Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology

2014 Edition
| Editors: Claire Smith

Agriculture: Definition and Overview

  • David R. HarrisEmail author
  • Dorian Q. Fuller
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-0465-2_64

State of Knowledge and Current Debates


Agriculture is the most comprehensive word used to denote the many ways in which crop plants and domestic animals sustain the global human population by providing food and other products. The English word agriculture derives from the Latin ager (field) and colo (cultivate) signifying, when combined, the Latin agricultura: field or land tillage. But the word has come to subsume a very wide spectrum of activities that are integral to agriculture and have their own descriptive terms, such as cultivation, domestication, horticulture, arboriculture, and vegeculture, as well as forms of livestock management such as mixed crop-livestock farming, pastoralism, and transhumance. Also agriculture is frequently qualified by words such as incipient, proto, shifting, extensive, and intensive, the precise meaning of which is not self-evident. Many different attributes are used too to define particular forms of agriculture, such as soil type,...

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Allaby, R. 2010. Integrating the processes in the evolutionary system of domestication. Journal of Experimental Botany 61: 935-44.Google Scholar
  2. Butzer, K.W. 1976.Early hydraulic civilization in Egypt: a study in cultural ecology. Chicago: Chicago University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Chikwendu, V.E. & C.E.A. Okezie. 1989. Factors responsible for the ennoblement of African yams: inferences from experiments in yam domestication, in D.R. Harris & G.C. Hillman (ed.) Foraging and farming. The evolution of plant exploitation: 344-57. London: Unwin Hyman.Google Scholar
  4. Coomes, O.T. & N. Ban. 2004. Cultivated plant species diversity in home gardens of an Amazonian peasant village in northeastern Peru. Economic Botany 58: 420-34.Google Scholar
  5. Denham, T. 2007. Early to Mid-Holocene plant exploitation in New Guinea: towards a contingent interpretation of agriculture, in T. Denham, J. Iriarte & L. Vrydaghs (ed.) Rethinking agriculture. Archaeological and ethnoarchaeological perspectives: 78-108. Walnut Creek (CA): Left Coast Press.Google Scholar
  6. Donkin, R.A. 1979.Agricultural terracing in the aboriginal New World. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.Google Scholar
  7. Ellen, R. 1994. Modes of subsistence: hunting and gathering to agriculture and pastoralism, in T. Ingold (ed.). Companion encyclopedia of anthropology. Humanity, culture and social life: 197-225. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  8. English, P.W. 1968. The origin and spread of qanats in the Old World. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 112(3): 170–81.Google Scholar
  9. Fullager, R., J. Field, T. Denham & C. Lentfer. 2006. Early and mid-Holocene tool-use and processing of taro (Colocasia esculenta), yam (Dioscorea sp.) and other plants at Kuk Swamp in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Journal of Archaeological Science 33: 595-614.Google Scholar
  10. Fuller, D.Q. 2007. Contrasting patterns in crop domestication and domestication rates: recent archaeobotanical insights from the Old World. Annals of Botany 100(5): 903-24.Google Scholar
  11. Fuller, D.Q. & L. Qin. 2009. Water management and labour in the origins and dispersal of Asian rice. World Archaeology 41(1): 88-111.Google Scholar
  12. - 2010. Declining oaks, increasing artistry, and cultivating rice: the environmental and social context of the emergence of farming in the Lower Yangtze region. Environmental Archaeology 15(2): 139-59.Google Scholar
  13. Fuller, D.Q, R.G. Allaby & C. Stevens. 2010. Domestication as innovation: the entanglement of techniques, technology and chance in the domestication of cereal crops. World Archaeology 42(1): 13-28.Google Scholar
  14. Fuller, D. Q., J. van Etten, K. Manning, C. Castillo, E. Kingwell-Banham, A. Weisskopf, L. Qin, Y. Sato & R. Hijmans. 2011. The contribution of rice agriculture and livestock pastoralism to prehistoric methane levels: an archaeological assessment. The Holocene 21: 743-59.Google Scholar
  15. Gosden, C. 1995. Arboriculture and agriculture in coastal Papua New Guinea. Antiquity 69: 807-17.Google Scholar
  16. Harlan, J. R. & J. Pasquereau. 1969. Décrue agriculture in Mali. Economic Botany 23: 70-4.Google Scholar
  17. Harris, D.R. 1973. The prehistory of tropical agriculture: an ethnoecological model, in C. Renfrew (ed.) The explanation of culture change: 391-417. London: Duckworth.Google Scholar
  18. - 1989. An evolutionary continuum of people-plant interaction, in D.R. Harris & G.C. Hillman (ed.) Foraging and farming. The evolution of plant exploitation: 11-26. London: Unwin Hyman.Google Scholar
  19. - 2002. The expansion capacity of early agricultural systems: a comparative perspective on the spread of agriculture, in P. Bellwood & C. Renfrew (ed.) Assessing the language/farming dispersal hypothesis: 31-9. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.Google Scholar
  20. - 2007. Agriculture, cultivation and domestication: exploring the conceptual framework of early food production, in T. Denham, J. Iriarte & L. Vrydaghs (ed.) Rethinking agriculture. Archaeological and ethnoarchaeological perspectives: 16-35. Walnut Creek (CA): Left Coast Press.Google Scholar
  21. - 2012. Evolution of agroecosystems: biodiversity, origins, and differential development, in P. Gepts, T.R. Famula, R.L. Bettinger, S.B. Brush, A.B. Damania, P.E. McGuire & C.O. Qualset (ed.) Biodiversity in agriculture. Domestication, evolution, and sustainability: 21-56. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Hather, J. 1994. The identification of charred root and tuber crops from archaeological sites in the Pacific, in J. Hather (ed.) Tropical archaeobotany. Applications and new developments: 51-65. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  23. Hildebrand, E.A. 2003. Motives and opportunities for domestication: an ethnoarchaeological study in southwest Ethiopia. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 22: 358-75.Google Scholar
  24. Hillman, G.C. & M.S. Davies. 1990. Measured domestication rates in wild wheats and barley under primitive cultivation, and their archaeological implications. Journal of World Prehistory 4: 157-22.Google Scholar
  25. Hoffpauir, R. 2000. Water buffalo, in K.F. Kiple & K.C. Ornelas (ed.) The Cambridge world history of food: 583–607. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Ingold, T. 1980. Hunters, pastoralists and ranchers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Jones, M.K. 1988. The arable field: a botanical battleground, in M.K. Jones (ed.) Archaeology and the flora of the British Isles—human influence on the evolution of plant communities (Committee for Archaeology Monograph 14): 86-92. Oxford: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology.Google Scholar
  28. Latinis, D.K. 2000. The development of subsistence system models for Island Southeast Asia and near Oceania: the nature and role of arboriculture and arboreal-based economies. World Archaeology 32: 41-67.Google Scholar
  29. Magee, P. 2005. The chronology and environmental background of Iron Age settlement in southeastern Iran and the question of the origin of the qanat irrigation system. Iranica Antiqua 40: 217–31.Google Scholar
  30. Oxford English Dictionary. 1971. The Oxford English dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Piperno, D.R. 2012. New archaeobotanical information on early cultivation and plant domestication involving microplant (phytolith and starch grain) remains, in P. Gepts, T. R. Famula, R.L. Bettinger, S.B. Brush, A.B. Damania, P.E. McGuire & C.O. Qualset (ed.) Biodiversity in agriculture. Domestication, evolution, and sustainability: 136-59. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Steensburg, A. 1986. Man the manipulator. Copenhagen: The National Museum of Denmark.Google Scholar
  33. Willcox, G. 2012. Searching for the origins of arable weeds in the Near East. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 21: 163-7.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of ArchaeologyUniversity College LondonLondonUK