A Short History of Agriculture


Before Agriculture

Before agriculture, people lived by hunting wild animals and gathering edible plants. When the herds were plentiful and the plants flourishing, life was good. But, when the herds migrated elsewhere, people had to follow them and often discover a whole new set of plants to supplement their diet.

Hunters eventually realized that their prey was much easier to kill if it were walled up in a box canyon. Better yet, they could capture the prey and keep it in a cave for future use. Archaeological finds show that early humans imprisoned giant ground sloth's in this way. Entrapment, however, was a temporary measure. Not thinking of the future, hungry humans gorged themselves, then, when the sloths had all been eaten, they sought out more sloths. maintaining a herd by breeding and nurturing wasn't yet practiced.

This "feast or famine" lifestyle had its definite drawbacks including starvation. Fortunately, several geniuses throughout the world eventually discovered how to preserve meat by drying it, smoking it over a fire, or cooking it. some others realized that it they took the seeds of the plants they had been eating and scattered them about, they grew into new plants.

Eventually, people decided that life would be a lot easier if they always had the animals with them and if edible plants or their produce were always available. Settling down seemed like a good idea.


The Origins of Agriculture

Recent archaeological finds place the beginning of agriculture before 7000 B.C. and animal domestication (mostly dogs used as hunting aids) thousands of years before that. There is some evidence that the people of Shanidar, in Kurdistan, were domesticating sheep and planting wheat as long ago as 9800 B.C.

Intensive food gathering, in which the local inhabitants of a region set up permanent residences and made extensive use of already present plants, seems to have started in the Near East around 9000 - 7000 B.C.

Barring the use of time machines, there is no way to know for sure how planting really got started. But archaeologists have lots of theories. One theory suggests that some seeds were spilled in a memorable manner during a migration. When the tribe next passed the same place, they might have correlated the spill of seeds with the sudden abundance of the plant. They could then have realized that they could store seeds and plant them, and be assured of having a food supply. later they began selecting and planting the seeds from plants with the highest yield. In this way, plants were domesticated, changed and controlled to benefit man rather than just exist in the wild.

At about the same time as the agricultural advances described above, people started to domesticate the wild ox and gather sheep into herds. Remains of a hunting dog, dated back to 8500 B.C., have been found in North America.


Towns and Cities Develop From Farming

The abundance of the harvest from domesticated plants allowed major increases in population. Having all of one's plants and animals in one place allowed the agriculturist to move from random caves and makeshift huts into permanent or semi permanent villages with homes made from stones, wood, or wattle. An early example is the Biblical city of Jericho. It started as such a village around 9000 B.C., and has been a settlement of one sort or another ever since.

One of the earliest recorded towns is Catal Huyuk established on the Konya Plain in Turkey. It is a vast, fertile expanse ideal for primitive agriculture. The earliest buildings date from 6500 B.C. and are similar to those found in the oldest Jericho settlements. You entered the mud brick buildings from the top. Catal Huyuk is notable for the number of shrines used for a variety of purposes, including burial and possible propitiation of deities of the hunt and the harvest. This implies an early religious organization and a way of life that left enough time for some members of the society to concentrate on religious duties. There was also time for crafts. some of the earliest known pottery was found in Catal Huyuk. There is also evidence of copper smithing and rope making, and some ovens were big enough to imply that some residents were full time bakers.

By 5000 B.C., the Euphrates Valley was full of villages and townships. The townships provided central services of storage, religious observance and administration that the villages could not handle. These townships developed into the Sumerian civilization.

At about the same time, similar villages were beginning in the Nile Valley and the river valleys of china and India.

Early Farming Techniques

The initial approach to farming was to remove some of the seeds from food plants before eating them, then scatter the seeds back into the same area they came from.

Later, the planters realized that other (non -food) plants were competing with their plants for the field, so they took to weeding the fields to make sure the only their plants were growing there. Everything else was left to nature.

Eventually it became obvious that this constant replanting resulted in stunted crops and low yields. The first response was simply to find a new field. After all, the land was vast and people were few. After awhile, though, the obvious fields were used up. Then potential farmers looked to the forests.

Slash and Burn

Most agricultural societies discovered the slash and burn technique. First, all the foliage in a section of a forest was cut down, creating a field. The remains were left on the ground. Then the field was set on fire, and the ash from the cut foliage enriched the soil. After many uses even this enriched soil became barren, and farmers were forced to find new fields.

As the population of the world grew and more fields were slashed and burned, the walk to a newly burned field became longer and longer and other cultures could claim these unattended fields. The tribe would then have to move to new sections of forest. In some areas, such as Madagascar, slash and burn agriculture is still practiced and the land is becoming less and less fertile.

Fallow Fields

A fallow field is one that is not planted for a period in hopes that it will regain its fertility. It is believed that the practice of leaving fields fallow originated because some cultures were forced to return to their old fields, and found that the infertile fields they left behind had become more productive.

This led to the establishment of a rotation system where each growing season certain fields would be left alone or tilled but not planted, extending the useful production life of a set number of fields. sometimes the fallow fields were used for pasturage for animals, which had the incidental benefit of fertilizing the soil.

It was later found that certain plants, thought useless except perhaps for animal fodder, were beneficial to a field's productivity, and seeds for these plants were planted in fallow fields.


As populations grew and competed for the best growing lands some cultures were forced to try to farm normally arid areas. Some of these cultures died trying; others discovered the principles of irrigation. There were some early massive engineering projects to dam water for later use, including the digging of canals to distribute water to normally dry fields. The first known examples of this irrigation process were built by farmers who colonized the Euphrates River Valley around 4000 B.C.

In most cases, irrigation involves trapping and storing water that appears for a short period, such as the spring flooding of the Euphrates and Nile, or the winter rainstorms of the American desert, so that it can be used later in normally dry periods. In almost all cases, early irrigation made the desert flower for a couple of centuries, then the water dried up in some climatic change or the fields grew barren because the irrigation had washed away all the good soil and the culture died. Both the Pueblo dwellers of the American desert and the inhabitants of Petra in the Middle East flourished and then died with their irrigation systems.

Other areas, such as the very fertile Nile Valley and the Tigris-Euphrates Fertile Crescent, were big enough and had a sufficiently dependable source of water so that they remained productive until the present day, though even these areas have undergone a decline in fertility and might be barren if not for modern agricultural techniques.

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Updated November 2013