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Framing the Issues

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Domestication of Plants and Animals in Global Perspective

The Middle East was the first place where people domesticated plants (ca. 8300 BCE) and animals (ca. 7500 BCE), ushering in the Neolithic period with its characteristic village economies based on food production. However, domestication of plants and animals took place independently in a number of different parts of the world. Local cultures in North America, Mesoamerica, South America, China, and Africa each domesticated their own unique sets of plants and animals, and they did so by pathways quite different from those followed in the Middle East:

Middle East
South America
North America

Domesticated Plants:
wheat, barley
maize, beans, squash
millet, rice

Domesticated Animals:
sheep, goats, cattle, pigs
llama, alpaca, guinea pig
cattle, pigs

One of the most interesting parallel regions of domestication was Mesoamerica (modern Mexico and Guatemala). In contrast to the Middle East, where sedentism preceded domestication, the people of highland Mesoamerica seem to have domesticated Maize (corn), beans, and squash first, and did not become sedentary until many centuries later. Another important difference between Mesoamerica and the Middle East lies in the fact that the domestication process in Mesoamerica focused almost exclusively on plants, with almost no animals as domesticates for food, transport, or secondary products.

The parallel emergence of food production in so many different parts of the world highlights the important idea that there is no single “center” of civilization from which all cultural developments emanated. Instead, people in different parts of the world seem to have made similar types of major cultural developments (e.g. domestication or urbanism) independently, and always in ways that were unique and specific to that particular culture.

Supporting Links:

“Ancient Mesopotamia: This History, Our History.” The Oriental Institute Museum. Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 27, 2010).

Digital Image Collections. Ancient Near East. Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 27, 2010).

“Explore/Galleries.” The British Museum. Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 27, 2010).

“Old Goats in Transition.” Smithsonian Museum of Natural History Highlights. Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 27, 2010).

Sherratt, Andrew. “'The Origins of Farming in South-West Asia.” ArchAtlas, 2nd edition. Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 27, 2010).

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