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The Neolithic Revolution

Our second example deals with the so-called Neolithic Revolution (Renn 2015a, b). Just as there were probably many pathways leading to early communication systems, there were certainly also many routes to food production in different parts of the world. Here we will concentrate on the emergence of food production in the Fertile Crescent around 10,000 BC. Developed agriculture is a comprehensive subsistence strategy involving intensive human labor. It represents an economic system by which human societies produce a large part of their food and other conveniences from domesticated plants and animals. Domesticated plants such as cereals are adapted to human nutritional needs and even rely on human intervention for their reproduction.

Long before humans began to sow harvested seeds, they practiced various forms of landscape management, for instance, cultivating wild cereals and pulses by tilling the soil. In the way that we dealt earlier with proto-languages, we will now deal with predomestication cultivation. Unlike fully developed agriculture, predomestication cultivation, in the sense of the manipulation of wild plants and animals, did not in itself constitute a complete subsistence strategy but only one component of such a strategy. It evidently existed for a very long time in human history but played only a more or less marginal role for food production, in the same way that early communication systems must have initially played a rather marginal role in human cooperation. And this role was certainly not motivated by the later outcomes of domestication but constituted an activity with its own rationale and dynamics. Predomestication cultivation offers an example of the principle mentioned earlier that the horizon of applications of given means is always larger than the intentions for which they had been originally employed. This may even apply literally to some of the instruments employed in early farming, which had earlier been used for other purposes.

At least in the Fertile Crescent there were several reasons why predomestication cultivation did not remain marginal, in particular, the contingent ecological conditions that encouraged sedentariness. Sedentariness favored the extension of cultivation practices bound to local environments. Given the investment of labor in cultivation practices, such local predomestication cultivation practices in turn stabilized sedentariness, thus creating what Dorian Fuller has aptly called the “labor traps” along the protracted trajectories leading to domestication (Fuller et al. 2010, 2011). This mutual reinforcement of sedentariness and cultivation is similar to the stabilization effect of the development of a prelinguistic communicative system that was pointed out earlier. It constitutes a kind of resonance effect between external conditions and the internal structure of the evolving system. In any case, there was initially no guarantee that predomestication cultivation would lead necessarily to domestication proper. Only at some points along some trajectories may “tipping points” (Fuller) have been reached that then drove the further development in a particular direction, whereas other trajectories may have been aborted or remained in intermediate stages. Contingent external circumstances had thus been trans?formed into conditions for the internal stability and further development of a society.

We can also see an analogue to the process of decontextualization in the internalization of external conditions mentioned earlier for language evolution. Eventually, domesticated crops were no longer bound to the local contexts in which their ancestors were originally found but spread into other areas and ultimately across the world. Such globalization effects—also important to the evolutionary history of languages—may have helped to emancipate the incipient domestication processes from the variety of local contexts in which they took place. Since cultivation was part of a network activity taking place in an extended geographical area (and not just in a small core region as traditionally assumed), migration and exchange among different sedentary communities eventually contributed to a diversification and enrichment of cultivars at any specific location. The resulting recontextualization of cultivation may also have helped to separate wild from cultivated populations, thus contributing to a process by which human-defined plant or animal populations were ultimately transformed into biologically defined populations. We also briefly mention here another element of the co-evolutionary and niche construction dynamics of the Neolithic Revolution, namely the co-evolution of disease and society in the context of emerging trade networks and agricultural practices. The emerging constructed niche of agricultural and sedentary societies reaching new levels of population density facilitated the evolution of a number of infectious diseases, which in turn had a huge effect on the regulative structures of these societies (Diamond 1998; McNeill 1976).

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