The Domestication Pipeline 2/6/06
Humans are the only animals that are consistently construed as separate from nature. This is essentially due to the human ability and tendency to engage in improvised dialog with nature rather than to follow a script and be a part of nature, as other animals do. This dialog consists of more than changing and being changed by nature, which are actions shared by many other species. Instead, the human dialog with nature exists because humans can conceive of their environment as a set of components that can be manipulated. This conceptual framework allows for discovery to take place in novel or ambiguous situations. While other species, such as bees, are capable of transforming elements of their environments into staggeringly complex and highly optimized tools for living, these accomplishments are the result of evolution over many generations rather than intellect or creativity. An individual bee would not be able to notice a chance for improving the hive's design, implement the improvement, and then communicate the improvement to other bees. The concept of a hive as a changeable thing is probably not even available to bees; indeed, referring to the hive as a “designed” object may be inaccurate, as it could be seen to be as much a product of natural selection as the shape of the bee's wings. One need only look to the interactions between humans and fire and humans and edible plants to see that such innovations were not only possible for humans, but were likely inevitable given certain aspects of human nature.
For the purposes of this argument, tying to pinpoint the time that humans began a meaningful dialog with nature is less important than identifying the consistent patterns of behavior that inform the onset of each use of nature. The transformation of both fire and edible plants from components of the environment to human tools follows the same basic steps; observation, then preservation, and finally cultivation. The same “domestication pipeline” could be applied to the way in which wolves evolved into dogs, or to the development of cows, but because these are animals, the extent to which humans were responsible for their domestication is unclear. In the case of fire and plants, which have no agency or motivation, the force behind their domestication was clearly human.
Fires had existed naturally long before humans discovered their use, and many ecosystems had developed to survive, and in many cases to depend on, large fires. According to Williams, “wildfire is a great modifier and has its own ecology” (Williams 16). While fire generally carries a destructive connotation for the modern psyche, early humans noticed that fires allowed more nutritious plants to grow in place of large trees and underbrush, which would make gathering easier and, for the same reason, increase the size of huntable animal populations. Fires also made hunting and travel faster and more productive by clearing away thick underbrush and leaving grassy meadows in its wake. Once humans had made the connection between fire and the increase in edible biomass in their territory (observation stage), intentional burnings logically followed. Most natural fires grew from lightning striking dry vegetation, and initial efforts were made to preserve this fire so that it could be spread and used strategically (preservation stage). Humans eventually developed methods to cultivate fire, and it became a source of light, warmth, and early cultural discourse. The domestication of fire may have also been a training ground for human ability, acting as a blueprint for the later domestication of plants and animals (Williams 19).
Because humans used fire to consciously manipulate the vegetation of their environments, agriculture could be considered to have co-evolved with fire. In a way, burning existing plants so that more nutritious plants would flourish was a crude form of agriculture, essentially preserving and allowing useful plants to spread. Paleoanthropologists generally define agriculture as the cultivation of plants in a static location for food, and date its onset as early as 9,500 BC. Unlike the domestication of fire, plants may have been domesticated for social reasons, as fire had already given rise to embryonic cultures. The cultural concept of a surplus is probably linked to the development of agriculture. In hunter-gatherer societies, there was generally enough food, and mobility was critical, so food was not stored to the extent that it was in agricultural societies. Additionally, significant climate changes may have made gathering less reliable, forcing humans to protect certain nutritious plants. This would explain agriculture's onset at multiple locations relatively simultaneously.
Williams, Michael, "Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis" (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003) pp. 3-36.