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Ancient Farmers Replaced Hunter-Gatherer Forerunners

Taking a holistic view about the domestication of crops and animals.

Archaeologist Xinyi Liu at Washington University in St. Louis teamed up with Martin Jones of the University of Cambridge to write a new paper for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that explains how recent research is connecting the science of biological domestication to early food globalization.

Liu, an associate professor of archaeology and associate chair of the Department of Anthropology in Arts & Sciences, proposes a new conceptual framework to understand domestication, which is relevant not only to anthropology but other fields such as biology and ecology.

In this Q&A, he also offers his perspective on how understanding the past conditions can help us to forge a vision for the future.

The domestication of plants and animals is among the most significant transitions in human history. How has our understanding of domestication changed recently?

Our new article focuses on how we conceptualize domestication. A considerable intellectual legacy has depicted domestication as a series of short-lived, localized and episodic events. Some of the literature, particularly those pieces dating back to the early 20th century, envisioned the process as a transition from humans within nature to humans controlling nature in a revolutionary fashion.

The metaphor there is "revolution." So, as people described it, there was a "Neolithic Revolution" that functioned in a similar way as the "Industrial Revolution" or the "scientific revolution"—a rapid technological shift followed by changes in societies, according to some narratives.

It is time to reconsider all this. Newly emergent evidence from the last 15 years challenges the idea of rapid domestication. This evidence shows unambiguously that plant and animal domestication in a range of species entailed a more gradual transition spanning a few thousand years across extensive geographies. ...