Origins of Agriculture

What if we told you agriculture began 60 million years ago? "But there weren't any people then!" you would probably exclaim. True: but the first farmers weren't people. Ants have farmed fungi for millions of years, termites and beetles also practice fungiculture, crabs farm bacteria, and damselfish farm algae and may even have domesticated tiny shrimp!

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    Turning to human beings (we'll return to ants at the end), you've probably already heard a lot about agricultural origins. Not everything you have heard was necessarily accurate: scientists have made a lot of discoveries that challenge old ideas. So let's dive in and plumb the mysteries of what many think of as the greatest human invention of all time.

    Agricultural Origins Definition

    Agriculture, as practiced by human beings, involves:

    • farming plant crops for various uses (food, fiber, dyes, medicine, etc.);

    • animal husbandry;

    • horticulture (gardening);

    • farming fungi, insects (honeybees, silkworms), and bacteria (in cheeses).

    Agricultural Origins: places and circumstances producing cultivated plants and tamed animals. Genotypic (genetic) and phenotypic changes turned wild/cultivated species into domesticates.

    Cultivation and domestication are distinct.

    Cultivation usually happens first. People take a plant (or an animal) from the wild, through a cutting, a seed, or some other means, and cultivate it in a controlled location such as a garden, field plot, or corral. It is manipulated to favor certain characteristics over others. We typically want fruits or grains to ripen at the same time, flowering to happen at the same time, and a larger and tastier product. For various reasons, including even religious ones, we may want our evolving crops to have certain colors, textures, or other characteristics, and our animals to similarly evolve.

    The result of this manipulation is domestication, traceable in archaeology through changes in a genotype that happened due to human interference. Full domesticates, such as maize, can no longer survive in the wild.

    Phases of the History of Agriculture

    What are the phases in agricultural history?

    Domestication of plants is typically dated to 12,000 years ago in West Asia, and 3,000 to 10,000 years ago elsewhere.

    Animal husbandry began around 15,000 years ago. Dogs started as camp followers, cats probably as pest control. They were bred to be less aggressive than their wild counterparts.

    We captured the wild ancestors of sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle and bred them to try to have more easily accessible sources of meat, hides, wool, milk, and so forth. Many attempts to do this failed.

    But domestication wasn't the beginning of agriculture, only a major step in a long process ending with your visit to the local grocery store.

    The Very Beginning

    Our forager and scavenger ancestors began the process of control of nature. During the Paleolithic, they learned to control fire, make stone tools, hunt, process food (roasting, etc.), and harvest grains, all well over 100,000 years ago.

    In Australia, fire-stick farming is tens of thousands of years old. People burned the landscape to favor the growth of wild plants for their own consumption and also for emus, kangaroos, and other prey species. Humans treated the continent as a garden. In essence, they used fire to get the plants they wanted and to lure the animals they needed.

    In forest farming in wetter regions, similar processes took place, often with the cultivation of tubers, but not necessarily their domestication.

    Neolithic Revolution

    Around 12,000 years ago, the Neolithic Revolution began in West Asia (the Fertile Crescent). The domestication of major "founder crops" like wheat, barley, and lentils occurred because dry, warm conditions forced people into oases or other specialized environments: they became sedentary.

    Origins of agriculture Fertile Crescent StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Fertile Crescent is named after the crescent-shaped hilly region where grain cropping began. Irrigated agriculture occurred in Mesopotamia several millennia later

    Grains were domesticated so they could be more easily controlled/predictable. As harvests grew, the surplus meant people could store food for the next year. Pottery and granaries improved storage and cooking techniques. Domesticated animal herds flourished.

    People began to inhabit permanent villages and eventually cities. Their innovations, crops, and animals, as well as tools and other technology, diffused to the Nile Valley, Europe, and elsewhere in Asia. City-states and the rise of civilization were part of this revolution, and there was no turning back after Sumer, Ur, and other early urban centers of Mesopotamia arose.

    Perhaps you were taught that this sequence happened in seven or 11 special "hearths" or "centers of domestication" across the world, following a predictable pattern of intensification. More and better agriculture meant larger populations, which meant more available labor, but also the need for more agriculture. Farmers, it was thought, lived better than hunter-gatherers, typically portrayed as short-lived and on the edge of starvation, eager to adopt agriculture.

    Alternate Views

    Much of the above stretches credibility. Here is why:

    • Complex, stratified societies with large populations didn't always need agriculture. A good example is the Poverty Point culture of the lower Mississippi Valley. In alluvial wetlands millennia ago, waterfowl, fish, and myriad other wild foods were so abundant that agriculture was not necessary.
    • Domestication was a slow process. At the Ohalo II site on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, people were cultivating grains over 20,000 years ago. This type of agriculture is referred to as proto-domestication.

    Origins of Agriculture Ohalo II StudySmarterFig. 2 - Stone tools were used for cereal harvest at Ohalo II site, Israel, over 20,000 years ago

    • There are many places where thousands of crops were domesticated, so they don't necessarily group into a few hearths. "Mesoamerica" is often called a hearth, yet crops there (maize, chilis, etc.) originated from widely separated locations with little geographic similarity and were developed by culturally distinct peoples.
    • People didn't stop hunting, gathering, and fishing when they started farming. Agriculture was invented and then practiced by hunter-gatherers, but even when they domesticated plants, they didn't necessarily settle down. Even today, people gather foods (like picking wild berries), hunt, or fish. Of course, we don't depend on these practices to survive: the huge numbers of humans in the world only exist because of agriculture and domestication.
    • Perhaps most important: sedentary farmers were sicker, shorter-lived, and less free than hunter-gatherers, in addition to having to work much harder. While farmers usually got the carbs they needed, they often lacked necessary vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients found in myriad wild foods hunter-gatherers had had access to. Furthermore, farmers lived in close proximity to their animals, so numerous zoonotic diseases jumped from animals to people. And farmers who became dependent on one or a few crops suffered when those failed—famines were deadly.

    Why don't we read about this in history books? Here's the thing. The surplus that sedentary farmers produced led to greater social stratification, allowing the rise of elite classes who didn't farm. Instead, they created or influenced religions, armies, and the state, and used the written word to control narratives glorifying their version of history. They defined non-agricultural people as "primitive" and unhappy and classified their own "peasants" and even slaves as happy and satisfied. They credited themselves (e.g., "the Pharaoh") with the favor of the gods and the productivity of the earth. Naturally, the true story did not start to be told until modern archaeologists could gain a more balanced view from their excavations.

    History of Agriculture Timeline

    Below are some major agricultural milestones in the history of agriculture.

    Years AgoInnovationsWhere?
    +100,000Control of fire; stone tools; hunting; plant gatheringAcross Eurasia and Africa
    23,000Grain cultivationOhalo II, Israel
    12,000Beginning of the Neolithic RevolutionWestern Asia
    11,500Founder crops domesticated: emmer & einkorn wheat, barley, chickpeas, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, flaxFertile Crescent
    11,000Beginnings of New World agricultureMexico, South America
    11,000Pigs and sheep domesticatedMesopotamia
    10,000Potato domesticationAndes
    9,000Maize and sugarcane domesticationMexico; New Guinea
    6,300Bronze Age - the rise of city-statesMesopotamia
    Table 1

    Agricultural Origins and Diffusion

    Despite changing ideas about when, how, where, and why people began to practice agriculture, some general outlines are still agreed upon:

    • Certain areas saw increased intensification that included sedentarism leading to city-states. These were often in irrigable river floodplains (Mesopotamia, Nile, Yangtze and Yellow, Indus, Niger, etc.);

    • Agriculture produced storable surpluses and non-farmer classes who could engage in the arts, politics, war, etc.;

    • Agricultural innovations from places where crops and animals were cultivated and domesticated diffused along trade routes.

    Types of Agricultural Diffusion

    Agriculture diffused through expansion and relocation:

    • Contagious diffusion: the most widespread method. People spread innovations to friends, neighbors, family, and at local markets.

    • Hierarchical diffusion: crops and animals were promoted by social elites. In early agriculture, this often had a sacred dimension, but as time went on, governments and powerful landowners promoted crops (including on plantations) for economic gain, social welfare, and other reasons.

    • Stimulus diffusion: domesticates changed meaning and function in different societies. Cattle were protected in Hinduism. Potatoes were used to make vodka in Russia.

    • Relocation diffusion: wherever crops were taken on ships and other long-distance voyages, they were relocated rather than spreading gradually across a land area from person to person. This happened from the New World to the Old World during the Columbian Exchange after 1492.

    Origins of agriculture diffusion map StudySmarterFig. 3 - Crops diffused in many directions from major centers of domestication

    Importance of Agriculture

    From the point of view of any civilization that only survives because of it, agriculture's importance is obvious. Without agriculture and particularly domestication, only a few million human beings would survive on the Earth, sustainably, instead of the eight billion who live today almost exclusively from the fruits of agriculture, but in a highly unsustainable fashion.

    The historical importance was discussed above, a familiar story that we are having to rethink. Zoonotic disease. Slavery. Famine. Mass extinctions. Exhaustion of natural resources. Global climate change. These are now being evoked along with the many unquestionable benefits of agriculture.

    We even have a term for the havoc agricultural civilization has been wreaking on the planet: the Anthropocene. Thanks to agriculture and by sheer virtue of how much we consume, humans during the Anthropocene (Neolithic Revolution to now) have become major forces affecting the biosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. As we mine our planet for the rocks, minerals, and fossils (including fuel) we need to keep our agricultural civilization running, we are even having an effect on the lithosphere.

    Humans have often been compared to ants, which you will recall are the other incredibly complex social animals that farm. Recently, however, it was pointed out that ants devised a system of agriculture that became sustainable tens of millions of years ago. In this perspective, human agriculture is still in its infancy.

    Origins of Agriculture - Key takeaways

    • Agriculture is not unique to humans; animals like ants have been observed farming.
    • People began innovations that led to agriculture over 100,000 years ago and began cultivating grains around 23,000 years ago.
    • By 12,000 years ago, around the end of the last Ice Age, the domestication of plants and animals began and is known as the Neolithic Revolution.
    • Domestication is a slow process and was started by hunter-gatherers using methods of cultivation and animal taming.
    • The world's population is only possible due to the advances in agriculture, but it is not sustainable in terms of its impact on the planet.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 Fertile Crescent map (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fertile_crescent_Neolithic_B_circa_7500_BC.jpg) by Bjoertvedt (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Bjoertvedt) licensed by CC BY-S.A. 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    2. Fig. 2 Ohalo II tools (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Composite_Sickles_for_Cereal_Harvesting_at_23,000-Years-Old_Ohalo_II,_Israel.jpg) by Iris Groman-Yaroslavski , Ehud Weiss, Dani Nadel (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0167151) licensed by CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
    3. Fig. 3 Crop diffusion map (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holocene-crop-domestication-en.svg) by DeWikiMan (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:DeWikiMan) licensed by CC BY-Sa 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Origins of Agriculture

    What factors played a role in the origins of agriculture? 

    Many factors played a role in agricultural origins. Human manipulation of the landscape by fire, harvesting wild plants, and transplanting wild plants into cultivation were part of the origins, along with the need for tame, domestic animals as sources of meat, hides, milk, etc. Climate changes at the end of last Ice Age almost certainly played a role in domestication.

    When did agriculture begin? 

    Agriculture, as practiced by human beings, began tens of thousands of years ago with fire-stick farming in Australia; proto-domestication was happening by 20,000 years ago in Israel, domestication of animals began 15,000 years ago with dogs, and domestication of plants by 12,000 years ago with certain grains such as wheat.

    How did the development of agriculture bring change to human society?

    Agriculture allowed the growth of an elite who did not farm, and storage of food surpluses permitted the growth of urban areas and eventually city-states. Farmers became less healthy than hunter-gatherers, and less free with the rise of agricultural serfdom and slavery.

    What was the earliest form of agriculture? 

    Agriculture in the form of fungus farming has been practiced by ant societies for 60 million years. In humans, control of fire over 100,000 years ago led to various types of fire-stick farming and forest farming that did not involve domestication.

    What are the different theories on the origin of agriculture?

    There are many theories about the origins of agriculture, but scientists now agree that agriculture was a slow process that predated domestication by thousands or tens of thousands of years. Domestication of plants and animals, as a subset of agriculture, is commonly associated with warmer and drier climates at the end of the last Ice Age between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago, particularly in the Fertile Crescent.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is NOT a desirable characteristic for a domesticate?

    Pick the true statement:

    The following do NOT practice agriculture:

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