Why did foraging, horticulture and pastoralism persist after the Neolithic transition? the oasis theory of agricultural intensification

Dithapelo Medupe, Seán G. Roberts, Mary K. Shenk, Luke Glowacki

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Despite the global spread of intensive agriculture, many populations retained foraging or mixed subsistence strategies until well into the twentieth century. Understanding why has been a longstanding puzzle. One explanation, called the marginal habitat hypothesis, is that foraging persisted because foragers tended to live in marginal habitats generally not suited to agriculture. However, recent empirical studies have not supported this view. The alternative but untested oasis hypothesis of agricultural intensification claims that intensive agriculture developed in areas with low biodiversity and a reliable water source not reliant on local rainfall. We test both the marginal habitat and oasis hypotheses using a cross-cultural sample drawn from the 'Ethnographic atlas' (Murdock 1967 Ethnology 6, 109-236). Our analyses provide support for both hypotheses. We found that intensive agriculture was unlikely in areas with high rainfall. Further, high biodiversity, including pathogens associated with high rainfall, appears to have limited the development of intensive agriculture. Our analyses of African societies show that tsetse flies, elephants and malaria are negatively associated with intensive agriculture, but only the effect of tsetse flies reached significance. Our results suggest that in certain ecologies intensive agriculture may be difficult or impossible to develop but that generally lower rainfall and biodiversity is favourable for its emergence. This article is part of the theme issue 'Evolutionary ecology of inequality'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20220300
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1883
StatePublished - Aug 14 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences

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