Global reliance on agriculture shaped by ecological opportunity and cultural transmission

Ecological forces shaped the geography of agriculture by biasing human movement and the dispersal of domesticates

GBIF-mediated data resources used : 116 species
Sus scrofa
Sus scrofa Linnaeus, 1758 observed in Florida, USA by moliverna (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Agriculture has affected humanity like no other human development, and while food security has improved significantly since the first attempts at plant and animal domestication some 12,000 years ago, the adoption of agriculture as a main mode of subsistence has varied across societies well into the twentieth century.

As an attempt to explain the global patterns of reliance on agriculture, this study used GBIF-derived ecological niche models of the first 116 plant and animal species domesticated by humans to determine the effects of ecological opportunities.

Creating a map of local environments supporting early domesticates, the study found the highest suitability in tropical regions. Coupled with data on location and subsistence techniques of 1,200 traditional cultural groups, the models suggested that early-twentieth-century farming practices were shaped by local species richness, and that reliance on farming continued to be significantly predicted by how suitable the environment was for those early domesticates.

Using proxies for processes of transmission of cultural knowledge, the study also suggested that both population expansion and inter-group contact are likely to have shaped the spread, adoption and continued evolution of agricultural practices.

Vilela B, Fristoe T, Tuff T, Kavanagh PH, Haynie HJ, Gray RD, Gavin MC and Botero CA (2020) Cultural transmission and ecological opportunity jointly shaped global patterns of reliance on agriculture. Evolutionary Human Sciences. Cambridge University Press (CUP) 2. Available at: