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The Agricultural Revolution That Wasn't
Originally from south China, Austronesians spread successively outward to Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. Was farming the secret of their success? Or was it their mental makeup? (source: French Wikipedia - Maulucioni)
Originally from south China, Austronesians spread successively outward to Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. Was farming the secret of their success? Or was it their mental makeup? (source: French Wikipedia - Maulucioni)

About 10,000 years ago, the pace of human genetic evolution rose a hundred-fold (Hawks et al., 2007). Our ancestors were no longer adapting to slowly changing physical environments. They were adapting to rapidly evolving cultural environments.

What, exactly, caused this speed-up? The usual answer is the shift from hunting and gathering to farming, which in turn caused other changes. People were becoming sedentary and living in ever larger communities: villages, towns, and finally cities. Farming also produced a food surplus to be stored for future use, thereby providing powerful men with the means to bankroll a growing number of servants, soldiers, and other hangers-on. Thus began the formation of early states. And thus ended the primitive equality of hunter-gatherers.

But is that the whole story? Was farming the trigger for this chain of events? Or did something earlier get things going? More and more anthropologists are taking a closer look at what happened just before the advent of farming, a period called the “Broad Spectrum Revolution”:

All Paleolithic hominids lived by hunting and collecting wild foods, an aspect of existence that began to disappear only with the emergence of the farming and herding societies of the Neolithic ≤10,000 years ago (10 KYA). What are the roots of this remarkable economic transformation? The answer lies in equally revolutionary changes that took place within certain stone age cultures several millennia before. In 1968, Lewis R. Binford noted what appeared to be substantial diversification of human diets in middle- and high-latitude Europe at the end of the Paleolithic, roughly 12-8 KYA. Rapid diversification in hunting, food processing, and food storage equipment generally accompanied dietary shifts, symptoms of intensified use of habitats, and fuller exploitation of the potential foodstuffs they contained. (Stiner, 2001).

Farming thus came on the heels of a broader cultural, behavioral, and even psychological revolution. It is this broader change, rather than farming alone, that probably caused many supposedly farming-related events, such as the rapid spread of certain agricultural peoples into territories that formerly belonged to hunter-gatherers. Examples include the Bantu expansion, which began about 4,000 years ago along the Nigerian/Cameroun border and spread east and south, eventually throughout almost all of central, eastern and southern Africa. There was also the more controversial Neolithic expansion, which started about 10,000 years ago in present-day Turkey and pushed north and west into Europe. Finally, there was the Austronesian expansion, which began over 6,000 years ago when Malay-speaking farmers crossed from south China to Taiwan. Then, some 4,000 years ago, they began to push rapidly into Southeast Asia and Oceania, finally reaching places as far apart as Easter Island and Madagascar.

Farming is said to have fueled all three demographic expansions. It created more food, which in turn created more people, who then bulldozed the less numerous hunter-gatherers out of existence. Yet this theoretical model does not fit the Austronesian expansion very well, as anthropologist Roger Blench points out:

The [existing] model proposes that it was the Austronesian adoption of an agricultural package, including rice, pigs and chickens, which allowed them to colonise Island SE Asia at the expense of resident hunter-gatherers. However, archaeology has signally failed to confirm this model. Early sites show very similar dates across a wide geographical area, suggesting that the first phase of post-Taiwan Austronesian expansion took place extremely rapidly. Pigs, dogs and chickens have been shown to arrive in ISEA via other routes and rice is conspicuously absent in most places. This paper argues that this model has effectively inverted the actual situation, and that the Austronesian expansion was the consequence of a failed agricultural revolution and a reversion to opportunistic foraging.(Blench, 2014)

There was no “package” of domesticated plants and animals that enabled Austronesians to overwhelm the earlier inhabitants of Southeast Asia:

No remains of cereals of the relevant antiquity have been found in the Northern Philippines. Even today, the characteristic millets of the Asian mainland are barely represented in ISEA agriculture. Of the dogs, pigs and chickens originally thought to be part of the Austronesian ‘package’ only pigs cross the Taiwan Strait, and these now seem to be a local domestication not ancestral to the domestic pigs which are generally part of the Austronesian world. The apparent reconstructions for names of these domestic species formed part of the argument for their salience, but as Blench (2012) points out, these were based on chains of loanwords giving an appearance of spurious antiquity. (Blench, 2014)

Not only did the Austronesians bring a limited farming package to Southeast Asia, the existing peoples there already practiced a mix of farming and foraging:

Ellen (1988) describes this type of mixed vegeculture and arboriculture, a sedentary lifestyle based around sago extraction, for Seram in Eastern Indonesia. Stark (1996) touches on this hypothesis in a discussion of the archaeology of Eastern Indonesia, and Kyle Latinis (2000) discusses the broader role of arboriculture in early subsistence in ISEA. Hunt & Rushworth (2005) report evidence for disturbance in the tropical lowland forest at Niah, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo at 6000 BP which they attribute to cultivation. Huw Barton (2012) has evidence from starch on stone pounders in the Kelabit highlands for palm granules earlier than 6500 BP. (Blench, 2014)

The incoming Austronesians really brought little, agriculturally speaking. In some cases, they actually reverted to foraging. In other cases, they adopted various crops and farm animals from the locals.

The picture is diverse, suggesting continued foraging, vegeculture, and sago starch extraction. Hence the concept that the maritime Austronesians reverted to a type of subsistence based on fishing, trading, possibly raiding and exchange of prestige goods. With their advanced sailing technology, they were well-placed to carry high-value goods from one exchange site to another. Their encounter with the Melanesian populations in Eastern Indonesia is certainly responsible for their adoption of vegeculture and domestic animals, but they were willing to drop and re-adopt these according to the circumstances of individual cultures they encountered. (Blench, 2014)

The Austronesians are often treated in the existing literature as a type-society for demographic expansion, with agriculture the underlying engine of growth. This is in increasing disaccord with the archaeology of the region, and this paper will suggest that the explanation is almost its inverse, that they succeeded precisely because they strategically reverted to foraging. (Blench, 2014)

What advantage, then, did the Austronesians have over the natives they displaced? There must have been something to offset the “home team” advantage of the natives, who knew the local environment better than anyone else.

The Austronesian advantage seems to have been threefold: (1) a more flexible and innovative approach; (2) a less present-oriented time orientation that extended further into the past and the future; and (3) a less individualistic approach to life that made collective goods and goals more possible.

Flexibility and innovation

Blench (2014) states: “Austronesians quickly reinvented themselves, incorporating regional innovations into their cultural repertoire. Apart from their own distinctive pottery, they must have quickly seized on other early trade possibilities, obsidian, stone axes, woven goods and baskets. By the time they begin to reach uninhabited islands they have constructed Austronesian culture out of fragmentary elements adopted from a wide range of sources.”

Time orientation

The Austronesians saw themselves as the embodiment of lineages that stretched backwards into the past and forwards into the future. Preservation of genealogies seems to have been a typical cultural trait of Austronesian peoples, and this ancestor worship fostered a widespread desire among them to become revered ancestors. Quoting an earlier author, Blench (2014) points to “a culturally sanctioned desire to found new settlements in order to become a revered or even deified founder ancestor in the genealogies of future generations.” The rapidity of the Austronesian expansion was thus, in part, ideologically driven.


Blench (2014) refers to “the striking differences between Austronesians in contact with Melanesians, whose typical social structures were individualist, acephalous and marked by great diversity in approaches to religion and belief.” Austronesian society was more hierarchical with caste-like elements, particularly priestly castes who acted as repositories of esoteric knowledge. Belief-systems were more homogeneous. Austronesian peoples have long shown evidence of strong religiosity, even those who have not converted to Hinduism, Islam, or Catholicism.



One of my professors, Bernard Arcand, would talk to us about the hunter-gatherers of Upper Amazonia and their indifference to farming. They saw it as something akin to slavery and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to stay put in one place and toil in the fields all day. Attempts to teach them the benefits of farming typically failed. Benefits? What benefits?

There has to be a change in mental makeup before farming becomes possible. People must become willing to exchange short-term pain for long-term gain. They must accept monotony and sedentary living. They must live in larger communities with people who are not necessarily close kin. And they must get used to bland, nutrient-poor food.

Anthropology has long tried to explain human societies in terms of their modes of subsistence: hunting and gathering, farming, industrial capitalism. This material basis of society is thus the source of our mental makeup. In reality, the two have coevolved with each other. Moreover, when humans adapt to a certain mode of subsistence, they may become “pre-adapted” to later ones. We associate the dawn of civilization with a shift toward future time orientation and a resulting complexification of technology, yet this shift seems to have first begun among hunter-gatherers of the sub-Arctic, where the yearly cycle required development of technologies for storage, meat refrigeration, and heat conservation, as well as other means to collect unpredictable and widely dispersed resources. This ‘first industrial revolution’ pre-adapted early modern humans for later cultural developments in places farther south.

It is perhaps no coincidence that most of the human gene pool ultimately came from people who, more than 10,000 years ago, roamed the northern wastes of Eurasia. Such people were ancestral to many southward-pushing demographic expansions, including the one that would give rise to the Austronesians (Frost, 2014).


Blench, R. (2014). The Austronesians: An agricultural revolution that failed, To be presented at the Second International Conference on Taiwan Indigenous Peoples,15-17 September 2014 Shung Ye Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

Cochran, G. and H. Harpending. (2009). The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilizations Accelerated Human Evolution, Basic Books, New York.

Frost, P. (2014). The first industrial revolution, Evo and Proud, January 18

Hawks, J., E.T. Wang, G.M. Cochran, H.C. Harpending, & R.K. Moyzis. (2007). Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 104, 20753-20758.

Stiner, M.C. (2001). Thirty years on the “Broad Spectrum Revolution” and paleolithic demography, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98 (13), 6993-6996.

(Reprinted from Evo and Proud by permission of author or representative)
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