Prehistoric food globalisation 0h, East is East, and West is West ... Or maybe not

Tilling Rice, after Lou Shou

For a while, archaeologists treated the origins of agriculture – where it began, how it spread – as a minor element in the grand sweep of human history. That started to change with new techniques that could identify preserved plant remains, especially cereal seeds, in the detritus of archaeological digs. Then came the ability to tell what people had been eating by looking at the chemicals in their bones. And every day new discoveries in genetics add yet more details.

Martin Jones, Pitt Rivers professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, has spent his entire working life studying the archaeology of crops. With some colleagues, he has now published a paper that offers a more detailed, and more nuanced story of agriculture. Crops were moving much further much earlier, and as they did so early farmers grew the confidence, the resources and the knowledge to move up into the mountains and down into the river basins. Far from being a minor element in archaeology, the journeys of the first farmers and their crops established the routes along which the rest of human development travelled.


  1. The paper, From ecological opportunism to multi-cropping: Mapping food globalisation in prehistory, is behind a paywall, but there is a very good press release.
  2. That press release is also the source of the animation, which illustrates how four of the ancient world’s most important domesticated grain crops spread across the Old World between 7,000 and 3,500 years ago, by Javier Ventura, Washington University.
  3. The banner photograph I built from Tilling Rice, after Lou Shou, a scroll in the Freer/Sackler Museum. OK, so it’s late 13th century, long after the period we are talking about, but there isn’t any contemporaneous imagery as far as I’m aware and in any case it is charming. Go look.

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