For centuries, archaeologists believed that ancient people couldn’t live in tropical jungles. The environment was simply too harsh and challenging, they thought. As a result, scientists simply didn’t look for clues of ancient civilizations in the tropics. Instead, they turned their attention to the Middle East, where we have ample evidence that hunter-gatherers settled down in farming villages 9,000 years ago during a period dubbed the “Neolithic revolution.” Eventually, these farmers’ offspring built the ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the great pyramids of Egypt. It seemed certain that city life came from these places and spread from there around the world.
But now that story seems increasingly uncertain. In an article published in Nature Plants, Max Planck Institute archaeologist Patrick Roberts and his colleagues explain that cities and farms are far older than we think. Using techniques ranging from genetic sampling of forest ecosystems and isotope analysis of human teeth, to soil analysis and lidar, the researchers have found ample evidence that people at the equator were actively changing the natural world to make it more human-centric.
It all started about 45,000 years ago. At that point, people began burning down vegetation to make room for plant resources and homes. Over the next 35,000 years, the simple practice of burning back forest evolved. People mixed specialized soils for growing plants; they drained swamps for agriculture; they domesticated animals like chickens; and they farmed yam, taro, sweet potato, chili pepper, black pepper, mango, and bananas…
“The tropics demonstrate that where we draw the lines of agriculture and urbanism can be very difficult to determine. Humans were clearly modifying environments and moving even small animals around as early as 20,000 years ago in Melanesia, they were performing the extensive drainage of landscapes at Kuk Swamp to farm yams [and] bananas… From a Middle East/European perspective, there has always been a revolutionary difference (“Neolithic revolution”) between hunter gatherers and farmers, [but] the tropics belie this somewhat.”
Two things strike me:
- The article suggests that this finding just occurred now because scholars assumed it wasn’t worth examining the tropics. This happens more often than researchers want to admit: we explore certain phenomena for certain reasons and this may blind us to other phenomena or explanations. In a perfect world, there would be so many researchers that everything could be covered and research that rules out explanations or shows a lack of phenomena would be valued more highly.
- That cities and agriculture took a longer time to develop does not seem too surprising. The shift to more anchored lives – tied to farming and larger population centers – would have been quite a change. Arguably, the world is still going through this process with the pace of urbanization increasing tremendously in the last century and nations and cities desperately trying to catch up.
Now that scientists are looking into this matter, hopefully we get a more complete understanding soon.