Agricultural Hearths

Where exactly does our food come from? The supermarkets? Some farm far away? Well, many crops originated in interesting places around the world. Some of the earliest evidence of plant cultivation dates back 14,000 years, and since then, we have done many things to make it easier and more enjoyable to produce, cultivate, and eat the different foods we grow now! Let's take a look at the origins of food cultivation and what they all have in common.  

Agricultural Hearths Agricultural Hearths

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    Agricultural Hearths Definition

    The agricultural diffusion began in places termed hearths. A hearth can be defined as the central location or core of something or someplace. On a microscale, a hearth is a center point of a home, originally the location of the fireplace where food can be prepared and shared. Expanded to the scale of the globe, the original centers of growth, cultivation, and consumption of food are located in specific areas where early civilization first began.

    Agriculture, the science and practice of cultivating plants and animals for food and other products, began at these hearths. Combined, the agricultural hearths are the areas where the origins of agricultural ideas and innovation began and spread from.

    Major Agricultural Hearths

    Agricultural hearths appeared in different areas around the world, independently and unique to their regions. Historically, areas where major agricultural hearths developed were also where early urban civilizations first began. As people shifted from nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles to sedentary agriculture, agricultural villages were able to form and develop. Within these new settlement patterns, people were able to trade and organize, creating new and innovative ways to farm.

    Agricultural villages are an urban settlement pattern made of small clusters of people working in different agricultural practices and trades.

    The shift from nomadic lifestyles to sedentary agriculture occurred over long periods of time for many different reasons. Sedentary agriculture is an agricultural practice in which the same land is used every year. Favorable environmental conditions, such as good climate and soil fertility, were significant factors in the development of sedentary agriculture. Sedentary agriculture could also allow for the production of surplus food, enabling greater population growth. Sedentary agriculture made it feasible for more people to congregate together.

    This shift is associated with the rise of early urban civilizations, when humans first began to meet and settle in areas, building infrastructure, creating new technology, and developing cultural and social traditions. With a growing food stock from sedentary agriculture, populations and towns grew to larger civilizations. As civilizations grew, greater social structures and ruling systems were set in place to keep order and command different tasks for people to complete. In many ways, sedentary agriculture helped create the economic and political structures we know today.

    Original Agricultural Hearths

    The original agricultural hearths are located in different areas of the world. The Fertile Crescent is where sedentary agriculture first began. The Fertile Crescent, located in Southwest Asia, covers parts of present-day Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, and Turkey. Although it covers a large tract of land, the Fertile Crescent is close to the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile rivers, which provided an abundance of water for irrigation, fertile soil, and trading opportunities. The main crops grown and produced in this region were primarily grains such as wheat, barley, and oats.

    In the Indus River Valley, large amounts of rainfall and flooding created excellent conditions for farming. Fertile and nutrient-rich soil allowed for the cultivation of lentils and beans, which fueled population growth. Along with being an agricultural hearth, the Indus Valley Civilization was one of the largest early civilizations in the world.

    Farming was also developed independently in sub-Saharan Africa, far from the Fertile Crescent. First conceived in East Africa, farming in sub-Saharan Africa likely emerged as a way to feed an expanding population. Subsequently, as farming practices improved, the population increased even more. Sorghum and yams, unique to the region, were domesticated around 8,000 years ago. Agricultural domestication then spread into other parts of Africa, particularly southern Africa.

    Similarly, agricultural villages began to take off in areas around the Yangtze River in present-day China. Water, an important component of agriculture, was in abundance in that area, allowing for the domestication of rice and soybeans. The invention of paddy fields is thought to have originated at this time as the ideal method for the greater production of rice.

    Agricultural Hearths, Figure 1, Original Agricultural Hearths StudySmarterFig. 1 - Jiangxi Chongyi Hakka Terraces in China

    In Latin America, major hearths emerged in areas now known as Mexico and Peru. The most influential crop that came from the Americas was maize, commonly called corn, one of the most researched crops in the world. Although the origin of maize is still disputed, its domestication has been traced to both Mexico and Peru. Additionally, cotton and beans were primary crops in Mexico while Peru focused on potatoes.

    In Southeast Asia, tropical and humid conditions allowed for major crops such as mangoes and coconuts to grow. Southeast Asia benefited from an abundance of fertile soil due to an abundance of water and volcanic activity. This region is notable for being a source of inspiration for Carl Sauer's Land of Plenty Hypothesis.

    For the AP Human Geography exam, you don't need to know the details of all agricultural hearths, but rather what they have mainly in common! Remember: these hearths all have an abundance of water and fertile soil and are found around areas of early human settlement.

    Carl Sauer's Land of Plenty Hypothesis

    Carl Sauer (1889-1975), a prominent American geographer, presented a theory that the experimentation necessary to develop agriculture could only occur in lands of plenty, i.e., in areas with an abundance of natural resources. He hypothesizes that seed domestication, artificial selection of wild plants in combination with hybridizing or cloning in order to produce higher amounts of the same crop, originated in Southeast Asia. The first domestication of tropical plants likely occurred there due to favorable climate and topography, while people moved towards a more sedentary lifestyle.

    Agricultural Hearths Map

    This agricultural hearths map depicts several hearths and the possible diffusions in farming practices over time. The emergence of crops throughout different trading routes over time presents evidence that trade was the primary source of agricultural diffusion. The Silk Road, a network of trade routes connecting East Asia, Southwest Asia, and Europe together, was a highly traveled route for transporting goods such as metals and wool. It's also likely that different plant seeds were dispersed through this route as well.

    Agricultural Hearths, Figure 2, Agricultural Hearths Map, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Map of agricultural hearths and the diffusion of agriculture

    Diffusion through migration is also another explanation of the diffusion of crops. Although early civilizations and settlement patterns existed, there were still plenty of people leading nomadic lifestyles. The migration of people, both voluntary and forced, has occurred throughout history. With that, people bring along who they are and what they know, likely spreading innovative agricultural ideas. Over time, agricultural hearths spread and gradually turned into the territories and countries that we know today.

    Agricultural Hearths Examples

    Among all agricultural hearths examples, the Fertile Crescent offers important insight into both agricultural beginnings and evidence of early organized civilization. Ancient Mesopotamia is home to Sumer, one of the first known civilizations.

    Agricultural Hearths, Figure 3, Agricultural Hearths Examples, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Standard of Ur, Peace Panel; Artistic evidence of the importance of food and celebration in Sumerian society

    The Fertile Crescent: Mesopotamia

    Sumer had distinct human-driven developments including language, government, economy, and culture. Sumerians settled in Mesopotamia around 4500 B.C., building villages around farming communities in the area. Cuneiform, a series of characters used for writing on clay tablets, was an important achievement of the Sumerians. Writing allowed the opportunity to keep records for farmers and traders at the time.

    Sumerians also created canals and ditches, which allowed for the control of water in and out of their towns. Although initially invented for flood mitigation, it became a major tool for irrigation, which allowed agriculture to flourish.

    Over time, as populations grew and civilization developed further, governments became more concerned about food supply and stability. Crop yield was representative of how successful or legitimate a ruler was, and was a major cause of both success and failure. With this pressure in place, agriculture became politicized early on, as disruptions in agriculture affected everything from the health and well-being of society, productivity in trade and commerce, and the stability of a government.

    Agricultural Hearths - Key takeaways

    • Agricultural hearths are areas from where the origins of agricultural ideas and innovation began and spread.
    • Agricultural hearths were also areas where the earliest urban civilizations developed.
    • Original agricultural hearths include the Fertile Crescent, Sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Mesoamerica.
    • Trade and migration were major forms of agricultural diffusion.


    1. Fig. 1, Jiangxi Chongyi Hakka Terraces in China (, by Lis-Sanchez (, licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (
    2. Fig. 2, Map of agricultural hearths and diffusion of agriculture (, by Joe Roe (, licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
    3. Fig. 3, Standard of Ur, Peace Panel (, by Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata (, licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Agricultural Hearths

    What are the agricultural hearths? 

    Agricultural hearths are areas where the origins of agricultural ideas and innovation began and spread from.

    What were the 4 major agricultural hearths? 

    The 4 major agricultural hearths are the Fertile Crescent, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Mesoamerica.

    Where are the agricultural hearths? 

    The main agricultural hearths are in the Fertile Crescent or present-day Southwest Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Indus River Valley, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Mesoamerica.

    Is Mesopotamia an agricultural hearth? 

    Mesopotamia is an agricultural hearth, with evidence of origins in both agriculture and early urban civilization. 

    What do agricultural hearths have in common? 

    All agricultural hearths have an abundance of water, fertile soil, and early urban settlement patterns in common.

    What is an example of hearth in human geography?

    An example of a hearth in human geography is an agricultural hearth, a place of origin for agricultural innovation and ideas.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What type of agricultural practice had to dominate for agricultural hearths to begin?

    What kind of urban settlement developed from sedentary agriculture?

    The Fertile Crescent is in


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