Nearly half of all of the food consumed by chimps appears to be one or another kind of figs, fruits of the Ficus trees.”

    Chugging Chimpanzee
    “More than 50% of the food eaten by wild chimpanzees is fruit. Almost all of this fruit is made up of a variety of figs.”

    Feeding habits of chimpanzees
    “Budongo Forest Reserve
    […]
    The primates spent 78% of the morning eating fruits and leaves and inhabited fig trees with fruits for about 4h.
    […]
    chimpanzees chased away all other primates from fig trees”

    The Value of Figs to Chimpanzees
    “figs that are eaten in Kibale Forest.
    […]
    Ripe fig-tree fruits were available in every month from December 1987 to March 1990. During this period fig seeds were present in 95.5% of chimpanzees feces.”

    YouTube: Chimpanzee hanging and eating figs

    YouTube: Chimpanzees breaking their fast on figs

    Mobutu eating figs

    images chimpanzee figs

    Reply

  15. Figs – sounds like a direct hit :)

    #

    I was thinking some more on the whole HG endogamous vs exogamous thing and whether it’s related to population density and had a thought related to this.

    The anthro stuff i’ve read tends to go on about early humans / hominids being very r-type i.e. males fight / compete to mate but after that females feed their own offspring. The thing about that is, say for the sake of argument
    – an adult needs 2000 calories a day
    – a child needs 1000
    – the males just gather for themselves
    – the females gather for themselves and the child
    – the females always have one child’s worth of extra calories to find at a time (e.g. they might have one child who can gather 250 calories by themselves and one who can gather 750 so the female still needs to find an extra 1000)

    Obviously that is simplified but logically however you cut the numbers that population will have a limited range based on the average number of extra calories the females need to find to feed the young.

    Using the numbers i chose they can only live within a range where a minimum 3000 calories can be gathered a day. The males get to gather 2000 then nap, the females gather the full 3000. So it seems to me that something must have happened to the above system to make it possible for humans / hominids to spread outside areas of easy gathering.

    (This assumes areas of easy gathering were limited but even if not the argument would still apply eventually e.g. deserts, the arctic etc.)

    Anyway some of the possibilities for modifications to the above system that would allow the spread
    – grandmother effect, mothers stay alive longer to help feed their daughter’s children. even if, using the above model, an elderly grandmother can only gather 2500 calories that extra 500 is 500 the daughter doesn’t need to find
    – meat for meat, females trade sex for provisions with any male who has spare
    – males evolve in a k-type direction

    What struck me when thinking this – and which comes back to the relevance – was that the grandmother effect looks the simplest and most plausible *if* the calories are gathered. So if you take the phrase hunter-gatherer and think of it in terms of proportions of calories available from both then i think you get an explanation for why Eskimo and Bushmen are monogamous and k-type. The more the surplus calories adults can produce come from gathering the more the grandmother (and sisters and older daughters) effect can provide the calorie gap for the children. The more the calorie gap can only be filled by hunting the more males have to evolve in a k-type direction because it seems to me that’s the only way the calorie numbers can work in that situation, at least if you imagine hunting like this

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persistence_hunting

    I can’t really see a grandmother doing that or a mother with a four-year old on her back.

    So anyway going back to the question of HG marriage systems the adults have to somehow produce surplus calories for the children and i think the proportion of those surplus calories that come from gathering versus the proportion that comes from hunting will determine where on the polygyny vs monogamy spectrum a particular group of HGs will be
    – mostly gathering – grandmother effect – polygyny
    – midway – meat for meat (the yanomani are a bit like this from my reading) – halfway (serial monogamy?)
    – mostly hunting – k-type males – monogamy

    I’m thinking this will factor into HG marriage systems.

    Reply

  16. hbdchick said: yes, fruit trees take years to mature, but they grow naturally in the wild. in groups in some spots (fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, etc., etc….).

    seeds have ways of being disbursed. when I was a kid cutting the grass we didn’t cut all the time over the hill in back of the house, i found tomato plants ….. that was the where the septic tank’s drainage field was. now they could have been from errant seeds washed down the drain, or they could have been seeds from tomatoes i ate at grandma’s that got introduced into the system. a lebanese friend of mine eats the entire apple. so i am guessing that a few hundred years ago that she would have had an orchard.

    water would have also been an excellent method of transport, hence the rich fauna development nearby as various animals stopped to drink, and do their business.

    Reply

  17. I’d guess that cultivation started with hunter-gatherers who were anyway sedentary. An obvious case would be people with good access to fish on the shores of, say, the Med or the Black Sea. The evidence would now be impossible to find because of rising sea levels as the ice melted. Refugees could carry their knowledge to those parts of the Near East where evidence survives.

    Reply

  18. What do fish-eating mesolithic people do with their food scraps? They’d make good fertiliser for plant growth, or (here’s a suggestion) pigs like fish scraps, so pigs might come snuffling around for food and Latrine Theory could be applied to pig poo too.

    Reply

  19. @g.w. – “So if you take the phrase hunter-gatherer and think of it in terms of proportions of calories available from both then i think you get an explanation for why Eskimo and Bushmen are monogamous and k-type. The more the surplus calories adults can produce come from gathering the more the grandmother (and sisters and older daughters) effect can provide the calorie gap for the children. The more the calorie gap can only be filled by hunting the more males have to evolve in a k-type direction because it seems to me that’s the only way the calorie numbers can work in that situation….”

    aaaaaaaaah! yes. that’s very good! i like it. (^_^)

    @g.w. – “The males get to gather 2000 then nap….”

    lazy sods! (~_^)

    Reply

  20. @rjp – “seeds have ways of being disbursed.”

    they sure do! and via animal poo (including ours) is one of the plants’ main methods. the fruit is just there to trick us into spreading their seeds for them — those sneaky plants. never trusted ’em! (~_^)

    Reply

  21. @dearmie – “What do fish-eating mesolithic people do with their food scraps? They’d make good fertiliser for plant growth….”

    good thinkin’! also the pig theory. you might also toss the scraps to some of those wild dogs that have been hanging around the camp.

    Reply

  22. I saw a nature documentary just the noo where two troupes of monkeys fought a pitched battle over a fig tree, 3-4 killed in the battle.

    Reply

  23. @hbd chick do you recall what kind of monkeys? macaques, maybe?

    Maybe this?
    Dark Days in Monkey City
    “Dark Days in Monkey City is an Animal Planet documentary about the lives of wild Toque Macaques in Sri Lanka.
    …uses footage from the PBP, which has been studying the Polonnaruwa macaques since 1968
    …a troop of Toque macaques who live in a temple area known as Fig Tree Vale. The vale is abundant in figs and water. ”

    Tropical Fruits and Frugivores
    “…figs… contribute…to…monthly fruit biomass on Sumatra…41%
    …macaques…rely heavily on figs for > 40% of the fruit they consume
    …Of 182 intergroup encounters…of…macaques, 54% were located at fruiting figs.”

    Long-tailed macaques on a fig tree

    Long-tailed macaque eating fig during Kinabatangan River safari

    Reply

  24. @sNoOOPy – “Dark Days in Monkey City”

    cool! i wanna see that. (^_^)

    @sNoOOPy – “rely heavily on figs for > 40% of the fruit they consume”

    that’s a lotta figs!

    @sNoOOPy – “Of 182 intergroup encounters…of…macaques, 54% were located at fruiting figs”

    yup! i can believe it.

    Reply

  25. “really?! wow. do you recall what kind of monkeys? macaques, maybe?”

    Sorry for late reply. No i was walking past the TV en route for tea-making and saw this giant monkey-battle over a fig tree. It looked like it could have been Sri Lanka. They were grey and un-chimp-like.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s