Foraging and farming as niche construction: stable and unstable adaptations

Peter Rowley-Conwy, Robert Layton

Abstract

All forager (or hunter–gatherer) societies construct niches, many of them actively by the concentration of wild plants into useful stands, small-scale cultivation, burning of natural vegetation to encourage useful species, and various forms of hunting, collectively termed ‘low-level food production’. Many such niches are stable and can continue indefinitely, because forager populations are usually stable. Some are unstable, but these usually transform into other foraging niches, not geographically expansive farming niches. The Epipalaeolithic (final hunter–gatherer) niche in the Near East was complex but stable, with a relatively high population density, until destabilized by an abrupt climatic change. The niche was unintentionally transformed into an agricultural one, due to chance genetic and behavioural attributes of some wild plant and animal species. The agricultural niche could be exported with modifications over much of the Old World. This was driven by massive population increase and had huge impacts on local people, animals and plants wherever the farming niche was carried. Farming niches in some areas may temporarily come close to stability, but the history of the last 11 000 years does not suggest that agriculture is an effective strategy for achieving demographic and political stability in the world's farming populations.

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