Wheat and barley together with lentil were among the earliest crops to be domesticated in the arc of land that connects the river valleys of the Euphrates and the Tigris with that of the Jordan. It has become increasingly dear that studies on crop-plant domestication can no longer rely solely on archaeological data but would have to combine the findings of archaeobotanists, archaeozoologists, anthropologists and ecologists to put together all the pieces of the puzzle of how agriculture actually began.
A Symposium on the Origins of Agriculture and Domestication of Crop Plants in the Near East was held at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), 10-14 May 1997 as part of ICARDA's 20th Anniversary celebrations. There was a good response to the call for papers for presentation at the Symposium from scientists of diverse disciplines. There were over 60 participants from more than 23 countries. Over 30 papers and posters were presented.
Why did the Near East region, which invented agriculture, eventually lag behind in food production? After a period of plenty the region was damaged by ecologically suicidal policies, unsustainable deforestation, overgrazing, monoculture and unwise irrigation. Today, centers like ICARDA and IPGRI are working diligently to reverse these bad fortunes and to make West Asia, once again, if not the breadbasket of the world, at least able to sustain itself without subsidies and food imports.
We need to understand the past if we are to manage the future; it is therefore necessary to analyze why humans suddenly became sedentary, practised agriculture and evolved civilizations. After all, it happened very recently. Ten thousand years is not long in comparison with the 2.5 million years in which humans have walked the planet Earth. And that transition had revolutionary consequences: the emergence of urban civilizations and finally our almost total dependence today on very few plants and animals.
The work begun by the first agriculturalists did not stop with the creation and early spread of agricultural techniques, but has continued over the millennia. Even today, farmers in many parts of the region continue to consciously select crops to meet changing needs and to adapt them to the myriad different environments. The domestication of wild plant species by the world's first agricultural communities has provided a legacy that remains crucial to meeting current and future basic human needs, not only in the Near East but throughout the world. Genetic diversity has a vital role to play in helping meet the challenge of doubling global annual food production over the next 25 years: an increase that will be needed just to keep pace with the demands of the rapidly growing human population.
The Symposium heard evidence that the climate was wetter in the Near East than it is today. Given the possible climatic changes we face in the next century or two, we should ask whether we face another quantum leap in the way we grow food. However, if we were to define the chief impact of the Symposium, it would be this: that the origins of agriculture are far more complicated than they appear. Discovery of cultivation did not lead directly to settled civilizations, and such settlement, when it did occur, did not lead to the breeding of modified plants immediately, and perhaps not for some time. Indeed, in some areas, cultivation may have been begun by nomadic people. Even today the dynamics of agricultural development may be less obvious than we think.
A. El-Beltagy, Director General, ICARDA
G. Hawtin, Director General, IPGRI