I am currently researching the transition from hunter-gathering bands to agricultural communities. I am coming across the word cultivation a lot. It's getting confusing, because sometimes the word cultivation seems to mean "gathering wild plants", like foraging. At other times it seems to mean "managing and controlling plant growth", like agriculture.

Dictionaries and encyclopedias aren't helpful, giving an overly broad discussion. I am beginning to wonder if cultivation is a term of art in this context. Was it a transitional phase? If so, that was a pretty big deal! Where is the line between foraging and cultivation? How about the line between cultivation and domestication?

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    dictionary seems pretty clear to me. Of course without the context in which it is used as a synonym for forage, there is no way to intelligently answer your question.
    – MCW
    Jul 27 '17 at 9:40
  • Cultivation is about actually growing plants, applying time and attention to the crop. Cultivation may also involve selecting which characteristics are wanted when choosing seeds etc. for planting (in which case "cultivation" overlaps with "domestication"). Foraging (or sometimes "gathering", as in hunter-gatherer) involves collecting wild plants that you have had no part in growing. If "cultivate" is being used as a synonym for "forage", then it is probably being used incorrectly. Can you give an example? Jul 27 '17 at 13:00
  • Some examples that prompted the question: 1) "This new form of social organization preceded and perhaps prompted the cultivation of wild cereals ... which led in turn to the domestication of plants and the beginnings of agriculture." (Wade, "Before the Dawn") -- Suggesting that cultivation was "more than gathering" but "less than domestication" without definitions. 2) Cultivation is "caring for plants, whether domestic or wild" (Smith, "Emergence of Agriculture") leading me to wonder where is the line between "domestic" and "wild" (gathered)! I have a better sense now, thanks! Jul 30 '17 at 16:05

There was definitely a transitional phase in areas that developed agriculture independently. For example, in the mid-east they started out grinding useful grasses. Mortar and pestle and sickle finds start to get more and more common for quite a while before the first full-blown river-valley societies are formed.

Likely they started "weeding" around the better strains, and slowly transitioned to expending more and more effort encouraging their growth (and getting higher and higher yields). A term I've seen in several places for this phase is incipient agriculture.

The anthropologists have their own term for this: Mesolithic. This is essentially defined as the period between Paleolithic (hunting and gathering) and Neolithic (farming).

Poking around, I also see there's the term "Protoneolithic". That could be exactly what you want, but I've never seen that word before just now on Wikipedia.

If you're not into talking about rocks, there's also the term "Horticulture":

Horticulture primarily differs from agriculture in two ways. First, it generally encompasses a smaller scale of cultivation, using small plots of mixed crops rather than large fields of single crops. Secondly, horticultural cultivations generally include a wide variety of crops, even including fruit trees with ground crops. Agricultural cultivations however as a rule focus on one primary crop.

I'm less fond of this distinction, as it seems to be used as a way to selectively dismiss the efforts of certain societies, who it could be argued were merely practicing sensible agricultural diversity and crop rotation practices*.

Of course a lot (most?) of the world did not independently develop agriculture, but rather acquired their techniques from nearby practitioners, along with their cereal crops and domesticated animals. These people generally didn't go through much of a noticeable transition period.

* - Native American societies in particular had to cultivate multiple crops, because their main cereal crop lacks an essential amino acid.

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    Rereading this, I'm starting to wonder if the enjoyment many people derive from gardening isn't some kind of genetic disposition that became a useful human adaptation during this period.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 27 '17 at 18:07
  • "Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress": journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1359105310365577 Jul 28 '17 at 21:37
  • @AaronBrick ...which is science-ese for "people like to garden".
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 28 '17 at 21:44
  • Haha. Thanks, Ted. Your characterizations of processing, weeding, and keeping species together in a natural configuration seem to clarify the boundaries of "cultivation". I believe that irrigation would also fit right in with this skill set. After posting the question, I additionally read that the term "domestication" only applies after artificial selection actually causes the plants to evolve. Jul 30 '17 at 16:19
  • @TheEvolutionOfHuman.com - Mostly yes that's what people think they mean when they say "domestication". However, there's been some debate about that (and in particular how much of it humans really did on purpose). For example, if you start to take extra care of a patch of rye during a drought when its doing better than other things you gather, its yield increases when the rain comes back, and then your family's size increases to the point where you now depend on that increased yield or your kids will starve, who has really domesticated whom?
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 31 '17 at 22:33

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