The earliest humans were engaged in agricultural industry, but humans were not able to launch and sustain a large-scale, specialized agricultural industry until Earth entered a period of extreme climate stability.1 Discoveries that early humans were engaged in agriculture are so recent that I was not able to include much of that news in my new book, Improbable Planet (releasing September 2016), until the day before final galleys were sent to the publisher.
Now, a new discovery affirms the conclusions I drew in Improbable Planet about what the launch of agricultural industry implies about God’s design of Earth for humanity’s benefit. It also affirms what agricultural industry implies about God’s purpose for humanity.
A centuries-old dogma of anthropology is that early humans were so primitive and so disinterested in developing civilization that they remained locked into a hunter-gatherer subsistence lifestyle for tens of thousands of years. Dispelling that myth are two discoveries showing that humans living 23,000 and 32,600 years ago respectively were planting crops and processing food grains into flour.
The first discovery was archaeological evidence showing that humans living along the shore of the Sea of Galilee were cultivating wild cereals as early as 23,000 years ago.2 The second was the recovery of a grinding tool that was used for processing oat flour found in one of the Grotta Paglicci caves in Italy, just north of the present city of Foggia.3 Individual oat grains recovered from the tool revealed that the grains were “thermally heated,” that is, roasted, before they were ground by the tool.4 The tool was recovered from sublayer 23A in the grotto for which another research team established a calibrated carbon-14 date of 32,614 ± 429 years ago.5
The dates for these archaeological finds imply that humans were engaging in agricultural industry during the most recent ice age, 120,000–12,000 years ago. During this past ice age, global mean temperatures were jumping up and down by as much as 24°F (see figure 1). Such radical temperature variations made any kind of large-scale agriculture impossible. As one research team concluded, the “last glacial climates were extremely hostile to agriculture.”6
Figure 1: Global Mean Temperatures over the Past 85,000 Years
Ice core records demonstrate that global temperatures have been remarkably constant throughout the past 9,000 years and highly variable before that.
Image credit: Leland McInnes, released under the GNU Free Documentation License (Creative Commons)
The fact that humans during the last ice age were engaging even in small-scale agriculture shows that they were innately inventive and just as committed to developing civilization and technology as we are today. What held them back was not a lack of ambition, inventiveness, or industry but rather climate instability. This archaeological evidence of early, small-scale agriculture also affirms the Bible’s claims in Genesis 1–11 that the first humans were engaging in agriculture.
Humans have always been motivated to develop and advance civilization and technology, and this is confirmed by a new set of archaeological and genetic discoveries showing that large-scale, specialized agriculture appeared simultaneously or near simultaneously in multiple, geographically separate locations.7
The research affirms what other research groups have already established: that large-scale, specialized agriculture was launched about 10,000 years ago. What is new is that their research shows that it was launched in at least three widely separated locations.
DNA from the earliest humans engaging in large-scale, specialized agriculture shows that these humans arise from three distinct genetic groups: western Anatolians living in Greece and western Turkey, Levantines living in southern Israel, and Zagros Mountain people living in Iraq and Iran. The three groups used different farming tools and engaged in different kinds of agriculture. However, their agricultural technology soon merged as the result of each group’s major efforts to colonize adjoining regions and to engage in major trading enterprises.
The DNA analysis showed that the western Anatolians colonized and exported their agricultural technology throughout Europe. The Levantines spread their agricultural industry throughout Africa and the near Middle East. The Zagros Mountain people spread large-scale, specialized agriculture into the Eurasian steppes and South Asia. In this manner, large-scale agriculture quickly took hold throughout all of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Joachim Burger, one of the authors of the Science paper, commented,
We have an extremely complex agricultural revolution that was created by people who were extremely diverse.8
What the new research shows is that as soon as Earth’s climate permitted the launch of large-scale, specialized agriculture, it was launched, and it was launched everywhere at once. Figure 1 shows that not until about 10,000 years ago did the global mean temperature stop jumping up and down by many degrees.
From 10,000 to 9,000 years ago the global mean temperature was steadily and gradually increasing. Such a slow, unidirectional change in temperature, for the first time in the era of human existence, gave a farmer enough climate predictability that he could focus on one crop or one domesticated animal and increase the scale size of his crop or animal. Such specialization yielded breeding opportunities that generated much higher agricultural productivity. Climate predictability played another crucial role in that for the first time it permitted large-scale trading of goods across distant geographical regions.
Starting about 9,000 years ago, the global mean temperature stabilized to a remarkable degree. For the last 9,000 years the global mean temperature has not varied by any more than 2°F. Such extreme climate stability permitted a dramatic increase in agricultural scale size, specialization, and the trading of agricultural goods. The beginning of this period of extreme climate stability coincides with the western Anatolians, the Levantines, and the Zagros Mountain people spreading large-scale, specialized agriculture throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe.
An obvious question is why didn’t large-scale, specialized agriculture take hold in the Americas and Australia? I answered this question in some depth in my two books Navigating Genesis and Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job.9 Briefly, when humans entered the Americas and Australia, they quickly killed off all, or nearly all, the bird and mammal species that God had specially created to assist humans in launching agriculture. Lacking access to horses, cows, goats, camels, etc., humans in the Americas and Australia remained bereft of large-scale, specialized agriculture until Europeans in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries brought them the animals they needed.
Three faith-affirming conclusions can be drawn from the new research:
- The capacity and the motivation for launching and sustaining the advance of civilization and technology was not an emergent or evolving property of the human race. It was present all along. God created humans and endowed them in advance with the capabilities and motivations to launch and sustain global, high-technology civilization.
- The Bible’s accounts of the early history of humanity are credible and fully consistent with the latest archaeological finds.
- Humans immediately took advantage of the condition of extreme climate stability to launch and spread large-scale, specialized agriculture, which enabled the human population to greatly expand and to establish the technology for sophisticated communication among humans. This sustains the biblical message that God intends to redeem an uncountable number of humans (Revelation 7:9) within a very brief period of time.
Much of my new book, Improbable Planet, is devoted to showing just how miraculous our current period of extreme climate stability is. It ends with a call to action for all Christians to mobilize our efforts in what little time is left in this unique time window of extreme climate stability to fulfill all the purposes for which God created us.
- A large-scale, specialized agricultural industry is defined as one with more than a few acres devoted to a single crop or more than a few acres devoted to a single domesticated animal.
- Ainit Snir et al., “The Origin of Cultivation and Proto-Weeds, Long before Neolithic Farming,” PloS One 10 (July 2015): e0131422, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0131422.
- Marta Mariotti Lippi et al., “Multistep Food Plant Processing at Grotta Paglicci (Southern Italy) around 32,600 Cal B. P.,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 112 (September 2015): 12075–80, doi:10.1073/pnas.1505213112.
- Ibid., 12078.
- Ibid., 12075.
- Peter J. Richerson, Robert Boyd, and Robert L. Bettinger, “Was Agriculture Impossible during the Pleistocene but Mandatory during the Holocene? A Climate Change Hypothesis,” American Antiquity 66 (July 2001): 387–411, doi:10.2307/2694241.
- Farnaz Broushaki et al., “Early Neolithic Genomes from the Eastern Fertile Crescent,” Science 353, no. 6298 (2016): doi:10.1126/science.aaf7943; Ann Gibbons, “First Farmers’ Motley Roots,” Science 353, no. 6296 (2016): 207–208, doi:10.1126/science.353.6296.207.
- As quoted in Ann Gibbons, “First Farmers’ Motley Roots,” 208.
- Hugh Ross, Navigating Genesis (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2014): 75–77; Hugh Ross, Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011): 149–64.