FIRST FARMERS IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
Yams for breakfast in New Guinea People in Southeast Asia may have been among the first to develop agriculture. There is some evidence of wild yam and taro cultivation dating back to 15,000 and 10,000 B.C. in Indonesia. Rice cultivation in Malaysia and bean cultivation in Burma may date back to the same period. Most historians place the origin of agriculture to the Asia Minor (Turkey) to around 8000 B.C.
Some archaeologists believe that the 11,500 year old beans found at Spirit Cave might be the first harvested agricultural crop. The base the finding on the discovered of certain tools that are good for cutting and harvesting plants. These tools resemble ones found at early agricultural sights in Asia Minor.
People that lived in a site called Khok Phanom Di in Thailand between 4,000 and 3,500 year ago practiced rice farming and buried their dead facing east in shrouds of bark and asbestos fibers. Rice is believed to have first been being cultivated around 3,500 B.C. The oldest rice grains ever discovered in China; they date back to about 8,000 B.C.
The earliest domesticated animals in China were pigs, dogs and chickens. This trinity of domesticated animals is believed to have spread from China across Asia and the Pacific. Among the other animals that were domesticated by the ancient Chinese were water buffalo (important for pulling plows), silkworms, ducks and geese.
Websites and Resources on Prehistory: Human Prehistory users.hol.gr/~dilos/prehis.htm ; Wikipedia article on Prehistory Wikipedia ; Early Humans elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; Prehistoric Art witcombe.sbc.edu/ARTHprehistoric ; National Geographic Atlas of the Human Journey genographic.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/atlas ; Early Modern Man: Evolution of Modern Humans anthro.palomar.edu ; Virtual Ice Age creswell-crags.org.uk/Explore/virtually-the-ice-age ; Stone Age Tools aerobiologicalengineering.com
Websites and Resources of Early Agriculture and Domesticated Animals: Origins of Agriculture comp-archaeology.org/AgricultureOrigins ; Britannica britannica.com/ ; Wikipedia article History of Agriculture said that ; History of Food and Agriculture museum.agropolis ; Wikipedia article Animal Domestication Wikipedia ; Cattle Domestication geochembio.com ; Food Timeline, History of Food foodtimeline.org ; Food and History teacheroz.com/food ; Iceman Photscan iceman.eurac.edu/ ; Otzi Official Site iceman.it
First Rice and Corn
Yams in Chad The Jiahu site in China yielded the oldest known domesticated rice, also dated to 7000 B.C. The rice was a kind of short-grained japonica rice. Scholars had previously thought the earliest domesticated rice belonged to the long-grain indica subspecies.
Other early evidence of rice farming comes from a 7000-year-old archeological site near the lower Yangtze River village of Hemudu in Zheijiang Province. When the rice grains were found there they were white but exposure to air turned them black in a matter minutes. These grains can now be seen at a museum in Hemudu. Some 8,000-year-old rice grains have been discovered in Changsa in the Hunan Province.
A team form South Korea’s Chungbuk National University announced that it had found the remains of rice grains in the Paleolithic site of Sorori, South Korea, dated to around 12,000 B.C. The discovery challenges the accepted belief that rice was first cultivated in China.
Some scientists believe that the corn from teosinte a weedy wild grass still found in remote areas of Mexico that has inch-long "ears" and look more like wheat than corn. Other believe it comes from criollo, a plant native to a remote region of Sierre Norte de Oaxaca in Mexico, or cornlike plant that has since become extinct. Primitive corncobs from these plants found in a Oaxaca cave were dated to 6,300 B.C.
In 2001, based of DNA studies, scientists concluded that corn did in fact evolve from teosinte. It is believed that ancient people in southern Mexico and Central America began harvesting grains from wild teosinte about 10,000 years. Through selective breeding these plants developed large stalks and seeds and eventually these became the cobs we associate with corn today.
DNA ‘Map’ Shows Mother of All Rice Came from China’s Pearl River
In October 2012, AFP reported: “The mother of all cultivated rice was grown on China’s Pearl River, according to a DNA “map” published in Nature. The first domesticated strain of rice was Oryza sativa japonica, which was grown thousands of years ago from wild rice in the middle of the Pearl River in southern China, said Nature study. [Source: Agence France-Presse, October 4, 2012]
Rice today has diverged into hundreds of varieties, with cultivated rice divided into two major sub-species — Oryza sativa japonica, which is short-grained and glutinous, and Oryza sativa indica, which is long-grained and non-sticky. The origins of rice have spurred long scientific debates. Researchers have wrangled over where and when the first domesticated variety was grown. Some in fact have argued domestication was a multiple event in which two rival strains emerged at the same time.
Researchers led by Bin Han of Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences put together a gigantic database to compare tiny single-letter changes in rice DNA. Their trawl covered 446 geographically diverse types of wild rice (Oryza rufipogon) — the ancestral progenitor of commercially farmed rice — and 1,083 varieties of japonica and indica.
By putting together a family tree, the researchers say they can disprove theories that indica rice was domesticated separately from wild rice. Instead, the first indica was a cross between japonica and wild rice. This mix then spread into Southeast and South Asia, where farmers bred varieties to cope with local conditions, thus creating the distinctive indica group. The genome comparison should be an important resource for plant breeders, helping them to pinpoint 55 genetic signatures that have entered the genome through human selection, say the authors.
The study in Nature did not put a precise date on domestication. However research published last year in the US journal Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences (PNAS) said the first rice was grown around 8,200 years ago, a date that tallies with archaeological evidence from China’s Yangtze Valley.
First Potatoes and Beans
Andes potatoes Potatoes are one of the worlds’ oldest foods. The have been grown in their place of origin, South America, as long as the first cultivated in the Fertile Crescent. The first wild potatoes were harvested as high as 14,000 feet in Andes perhaps as long as 13,000 years. Of the seven cultivated species of potato six are still grown only in the upper elevations of the Peruvian Andes. The seventh, S. tuberosum, grows in the Andes too, where it is known as “unproved potato” but also grows well at lower elevations and is grown all over the world as dozens of different vanities of potatoes that we know and love.
The wild potato-like plants come in wide variety and range over an area in the Andes that extends from Venezuela to northern Argentina. There is so much diversity among these plants that scientists have long thought that early potatoes were cultivated at different times in different places, perhaps from different species. A study in the mid 2000s by scientist from the University of Wisconsin of 365 specimens of potato as well as primitive species and wild plants seems to indicate that all modern potatoes come from a single species, the wild plant Solanum bukasovi , native to southern Peru.
Evidence of potato domestication has been found at a 12,500-year-old archeological site in Chile. Potatoes are thought to have been first widely cultivated around 7000 year ago. Before 6000 B.C. nomadic Indians are believed to have collected wild potatoes on the central Andean plateau, 12,000 feet high. Over the millennia they developed potato agriculture.
Broad beans have been known in Europe for a long time. They were first domesticated in the Mediterranean or western Asia. Remains of them dating to 6000 to 7000 B.C. have been found at sites in Israel. By 3000 B.C. they were grown widely across central Europe and northern Africa and have been found with mummies in ancient Egyptian coffins. Soybeans come from wild soybeans, ground-dwelling vines that are found in northeastern China and very different from modern, commercial soy bean plants. The black and brown beans from these wild plants were collected by prehistoric Chinese at least by 3500 B.C., first cultivated by Chinese farmers about 1000 B.C., and fashioned into tofu about a 1000 years later.
First Bananas, Olives, Pumpkins, Watermelon and Peppers,
Bananas may be the world’s oldest cultivated crop. There is evidence that bananas were cultivated in the highlands of New Guinea at least 7,000 years ago and that Musa varieties were being bred and grown in the Mekong Delta area of Southeast Asia as long as 10,000 years ago.
In the first or second millennium B.C. Arab traders carried banana suckers from Southeast Asia back home and introduced the fruit to the Middle East and the east coast of Africa. Swahili people from the coast of Africa traded the fruit with Bantu people from the interior of Africa and they carried the fruit to western Africa. The introduction of the banana to Africa occurred so long ago that areas of Uganda and the Congo basin have become secondary centers of genetic diversity.
The ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans all consumed olives and olive oil. Olives were first cultivated in Palestine around 4000 B.C. and spread to Syria and Turkey and reached the ancient Egypt around 1500 B.C. (the Egyptian were using olive purchased from Palestine long before that). The Phoenicians took olives to Carthage and Greece and the Greeks took them to Italy, southern Spain, and Sicily. The Romans brought them to southern France.
The Greeks and Romans used olive oil as food, soap, lotion, fuel for lamps and fragrances, as a base for perfumes and treatment for heart ailments, hair loss, stomach aches and excessive perspiration. The Greeks rubbed cult statues with olive oil. Romans burned it in the alter of their gods. Greek athletes anointed their bodies with olive oil scented with flowers and roots when they worked out and competed.
Pumpkins are believed to have originated in Central America. Seeds from related plants have been dated to 5500 B.C. Watermelon originated in Africa. Domesticated watermelon seeds dated to 4000 B.C. were found in the 1980s in southern Libya. Dorian Fuller of University College London told the New York Times, “The wild watermelon is a horrible, dry little gourd that grows in wadis of the northern savannahs but it has seeds you can roast up and eat.” The watermelon we eat was not developed until Roman times.
Wild chilies probably originated in Bolivia and were carried into Central America by birds. They were cultivated as early as 5000 to 3500 B.C. The Cora Indians believed that the first peppers were created from the testes of the first man and dropped onto the plates of startled guests at a dinner party. In the Inca creation myth, chilies were also one of the four brothers that begat mankind.
Early Agriculture and Domesticated Animals in Africa
Banana tree The development of agriculture and livestock was different in Africa than it was elsewhere in the world. In Africa it seems that the domestication of cattle, which was first documented in Chad in 5900 B.C., preceded the development of agriculture by several thousand years and spread sporadically in fits and starts across the continent. [Source: Brenda Fowlers, New York Times, July 17 2004]
Why agriculture was so late in developing sub-Sahara Africa—the first cultivated grain, pearl millet, was first farmed around 2000 B.C. in Mauritania and Ghana— was the subject of intensive research in the early 2000s. One theory was that grain was so abundant everywhere that there was no need to settle down and farm.
Dr. Angela Close, an archaeologist at the University of Washington, told the New York Times, the first pastoralists in Africa probably captured wild animals to provide insurance as the Sahara, partly covered with grasslands in ancient times, began to dry. They then moved south and evolved into “cattle-assisted hunter gatherers” and took meat, milk and blood from their cattle for food. Pastoralism gradually spread west across the southern Sahara and reached the equator around 2000 B.C. and South Africa by the first centuries A.D. These African also developed pottery and settled communities before agriculture.
Domesticated wheat, barley, sheep and goats reached ancient Egypt by 5500 B.C. Goats and sheep were adopted by pastoralists in the southern Sahara but grains did not take hold probably because they required winter rain—in most of Africa the rains come in the summer. At ancient sites in sub-Saharan Africa cattle bones turn up with domesticated millet , suggesting pastorialists practicing agriculture. Sometimes these farmers lived in villages.
Dr. Katharina Neumann, an archeobiologist at the J.W. Goethe University in Frankfurt and author the book Food, Fuel and Fields—Progress in African Archeobotany (2003), said the evidence suggests that cattle in Africa were domesticated independently of the Near East about 9000 years ago and Africans found no need to develop agriculture because grasslands covered 80 of sub-Saharan Africa and many varieties of wild grasses, fruits, tubers and game could be hunted and gathered. In article in the journal African Archaeology she wrote that there has been an implicit assumption among archaeologists that “agriculture is superior to the foraging of wild plants and that with the invention of agrarian practices, economies based on wild resources are no longer competitive.”
The first domesticated plant in Africa was not a grain but rather was watermelon. Domesticated watermelon seeds dated to 4000 B.C. were found in the 1980s in southern Libya. Dorian Fuller of University College London told the New York Times, “The wild watermelon is a horrible, dry little gourd that grows in wadis of the northern savannahs but it has seeds you can roast up and eat.” The watermelon we eat was not developed until Roman times Fuller and other archaeologists hypothesize.
Early Agriculture in the Americas
Taro The earliest domesticated New World plants date back to around 8,000 B.C., the first corn to around 5,000 B.C. In the Americas, as the climate became drier and large animals disappeared in the millennia that followed the ice age people began domesticating of squash, amaranth, chili peppers and avocados and later corn and beans. Agriculture appears to predates the evidence of villages by a few thousands years, with the exception of villages built by marine animal hunters in Peru which didn't appear to catch on in the rest of the Americas.
People began developing agriculture in the New World about 10,000 years ago, about 5,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a report in May 1997 in the journal Science by Smithsonian scientists Bruce D. Smith. This assessment is based on the discovery of the remains of seeds, rinds and stems of a baseball-size squash in a cave named Guila Naquitz near Oaxaca, Mexico, indicating that squash not corn was the first New World crop and that agriculture developed in the New World around the same time that it did in the Near East and Asia.
The shape of the squash seeds found in the cave is different from the seeds of wild squash plants which suggests they were cultivated. Scientists believe that early Americans cultivated the gourds for their high protein seeds or to make something like cups or fishing floats. The fleshy material of the squash they raised was hard, not very tasty and hard to digest, which has lead archaeologists to believe that squash was raised for something other than eating the flesh of the gourd as food.
The finding also suggests that agriculture developed gradually in a hunter and gatherer culture in Americas over a period if 6,000 years unlike the Near East and Mesopotamia, where it was relatively easy to cultivate large fields of barely and wheat that could support many people and this led to the relatively quick development of agriculture and villages around the same time.
"In Mexico, however, we have the reverse situation," University of Michigan archaeologist Kent Flannery told the Washington Post. "The first villages don't show up around 1500 B.C.," about 4,5000 to 6,500 years after the first cultivation. "There's a long gap where people are still living like hunters and gatherers. One of the major reasons, it seems, is that the most important plant is corn. It doesn't naturally form huge stands like wheat and barely."
Early Americans didn't become true farmers until around 2,700 B.C., when they raised beans, corn and squash instead of relying on gathered wild plants. The original corn plants contain small cobs with unappetizing spiky seeds. "Imagine how desperate you must be to eat that," Flannery told the Washington Post.
Early Development and the Late Arrival of Villages in the Americas
Taro root The first known permanent Americans houses (in the Tehuacán Valley in Mexico) date back to around 3,400 B.C. In contrast, villages developed in Turkey and Jordan around 7,500 B.C. By 1500 B.C. villages were widely scattered throughout the Americas. At this time pottery was widely used and villagers possessed small clay idols, which suggested organized religious beliefs. The New World’s earliest civilizations developed when early farming communities became established and socially organized.
"The earliest villages in Europe and Asia were built 1,000 to 2,000 years before the development of the farming economy,” Columbia anthropologist Marvin Harris wrote in Cannibals and Kings .” Whereas, the domestication of plants in the New World took place thousands of years after people settled in villages.”
People in the Americas didn’t settle in permanent villages because they found it more advantageous to remain hunters and gatherers. It appears that crops were domesticated at sites near different hunting grounds so that people could move around and not deplete the huntable animals—such as woodland deer, rabbits, turtles, other small animals, and birds—in one place. The roving hunting methods are believed to be linked with the overhunting and extinction of large animals across the Americas.
Hunting is more inefficient in the forests and mountains that cover most of the Americas. In areas where there were large grasslands, namely the Great Plains of the United States—which are somewhat similar to the grasslands in Anatolia and the Middle East where grains were first cultivated—people chose follow herds of buffalo and hunt them and get what they needed from them rather than develop agriculture.
Lack of Wheel and Domesticated Animals in the Americas
The Maya originated a complex system of writing and pioneered the mathematical concept of zero. Yet they never built the wheel and the only animal they domesticated for food was the turkey. In addition to not having the wheel it doesn't seem the Maya used metal either. Most of their tools were made from stone. Good goods were transported overland on the backs of human beings rather by pack animals or carts. When you consider that they built the incredible cities they did without animals and metal their achievements seem all that much more remarkable.
In New World, the wheel was invented by Indians as a children’s toy and used in pottery, but was not used more extensively arguably because of a lack of a good beasts of burden. Failure to develop the wheel left the New World technologically behind the Old World.
Anthologists believe that Old World people developed more quickly and became more technologically advanced than people in the New World because they domesticated animals earlier which in turn made it easier for them to get around easier and perform labor that required beasts of burden.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Mostly from National Geographic and New York Times articles. Also from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated December 2012