A Brief History of Ancient Agriculture
Mar 05, 2019
For most of human history, up until about 12,000 years ago, small groups survived by hunting and scavenging wildlife and gathering edible plants they found in forests and along riverbanks. When those groups expanded beyond families to congregate into villages and towns in certain regions of the world, their food needs could no longer be consistently met with such methods. Thus, deliberate cultivation of crops and domestication of animals was initiated. Archaeologists believe that such transitions occurred more or less independently in at least 11 different locations, initially in the Middle East and Asia, and much later in Central and South America. Reliance on hunting and gathering still persists in modern times within small tribes in isolated regions of the world, such as in the Pila Nguru in the Victorian Desert of Western Australia and the Sentinelese on the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal close to the coast of Myanmar.
The first grain crops cultivated were likely ancestors of modern wheat and barley species, such as emmer wheat, grown in the Middle East, beginning in perhaps 8,000 BC. The early residents of Jericho, the first of 20 successive settlements located in what is now the Palestinian West Bank region because of the presence of abundant underground springs, are the first population known to have relied mainly on the cultivation of crops for food. Squash was the earliest domesticated crop in the Americas (Mexico) at about the same time. Maize (corn) was developed through natural selection breeding out of teosinte, a species in the grass family, in the same region around 6,000 BC. Both rice and cotton were first cultivated in the Indus Valley in Asia, beginning around 2,500 BC. The latest arrival on the scene among the major crops of today was the soybean, which was first cultivated in north China in about 1,100 BC, although this crop was grown only within this region until a few hundred years ago.
The first known domestication of animals that would become modern livestock species began with sheep and goats in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East in about 8,000 or 9,000 BC, in the modern-day states of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Dogs were actually the first domesticated species, from as long as 20,000 years ago, but in most parts of the world they now serve other roles for humans rather than as a source of sustenance, such as companion and guardian. However, there are still a handful of countries where dogmeat is viewed as an appropriate food, primarily found in East and South Asia.
Domesticated hogs came about 7,000 BC, roughly simultaneously in China and the Anatolia region of modern-day Turkey. Genetic evidence suggests that humpless cattle were first domesticated in the Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey about 8,000 BC. A recent (2014) analysis of fossilized chicken remains found in China suggests that poultry domestication may have begun as early as 10,000 years ago.
Waterborne trade was the first to emerge, with movement of goods occurring on rivers and along coasts as early as 3,000 BC in Egypt along the Nile River, in the Middle East along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and in China along the Yellow River. Because of space limitations, early traded goods were high-value, non-perishable items such as metal and gems. Commerce in spices began in roughly the same period, within the Middle East, and Asia. Neolithic carvings from this period identify an ancient port in India, Muziris, located on the southern tip of the subcontinent, as an early center for spice trading. Wine was first introduced as a tradable good by the Phoenician culture, in what is now Lebanon, in about 1,500 BC, shipping it to destinations around the Mediterranean Sea.
Occasional trading over land routes probably started as early as 3,500 BC, not long after domesticated cattle (also known as oxen) were first put to work pulling plows through fields in Mesopotamia (modern-Iraq). Horses and camels were domesticated and put to similar uses a few centuries later, both initially in Asia, especially once wheeled vehicles became available. Established land routes included the Silk Road, over which goods moved from southern China and India all the way to the Eastern Mediterranean to port cities in what are now the countries of Turkey, Syria, and Iran. Roman and Greek traders then carried some of those goods by ship to their outposts and colonies on the continent of Europe. Archaeological evidence suggests that goods moved along the full length of the trade route as early as 1070 BC, in the form of Chinese silk garment remnants found in Egypt. Trade by a succession of city states and empires persisted along this route until the 15th century AD.
History shows that many of the fundamental components of global agriculture, including the major crops and livestock species, basic production practices, and the means to move food between regions of plenty and regions of scarcity, were in place well before the birth of Christ. The tremendous gains in agricultural productivity realized through a variety of technological breakthroughs over the centuries have accommodated a growing global population over that roughly two thousand year period, from perhaps 400 million in 1 AD to more than 7 billion today.