QLD: Public Lecture: Why Did Our Ancestors Become Farmers? (or: The Origins of Agriculture: a Global Perspective)

Event Details

Why Did Our Ancestors Become Farmers?

Ten thousand years ago most people on the globe lived by hunting and gathering. Five thousand years ago most people lived by farming, or by combining farming with hunting and gathering. Today most of the world’s population depends for their food on half a dozen plants and, if they are rich enough, on the products of half a dozen animals. So why did our ancestors first become farmers? Did people choose to experiment with domesticating plants and animals, and if so why? Were they pushed into becoming farmers by forces beyond their control like climate change or population pressure? How important were hard-to-study things like ritual, ideology and religion? The seminar will take a global perspective, showing how our understanding has been transformed in recent decades by new scientific approaches, new archaeological theories, and unexpected discoveries, findings increasingly relevant for the sustainability of the present-day agricultural systems on which we depend.

Graeme Barker is Disney Professor of Archaeology and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, and a Professorial Fellow of St Johns College Cambridge.

Graeme Barker emerging from Haua trench
Graeme Barker emerging from Haua trench

The focus of his research can broadly be described as `human landscapes’, the relations, both short- and long-term, between people and environment in the past: How have past human societies and the environments they inhabited constructed and transformed each other? And can understanding these past relationships help inform the present and the future? It is an interest he has pursued in different ecologies (temperate, semi-arid, arid, rainforest) and with societies at different levels of complexity from the emergence of our species to Roman farmers and, currently in Borneo, present-day rainforest farmers and foragers. The transition to farming (the agricultural revolution in prehistory0) was a particular focus for many years, but more recently his interests have moved backwards in time to the origins of modern human behaviour and the adaptations (from environmental to cognitive) made by our species in their dispersals within and beyond Africa.