Niche construction and optimal foraging theory in Neotropical agricultural origins: A re-evaluation in consideration of the empirical evidence

Publication date: Available online 11 January 2017Source:Journal of Archaeological Science
Author(s): Dolores R. Piperno, Anthony J. Ranere, Ruth Dickau, Francisco Aceituno
The various theoretical approaches advanced over the past 50 years to explain the origins of agriculture have prompted much discussion and debate. Most recently, controversy has arisen concerning the utility of two Darwinian approaches; namely, cultural niche construction (CNC) and human behavioral ecology-derived optimal foraging theory (OFT). Recent papers advocate for the primacy of cultural niche construction, calling for optimal foraging approaches to be all but disregarded in the quest to explain how and why foragers became farmers (Smith, 2015, 2016; Zeder, 2015, 2016). In particular, it is claimed that archaeological, paleo-environmental, and paleontological evidence from the Neotropics of northern South America fail to meet predictions derived from OFT theory, while predictions said to be derived from CNC-based approaches are supported (Smith, 2015, 2016; Zeder, 2015). However, a number of misreadings of the northern South America evidence are made in those discussions, while some pertinent literature is not considered. In this paper we discuss these misreadings and provide a clear re-articulation of the original data and interpretations, finding support for OFT predictions. Our re-evaluations of OFT and CNC further suggest they can, in fact, be complimentary explanatory approaches.