Was low atmospheric CO2 during the Pleistocene a limiting factor for the origin of agriculture?



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    1. Department of Botany, University of Toronto, 25 Willcocks Street, Toronto, Ontario M5S 3B2 Canada
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Agriculture originated independently in many distinct regions at approximately the same time in human history. This synchrony in agricultural origins indicates that a global factor may have controlled the timing of the transition from foraging to food-producing economies. The global factor may have been a rise in atmospheric CO2 from below 200 to near 270 μol mol−1 which occurred between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago. Atmospheric CO2 directly affects photosynthesis and plant productivity, with the largest proportional responses occurring below the current level of 350 μol mol−1. In the late Pleistocene, CO2 levels near 200 μol mol−1 may have been too low to support the level of productivity required for successful establishment of agriculture. Recent studies demonstrate that atmospheric CO2 increase from 200 to 270 μol mol−1 stimulates photosynthesis and biomass productivity of C3 plants by 25% to 50%, and greatly increases the performance of C3 plants relative to weedy C4 competitors. Rising CO2 also stimulates biological nitrogen fixation and enhances the capacity of plants to obtain limiting resources such as water and mineral nutrients. These results indicate that increases in productivity following the late Pleistocene rise in CO2 may have been substantial enough to have affected human subsistence patterns in ways that promoted the development of agriculture. Increasing CO2 may have simply removed a productivity barrier to successful domestication and cultivation of plants. Through effects on ecosystem productivity, rising CO2 may also have been a catalyst for agricultural origins by promoting population growth, sedentism, and novel social relationships that in turn led to domestication and cultivation of preferred plant resources.