Institute of Archaeology


Comparative Pathways to Agriculture


Domestication represents the creation of a uniquely human cultural niche for the evolution of other species, and is fundamental to the economic and natural environments of present and the future.

The ComPAg project was a 5-year ERC-funded research program (2013-18) which aimed to produce the first global comparative synthesis of the convergent evolution of domesticated plants and early agricultural systems based primarily on empirical archaeobotanical data.

This program pursued primary archaeobotanical research in East and Southeast Asia, India, and parts of Africa and Southwest Asia, with synthesis of existing evidence from the Levant and Europe, and selected crops of the early Americas. The project brought together quantified time series data on evolution of domestication traits for over 30 crops, including both primary and secondary domestications, to achieve a new framework for explaining the multiple routes from foraging to agriculture on a global scale.

By pursuing new evidence across a broad range of regions, and applying the latest methods of quantitatively studying domestication through archaeobotanical remains, the project produced a richer comparative understanding of the processes and contexts of plant domestication. In addition, some of the first explicitly comparative studies of later secondary domestications and convergent evolution of some weed species were produced.

Origins of agriculture

The origins of agriculture was a key macro-evolutionary leap in the history of human societies and economies, which is also important for understanding long-term patterns in human demography and genetic variation. At the heart of the transition to agriculture is the changed relationship between human groups and a select number of domesticated species. Plant cultivation is common to all instances of food production that supported sedentism. Therefore the origins of crop agriculture are at the core of understanding the agricultural transformation in long-term human history.

Archaeobotany provides the most direct dataset for the study of the changing relationships between humans and plants, in terms of past economy and ecology. Archaeobotanical evidence provides a record of some of the key evolutionary changes that plants underwent as they were domesticated. The past couple of decades have seen considerable methodological advances in the identification of domestication traits archaeobotanically and in the accumulation of evidence.

The expansion of archaeobotanical research in other regions, such as China, India and sub-Saharan Africa has allowed parallel patterns in domestication to be studied. This challenges the universality of Near Eastern processes that often have been taken to represent the origins of agriculture in general. (This includes recent work on rice by Dorian Fuller and colleagues on the Early Rice Project).

Taken at a comparative global level, the long-term impact of agricultural origins has been to lead to sedentism, reliance on a quite limited range domesticated food stuffs, and a diversification of material technologies, including ceramics early on and other fire-mediated materials (such as metals) subsequently. 

Related outputs

Full details are available here»

Background publications

  • Fuller, D. Q (2007). Contrasting Patterns in Crop Domestication and Domestication Rates: Recent Archaeobotanical Insights from the Old World. Annals of Botany 100 (5): 903-924
  • Fuller, Dorian Q, Ling Qin, Yunfei Zheng, Zhijun Zhao, Xugao Chen, Leo Aoi Hosoya, and Guo-ping Sun (2009). The Domestication Process and Domestication Rate in Rice: Spikelet bases from the Lower Yangtze. Science 323: 1607-1610
  • Fuller, Dorian Q and Robin Allaby (2009). Seed dispersal and crop domestication: shattering, germination and seasonality in evolution under cultivation. In Fruit Development and Seed Dispersal (edited by Lars Ostergaard), Annual Plant Reviews Volume 38. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. Pp. 238-295
  • Fuller, Dorian Q (2010). An Emerging Paradigm Shift in the Origins of Agriculture. General Anthropology 17 (2): 1, 8-12 [on-line][pdf]
  • Fuller, Dorian Q, Robin G. Allaby and Chris Stevens (2010). Domestication as innovation: the entanglement of techniques, technology and chance in the domestication of cereal crops.World Archaeology 42(1): 13-28 [published on-line]
  • Fuller, D. Q. and Ling Qin (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): 139-159
  • Fuller, DQ. (2011). Finding Plant Domestication in the Indian Subcontinent. Current Anthropology 52(S4), S347-S362 
  • Purugganan, Michael and Dorian Q. Fuller (2011). Archaeological data reveal slow rates of evolution during plant domestication. Evolution 65(1): 171-183
  • Fuller, DQ, Willcox, G., Allaby, R. (2012). Early Agricultural Pathways: moving outside the 'core area' hypothesis' in Southwest Asia. Journal of Experimental Botany 63: 617-633. doi:10.1093/jxb/err307 [published on-line 2011]
  • Fuller, DQ, Asouti, E., Purugganan, M. D. (2012). Cultivation as slow evolutionary entanglement: comparative data on rate and sequence of domestication.Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 21(2): 131-145. doi:10.1007/s00334-011-0329-8Publisher URL. Erratrum, p. 147
  • Lucas, L., Colledge, S., Simmons, A., Fuller, D. (2012). Crop introduction and accelerated island evolution: archaeobotanical evidence from 'Ais Yiorkis and Pre-Pottery Neolithic Cyprus. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany  21(2): 117-129. doi:10.1007/s00334-011-0323-1.
  • Fuller DQ and Elisabeth Hildebrand (2013). Domesticating plants in Africa. In The Oxford Handbook of African Archaeology (edited by Peter Mitchell and Paul Lane). Oxford University Press. Pp. 507-526 (In Press) [http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199569885.do#.Uc77tPlvA_c ]

Further details