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Why Did Hunter-Gatherers First Start Farming?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017 19:22
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The beginnings of agriculture changed human history and has fascinated scientists for centuries.

Researchers from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield have shed light on how hunter-gatherers first began farming and how crops were domesticated to depend on humans.

Domesticated crops have been transformed almost beyond recognition in comparison with their wild relatives – a change that happened during the early stages of farming in the Stone Age.

Emmer wheat
Credit: University of Sheffield
For grain crops like cereals, the hallmark of domestication is the loss of natural seed dispersal – seeds no longer fall off plants but have become dependent on humans or machines to spread them.

Professor Colin Osborne, from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield, said: “We know very little about how agriculture began, because it happened 10,000 years ago – that’s why a number of mysteries are unresolved. For example why hunter-gatherers first began farming, and how were crops domesticated to depend on people.

“One controversy in this area is about the extent to which ancient peoples knew they were domesticating crops. Did they know they were breeding domestication characteristics into crops, or did these characteristics just evolve as the first farmers sowed wild plants into cultivated soil, and tended and harvested them?”

The new research, published in the journal Evolution Letters, shows the impact of domestication on vegetable seed size.

Any selective breeding of vegetables by early farmers would have acted on the leaves, stems or roots that were eaten as food, but should not have directly affected seed size.

Instead, any changes in vegetable seed size must have arisen from natural selection acting on these crops in cultivated fields, or from genetic links to changes in another characteristic like plant or organ size. In the last instance, people might have bred crops to become bigger, and larger seeds would have come along unintentionally.

The University of Sheffield researchers gathered seed size data from a range of crops and found strong evidence for a general enlargement of seeds due to domestication.

They discovered domesticated maize seeds are 15 times bigger than the wild form, soybean seeds are seven times bigger. Wheat, barley and other grain crops had more modest increases in size (60 per cent for barley and 15 per cent for emmer wheat) but these changes are important if they translate into yield.

“We found strong evidence for a general enlargement of seeds due to domestication across seven vegetable species,” said Professor Osborne.

“This is especially stunning in a crop like a sweet potato, where people don’t even plant seeds, let alone harvest them. The size of this domestication effect falls completely within the range seen in cereals and pulse grains like lentils and beans, raising the possibility that at least part of the seed enlargement in these crops also evolved during domestication without deliberate foresight from early farmers.”

Professor Osborne added: “Our findings have important implications for understanding how crops evolved, because they mean that major changes in our staple crops could have arisen without deliberate foresight by early farmers.

“This means that unconscious selection was probably more important in the genesis of our food plants than previously realised. Early increases in the yields of crops might well have evolved in farmers’ fields rather than being bred artificially.”

Read more about the research at:

Contacts and sources:
Amy Pullan
The University of Sheffield

Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield


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Total 3 comments
  • Jango

    This research is totally flawed. Evolution is a lie. Those that still believe this nonsense simply cannot explain where the first living cell came from except to say that “it just appeared” which is as stupid as saying we found a brand new Ferrari in the jungle. Here is the truth.

    • Air Quotes Shill Air Quotes

      Actually, nobody says the first cell just appeared.

      Chemical reactions came first, these chemical reactions, created by products that mixed with the ongoing chemical reactions, lead to chemical combinations that are the basis of a cell, like breaking down one chemical, and producing another.

      This lead to the chemical reactions getting more advanced and evolved into the first single cell “life”. Which were little more than chemical combinations.

      But go ahead, think Jesus is right even though that idea is full of magic and bullshit. I’m sure to stupid people, magic and bullshit is easier to understand than science.

  • hansom

    I’ll tell you why. After the market was saturated by “flint axe and spears(TM)” , the owner (a fella by the name of rock). Diversified and formed “plough and scythe(TM)”, and a massive advertising campaign ensued.

    Fed up of chasing your food, hungry and exhausted ? Buy a plough and scythe, you’ll stay alive.

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