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A Global Climatic Model for the Origins of Agriculture


A Global Model for the Origins of Agriculture by Rand Flem-Ath


This is the original text submitted in the Spring of 1981 to The Anthropological Journal of Canada, and accepted for publication. It contains more information than the edited text that appeared in Volume 19, No. 4, 1981, 2-7.



A climatic model orders archaeological evidence on the origins of agriculture and the sequence of independent civilizations on a global scale.


Why did agriculture become the preferred means of subsistence following the termination of the Pleistocene? Why did the civilizations of the New World take so much longer to evolve despite the fact that their early agricultural experiments are contemporary with those of the Old World? This paper will attempt to shed light on these problems with the aid of the little know climatic model of Hapgood [1] in conjunction with the stress model of Harris. [2]

Cohen[3] has argued, quite rightly, that it is no longer adequate to explain the “where” and the “when” of agricultural origins but to address ourselves to the more important question of “why?” Why did mankind, in both the Old and New Worlds, almost simultaneously shift from their highly successful and traditional subsistence of hunting and gathering to agriculture? Why were certain areas of the world more suitable to this adaptation than others? Any theory which attempts a global approach to this problem must confront the question of “why” in such a manner as to illuminate the data concerning the “where” and “when” of the origins of agriculture.

Global theories which have addressed this problem have fallen into three categories: the diffusion models; the population/ecological models; and what I term the “traditional” climatic models. Why have these models failed to account for major significant archaeological evidence?

The fact that “. . . all agricultural origins fall about 10,000 ± 2000 years ago.”[4] well before the first civilizations, coupled with the evidence demonstrating more than one center of early agricultural experimentation [5] has seriously undermined the concept of diffusion as an important model for the origins of agriculture. Until a theory is developed which can overcome these two problems the theory of diffusion will remain untenable as a global model.

Cohen attempted to apply a population/ecological model on a global scale.  Following Boserup[6] who first put forward the idea of population density as a casual feature of technological change, thus reversing the traditional Malthusian model, Cohen argued that population growth worldwide reached a saturation level which in turn created as stress condition forcing the adoption of agriculture as a new strategy of food supply. This thesis suffers from three very serious drawbacks: first, it flies in the face of anthropological data which as shown that hunter-gathers normally maintain equilibrium with their environments;[7] second, given that the population of density of the Old World was significantly greater than the New World, Cohen’s theory fails to explain why the ecological thresholds were reached at the same time; and finally it does not address itself to the evidence of Vavilov[8] which shows a direct correlation between high altitudes and the centers of agriculture. In short, although Cohen has addressed the problem of “why,” his model does not shed light on the “when” and “where” aspects of the problem.

The diffusion and population/ecological global models have difficulties in explaining archaeological data and so we now turn to the “traditional” climatic models. These theories, such as Childe[9]  and Binford[10] have suffered as Cohen correctly pointed out,[11] from two problems: they are regional in scope and thus cannot account for the data on a broader perspective; and they are repetitive processes which fail to explain why the particular changes of the post-Pleistocene period resulted in agriculture when similar events in the past had not done so.  Any new climatic theory must address these two problems.

Before we proceed to the primary thesis of this paper it may be helpful to describe the type of theory that is required. We need a theory that can explain the “why” the process of agriculture began in the New and Old Worlds at approximately the same time yet led to much different rates of cultural evolution. The model must not only address this “when” evidence and especially the long neglected correlation between altitude and centers, but the theory, if it is a climatic one, must address itself to the traditional limitations of repetitive and regional effects outlined by Cohen. Finally the theory should address the data on a global scale.

A climatic model based on the geological theory of Hapgood[12] in conjunction with the stress model of Harris[13] can meet all the requirements stated above. The sad state of affairs is that Hapgood’s geological work has simply been ignored despite the fact that original volume was prefaced by the late Albert Einstein.  Einstein’s preface is an excellent summary of the basic theory and since the book is now out-of-print I have taken the liberty of quoting him:


“I frequently receive communications from people who wish to consult me concerning their unpublished ideas.  It goes without saying that these ideas are very seldom possessed of scientific validity.  The very first communication, however, that I received from Mr. Hapgood electrified me.  His idea is original, of great simplicity, and – if it continues to prove itself – of great importance to everything that is related to the earth’s surface.

A great many empirical data indicate that at each point of the earth’s surface that has been carefully studied, many climatic changes have taken place, apparently quite suddenly.  This, according to Hapgood, is explicable if the virtually rigid outer crust of the earth undergoes, from time to time, extensive displacement over the viscous, plastic, possibly fluid inner layers.  Such displacements may take place as the consequences of comparatively slight forces exerted on the crust, derived from the earth’s momentum of rotation, which in turn will tend to alter the axis of rotation of the earth’s crust. …” [14]


It should be noted that the process of earth crust displacement (ECD) refers only to a movement of the earth’s crust and not to the mantle, core, or pole of rotation. Put simply, ECD is a process which results in various parts of the earth’s crust being shifted, at different times, over the earth’s axis (the North and South Poles).

Working on the assumption that the earth’s magnetic fields are usually located in close proximity to the pole of rotation, Hapgood collected geo-magnetic rock samples from different parts of the globe indicating those areas of the crust which were at the poles from the last three ECDs. Hapgood found evidence that the most recent ECD occurred between 17,000-12,000 B.P. at which time the crust displaced resulting in the North Pole’s relocation to its current place in the “Arctic” Ocean after having been located previously in the Hudson Bay region of northern Canada. More recent climatic data from different sources have been brought together[15]  indicating at dramatic climatic change at 12,000 B.P. which coincides with Pleistocene extinctions, rising ocean levels, the close of the ice age and the origins of agriculture.

A displacement of the earth’s crust causes dramatic climatic changes but it should be noted that these variations are not all equal in their impact. There were areas of the globe following the ECD of 12,000 B.P. which were tropical before and after the event. Taken in conjunction with the data of Vavilov[16] I have labelled these areas as “Micro-Centers” because the further one travels from the mid-point between the current and previous equators the less likely that one will be able to survive the harsh ecological changes. (See Map 1 and Table 1)


Vavilov found a direct correlation between agricultural origins and land over 1500 meters above ocean level. This long neglected data is explicable in terms of ECD because the displacement of the crust results in immense tidal waves. Survivors of the event have a strong motive for staying in high mountains. The Micro-Centers listed in Table 1 are over 1500 meters above ocean level.

Important archaeological discoveries in three of the four Micro-Centers date agricultural developments to approximately 12,000 B. P. MacNeish[17] reviews the archaeological evidence in Peru dating to this time range, while Pickersgill and Heiser[18] delineated the number of important crops which were domesticated in the Lake Titicaca region of Bolivia/Peru. The same sort of data comes from the antipode of Lake Titicaca in the highlands of Thailand. Early agricultural experiments at Spirit Cave, Thailand, are reviewed by Solheim[19] and Gorman.[20]  Similar evidence near the Ethiopian highlands is found in Wendorf.[21] The model suggested here indicates that more excavations might be profitably undertaken in the highlands of north-eastern Borneo.

ECD creates a situation where mobility is limited and important plants and animals for man become extinct.[22] This is exactly the condition that Harris argues leads to the process of agriculture. According to his model an immobile population creates population pressures which intensify wild-food procurement with eventual improved seasonal scheduling. A resource specialization coupled with improved technological innovations and a cultural selection of specific plants or animals may develop into a genuine food-producing system. If mobility is restored this last phase may not take place and a reversion to hunting-gathering can take place.

Harris’s model can also be applied to the areas in high altitudes which were temperate both before and after the ECD of 12,000 B.P. Map 2 and Table 2 show the conditions that prevailed in the northern hemisphere following the last ECD.  (see Map 2. and Table 2.)



The absence of important early agricultural experiments in the “Non-Center” shown and described in Map 2 and Table 2 is entirely in line with climatic conditions proposed by Hapgood and the stress model of Harris. Since this area was temperate both before and after the ECD of 12,000 B.P. it did not take long for mobility to be re-established. Cohen reviews the literature showing the preference for the hunting and gathering way of life over the more labour intensive means of agriculture.

The area labelled “Macro-Crescent” was the most favorable area for agricultural experiments following the ECD of 12,000 B.P. Since this area was formerly tropical and newly become temperate, the possibility of expansion into this zone from the Old World Non-Center was especially favourable. People who had gone almost all the way to food-producing during the population pressures in the high mountains around the Black Sea could move from a region which was temperate both before and after the ECD into a newly temperate zone. Such expansion would favour the use of agriculture since the indigenous plants and animals had been depleted.

The situation in the “Micro-Crescent” of the New World was entirely different. Here expansion to the south was into a zone which was formerly temperate but which had become tropical. Expansion into this zone was slow because of the radically different climatic conditions compared to the North American Non-Center. This fact accounts for the time-lag of New World civilizations. (See Table 3)


Table 3 demonstrates the utility of ECD as a model for accounting for the sequence of early independent civilizations. It will be noted that the first five civilizations appeared within the Macro-Crescent and that later societies fall into place according to the climatic conditions delineated. The first four civilizations were dependent upon plants and animals that were first domesticated near or in mountains and in the vicinity of the Black Sea. China is here seen as an off-shot of the Thailand highland Micro-Center which brought high altitude plants from a tropical zone into a low altitude temperate zone.

This paper has restricted itself to addressing the questions of the origins of agriculture and the sequence of pristine civilizations as seen through the climatic model of Charles H. Hapgood and population stress model of David R. Harris. Why previous ECDs have not led to agriculture can be accounted for by two factors: the fact that only two ECDs (12,000 B.P. and 55,000 B.P.) have occurred within the lifespan of Homo sapiens; and because lower overall population levels in the past allowed for a reversion to hunting and gathering.

It is my conviction that the theory of earth crust displacement constitutes a scientific revolution as defined by Kuhn.[23] It is a theory which has a wide application to various persistent problems in different scientific fields, and in the field of archaeology it orders data on a global scale and suggests new lines of investigation. Hapgood applied the theory to the problems of the ice ages; mountain-building; extinctions; and the process of evolution. Recent developments in solar physics[24] are suggestive [25]of a mechanism for the displacements. This paper has applied the theory of ECD to the two persistent problems of: the “why”, “where” and “when” of the origins of agriculture; and the sequence of pristine civilizations. In future papers I hope to expand the model to other problems in archaeology.

[1] Charles H. Hapgood  The Earth’s Shifting Crust, Chilton, Philadelphia, 1958 and The Path of the Pole, Chilton, Philadelphia, 1970.

[2] David R. Harris “Alternative Pathways toward Agriculture” in Charles A. Reed, The Origins of Agriculture, Mouton, The Hague, 1977, 179-244.

[3] Mark N. Cohen The Food Crisis in Prehistory: Overpopulation and the Origins of Agriculture, YaleUniversity Press, New Haven and London, 1977.

[4] George F. Carter “A Hypothesis Suggesting a Single Origin of Agriculture” in Charles A. Reed, The Origins of Agriculture, Mouton, The Hague, 1977, 89-134.

[5] N. I. Vavilov “The Origin, Variation, Immunity and Breeding of Cultivated Plants” translated by K.S. Chester, Chronica Botanica, 13, (1-6), 1950, 14-54. AND Jack R. Harlan “Agricultural Origins: Centers and Noncenters,” Science, 174, 1971, 468-474.

[6] E. Boserup The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, Aldine, Chicago, 1965.

[7] Harris op. cit.

[8] Vavilov op. cit.

[9] V. G. Childe Man Makes Himself, Mentor, New York, 1951.

[10] L. R. Binford “Post Pleistocene Adaptations” in Bindford and Binford (eds) New Perspectives in Archaeology, Aldine, Chicago, 1968, 313-341.

[11] Cohen, op. cit. 8.

[12] Hapgood, op cit. 1970.

[13] Harris op. cit.

[14] Hapgood, op. cit. 1958.

[15] C.C. Langway, Jr. and J.R. Hansen, and B. Lyle, “Drilling Through the Ice Cap: Probing Climate for a Thousand Centuries” in Richard S. Lewis and Philip M. Smith, Frozen Future: A Prophetic Report from Antarctica, Quadrangle, New York, 1973, 202.

[16] Vavilov op. cit.

[17] Richard S. MacNeish “The Beginnings of Agriculture in Central Peru,” in Charles A. Reed, The Origins of Agriculture, Mouton, The Hague, 1977, 753-802.

[18] Barbara Pickersgill and Charles B. Heiser, Jr. “Origins and Distribution of Plants Domesticated in the New World Tropics, in Charles A. Reed, The Origins of Agriculture, Mouton, The Hague, 1977, 803-836.

[19] W. G. Solheim “An Earlier Agricultural Revolution,” Scientific American, April 1972, 34-41.

[20] Chester Gorman “A Priori Models and Thai Prehistory: A Reconsideration of the Beginnings of Agriculture in Southeastern Asia,” in Charles A. Reed, The Origins of Agriculture, Mouton, The Hague, 1977, 321-356.

[21] Fred Wendorf, “Late Palaeolithic Sites in Egyptian Nubia,” in Fred Wendorf (ed.) The Prehistory of Nubia, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, 791-953.

[22] Hapgood, op. cit. 1970 Chapter 10.

[23] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962.

[24] John A. Eddy “Historical and Arboreal Evidence for a Changing sun,” in John A. Eddy (ed.) The New Solar Physics, Westview, Boulder, Colorado, 1978, 11-34.

[25] John Gribbon The Strangest Star: A Scientific Account of the Life and Death of the Sun, Fontana, Glasgow (Published in the USA by Delacorte Press, New York under the title, The Death of the Sun) 1980.


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