The origins of animal and plant domestication is considered an important development in human history by anthropologists and the sub-discipline field of archaeology is responsible for collecting the site data to enable study of this social advancement.
The deliberate planning and planting of crops or the purposeful domestication of wild animals marks a point of innovation and a greater complexity of social interaction and technological requirements in a society. It is traditionally presumed that the move from collecting wild food to farming food gave workers more leisure time and a better standard of life.
However, hunter-gatherers had a relatively easy life anyway, with few pressures and little real worries. Ethnologists suspect that hunter-gatherers only worked as required, perhaps a few hours on a few days each week, and that this was sufficient to maintain their needs. Research has shown that the change to producing domesticated food types is one that left workers busier than before and with new pressures such as market demands, price returns, weather conditions, pests and diseases, seed collection, reproduction difficulties, and taxes.
Art for the Elite Only
An increase in leisure time was only for the elite classes and especially those who owned or ruled over the lands. Peasant workers received very little benefit from the domestication process. Society, as a whole, did benefit by releasing a small number of the elite to religious, governmental, and even artistic pursuits.
Food domestication appears to differ from the Old World to the New World and there are two main food source divisions that should be considered: Plant and animal.
Old World Domestication
The Old World is primarily Europe and the Middle East. There are a number of important grain crops that were domesticated in these regions. The most familiar in the West are wheat, barley, and rye, along with numerous feed grasses that were used for animal production, while in the Middle East lentils, nuts, and dates were being domesticated with rice and millet predominating Far East trends.
Important also in the process of domestication was the non-food crops such as oil producing plants (sunflowers, olives, etc) and utilitarian crops such as cotton, hemp, and flax.
Archaeologists believe that the earliest domesticated animal species was the dog. A domesticated form of the wolf was used for personal protection from intruders while other varieties proved useful in flushing out wild game or even killing in the hunt. Other uses were as workers such as pulling sleds.
As food sources, palaeontologists have discovered so many sheep and goat remains that it is unquestionable that these animals were under early human control especially in the Middle East. The Far East, although also using sheep and goats, were strongly developing species such as the pig and birds including domesticating the chicken and duck.
Oxen, cows, horses, and other large animals were not the first to be domesticated and the harnessing of these animals for food and production did not enter until a much later time.
New World Domestication
The Americas of the New World were slowly developing important crops like peppers, beans, potatoes, peanuts, coffee, and tomatoes. Many of these crops have become the staples of modern economies and international cuisine. But equally important are the non-food crops that produced medicinal drugs and tobacco.
As in the West, so too in the New World was the dog an early contender for domestication. Sadly, for the Central American dog, he was more desired as a delicacy than a labourer. The Aztecs, for example, bred the small, hairless Chihuahua as a meat source along with guinea pigs.
South American’s had their equivalent of the Middle Eastern camel in the form of the llama and the alpaca, both of which were raised for transport and meat.
Archaeologists find distinct site differences between pre and post domestication. Architecturally, the sites of post domestication show larger, close quartered structures that yield evidence of greater populations.
The architectural features are more permanent in their construction and there are purpose built structures for storage facilities. Socially, there is often artefact evidence supporting a widening gap in social equality and often an elite ruling class can be seen emerging.
The dry Middle East contains many archaeological sites that are well preserved from both the pre and post domestication periods. Israel, Jordan, and Syria all play host to former habitation sites were permanent plastered brick huts, grinding stones, and cereal grains show the transition of human development from hunter-gatherer to domesticated food farmer.