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Origins of Food Production


Although we often take agriculture for granted, the origin of our dependence on domestic plants and animals is by far the most important economic transition experienced by the genus Homo. Agriculture transformed our world at global scales. We live in socially complex urban centers with millions of inhabitants; most of Earth’s terrestrial plant and animal biomass is now managed by humans; we have altered the atmosphere; and more nitrogen is cycled due to human activities than other processes. None of this would be possible without agriculture. Yet the origins of agriculture are so small-scale and mundane – being only one of a suite of socio-ecological responses to the impacts of rapid global warming at the end of the Pleistocene – that they are nearly invisible. 

Current and future directions

For decades, archaeologists have searched for the earliest evidence of plant and animal domestication, using data collected by specialists in botany and zoology. However, research on agricultural origins is in the midst of a fundamental transformation. Bolstered by robust ecological theory; new physical and chemical techniques to follow the life histories of plants, animals, and humans; and cybertools to model the dynamics of human and natural systems, there is a shift in focus to evolution of economic practices that somehow locked in positive feedbacks among human social change, demographic change and expansion of human-managed socioecosystems.

School strengths

ASU's intellectual environment and resources position it on the frontlines of research on the ecological dynamics of agricultural origins. Among School of Human Evolution and Social Change faculty, Barton directs research on the origins of agriculture in the Mediterranean.Coudart studies the earliest agricultural societies in Western Europe. Stojanowski is studying the bioarchaeology of early agricultural populations in Northwest Africa. Buikstra’s work focuses on agricultural origins in the Eastern U.S. In the American Southwest, Nelson andHegmon direct research on the ecology of small-scale agricultural societies. Finally, the school has a state-of-the-art laboratory for isotope geochemistry, directed by Knudson, with applicability for origins of agriculture.

Key ASU Fieldwork Regions: Mesoamerica; Near East/Mediterranean


Research on agricultural origins is naturally interdisciplinary, spanning the social, biological and earth sciences. Synergistic partnerships are encouraged with the School of Life Sciences, School of Earth and Space Exploration and School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

Key school archaeology faculty

Michael Barton, Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Director, Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity
Affiliated Faculty, Center for Evolution and Medicine

Jane Buikstra, Regents' Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Founding Director, Center for Bioarchaeological Research

Anick Coudart, Research Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change

Michelle Hegmon, Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability

Kelly Knudson, Associate Professor & Associate Director, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Director, Archaeological Chemistry Laboratory

Margaret Nelson, President's Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Associate Dean, Barrett Honors College

Christopher Stojanowski, Associate Professor & Director, Undergraduate Studies, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Associate Director, Center for Bioarchaeological Research