The establishment of farming is a pivotal moment in human history, setting the stage for the development of class-based society and urbanization. Determining the nature of early farming and how farming practices evolved with increased societal complexity is therefore key to understanding the development of early urban civilizations.

There are two contrasting theories as to how farming practices led to (and were influenced by) social stratification. Many accounts identify agricultural intensification – increasing inputs of labour and hence yields per unit area of land – as a primary cause (and consequence) of increased social complexity and the emergence of elite groups. Recent interpretation of primary evidence for early farming practice in various parts of Europe and western Asia, however, suggests that diverse regimes featured highly intensive management from the outset. Small-scale surpluses could provide crucial scope for social (dis)advantage, especially in communities storing seasonal produce and claiming exclusive rights to fixed resources, such as specific plots of land. In this perspective, greater absolute yields would be achieved by expanding the scale of cultivation (extensification), with radical increases in surplus where elites invested in ‘expensive’ labour-saving techniques, such as use of specialized plough oxen.

A breakthrough in archaeological approach is needed to determine the actual roles of farming in the emergence of social complexity. The methodology required must push beyond conventional interpretation of the most direct farming evidence – archaeobotanical remains of crops and their arable weeds – to reconstruct not only what crops were grown, but also how, where and why farming was practised.