Settlement and Domestication

By the end of the Pleistocene ice age 10,000 years ago, the second human revolution was well in place, that of reengineering the mobile, kin-based, foraging band into a settled society, bindable by ties of altruism and religion into larger groups. Societies of the Near East were the first to take this crucial step, one that enabled human inventiveness to thrive in a new setting. Specialization of roles may have occurred for the first time, which would have led to increased productivity. Productivity creates surpluses, and surpluses of one commodity can be traded for another with a neighboring group. Settlement, specialization, property, surplus, trade—these are the sinews of economic activity, setting humans at long last on a separate path from living off nature's bounty like all other species. Late Pleistocene peoples like the Natufians developed the technology of threshing and milling wild grains they had collected. They also began to cultivate wild grains, perhaps when the cold snap of the Younger Dryas shrank the natural expanses on which settled communities had become dependent. It would only have been a short step from cultivating natural wild grasses to selecting specific types. The step may have taken place unwittingly. Einkorn wheat, emmer wheat and barley, three wild cereals that grow in the region of the Fertile Crescent, all have the property of shedding each kernel from an ear as it ripens. The domesticated varieties, on the other hand, keep all the kernels attached so all can be harvested together. If people harvested the wild varieties by knocking the sheddable ears off into baskets, any rare nonshedding mutant would be left to the end of the harvest. These would have served as the seed stock for the next generation, and the unconscious selection for nonshedding varieties would quickly have driven up the frequency of the nonshedding gene.

Unconscious selection may also have eliminated another undesirable feature of wild cereal grasses—their ability to inhibit their germination so as to avoid the trap of developing in a drought year.156 Seeds that decided not to germinate would have been automatically eliminated in favor of mutants that did so in all weathers.

The transformation of cultivated wild cereals into their domestic forms could have happened very quickly, in as little as 20 to 30 years. That and other genetic considerations have been taken to mean that domestication of wheat was easy and might have

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