DEVELOPMENT OF AGRICULTURE
wheat field Agriculture began around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Considered the most important human advance after the control of fire and the creation of tools, it allowed people to settle in specific areas and freed them from hunting and gathering. According to the Bible, Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, developed agriculture and domesticated animals, “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground,” the Bible reads.
The first documented agriculture occurred 11,500 year ago in what Harvard archaeologist Ofer Ban-Yosef calls the Levantine Corridor, between Jericho in the Jordan Valley and Mureybet in the Euphrates Valley. At Mureybit, a site on the banks of the Euphrates, seeds from an uplands area—where the plants from the seeds grow naturally— were found and dated to 11,500 years ago. An abundance of seeds from plants that grew elsewhere found near human sites is offered as evidence of agriculture.
Early agriculture is most famously associated with the Fertile Crescent, an arc of land that extends from southern Turkey into Iraq and Syria and finally to Israel and Lebanon. Seeds of 10,000-year-old cultivated wheat have been discovered at sites in Iraq and northern Syria. The region also produced the first domesticated sheep, goats, pigs and cattle.
Around 10,500 years ago agriculture began developing in the Middle East and China and to a lesser extent in Mexico, the Andes and Nigeria. The is also evidence that bananas and taro were cultivated in the highlands of New Guinea at least 7,000 years ago.
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
Gathering Grasses and Grain
wheat Early man ate wild grasses that upon maturity produced seeds that didn't immediately fall to the ground and get dirty and germinate and thus could easily be gathered and eaten. They collected seeds that grew on the plants in areas that were convenient so they didn't have to wander around looking for them. It is believed that Neolithic women invented agriculture because they have traditionally been in charge of gathering while men did the hunting.
Hunter-gatherers have long collected grass seeds. Like some Bushmen and Australian Aborigines, who still collect seeds today, ancient hunter-gatherers no doubt found it easier to collect seeds from the head of the plant than on the ground and learned where they could find plants the bore such seeds. Once found the seeds were easy to pluck and winnow from the husks.
It is reasoned that when seeds or seed-laden stalks were collected and brought back to a cave or shelter some of the seeds fell to the ground and germinated. The next step was to deliberatly scatter them some place with the intention of have the seeds germinate to produce food later on.
Grains as Steppe Grasses
barley field Grains such as wheat, barley, oats and rye were originally steppe grasses. The grass family is one of the largest in the plant kingdom, embracing some 10,000 different species worldwide. Contrary to what you might think, grasses are fairly complex plants. What you see are only their leaves.
Grass flowers are often not recognizable as such. Because grasses rely on the breeze to distribute pollen (there is a usually lots of wind on the steppe) and they don’t need colorful flowers to attract pollinators such as birds and bees. Grass flowers have scales instead of pedals and grow in clusters on special tall stems that lift them high enough to be carried by the wind.
Grasses need lots of sunlight. They do not grow well in forests or other shady areas. Tall feather grass grows well in the well-watered parts of the steppe. Shorter grass grows better in the dry steppe where there is less rainfall. Chiy, a grass with cane-like reeds, is used by nomads to make decorative screens in the yurts
Grasses can tolerate lack of rain, intense sunlight, strong winds, shredding from lawnmowers, the cleats of Athletes and the hooves of grazing animals. They can survive fires: only their leaves burn; the root stocks are rarely damaged.
The ability of grass to endure such harsh conditions lies in the structures of its leaves, The leaves of other plants spring from buds and have a developed a network of veins that carry sap and expand into the leaf. If a leaf is damaged a plant can seal its veins with sap but do little else. Grass leaves on the other hand don't have a network of veins, rather they have unbranched veins that grow straight, and can tolerate being cut, broken or damaged, and keep growing.
From Hunting and Gathering to Agriculture
barley fruit Over time these hunters and gatherers began settling down. They big breakthrough occurred when early man realized that instead of eating all the seeds, he would save some and plant them and wait for them to produce seeds. With this advancement he could build sturdy homes and live in one place permanently or semi-permanently.
In hunter gatherer societies woman usually have done the collecting and men have done the hunting. Based on this tradition, scholars argue that women were the first ones to practice agriculture, and men only became involved after heavier, more demanding plows were introduced. In many parts of the world women continue to do most of the agricultural field work today.
In Rise of the West William McNeil wrote: "The transition to agricultural life involved very great strains...Think of what it meant not to eat meat...that you had to save seed for the next year. This was an enormous transformation for modern man...The laborious practice of breaking ground with a digging stick and covering the seed to keep it from birds may well have spread slowly...hunting communities seldom remained long enough in one locality to engage in extended tillage."
Agriculture allowed the hunter-gatherers to store grain and carry it with them. The conventional wisdom has traditionally been shift to agriculture occurred when wild grains became less available and producing grain for oneself produced more reliable supplies. There is evidence that ancient hunters and gatherers were aware of agricultural techniques but never practiced them wholeheartedly because they were such a bother. Agricultural plants needed to be watered and carried for. There were always worries about rain, insects and cold weather. By contrast wild grains grew in such abundance there was plenty for everyone and if you couldn’t find them in one place you simply moved on found them in another place.
Impact of Agriculture on Development
Wild emmer wheat The development of earliest villages in the Middle East coincide with first domestication of grasses like wild barley and wheat. Large fields with these wild grains are still found in Anatolia. Seeds from wild grains ripen over a period of three weeks. A individual using a flint-blade sickle can harvest about two pounds of grain an hour. Grain harvested by a group of people over a three week period can last them a year. Additionally, grain is easier to store than other foodstuffs because it can be dried and preserved and doesn't rot like some kinds of potatoes and vegetables.
Agriculture freed humans from the natural productivity of the territory they occupied and allowed them to manipulate their environment to meet their needs. This in turn allowed them expand their communities and meant they had to spend less time in the pursuit of food, freeing them to do other things.
Agriculture also allowed the birthrate to become significantly higher than the death rate. Many patterns of genetic variation come from population expansions spurred by the development of agriculture.
Disadvantages of Agriculture
emmer The assumption that many people have is that agriculture was more efficient than hunter-gathering and since the production of food took less time, people were free to do other things such as create written languages, build temples, create social orders, organize religions, and produce advanced technology and works of art. Over time crops were raised that were suited for harvesting. It has been suggested that ceramic vessels were invented to help store food.
But Agriculture was not an easy answer to the problems of mankind. Columbia anthropologist Marvin Harris has argued that it “resulted in an increased work load per capita." In many ways an agricultural life was more difficult than a hunting life. People were deprived of their freedom. They were forced to settle down. It initially yielded a poorer diet than hunting and gathering as people presumably ate less of a variety of food and perhaps ate less meat. If there was a problem with the crop, people had more difficulty moving on, and perhaps were more likely to suffer from malnutrition or starve.
Early agriculture was rough on the teeth. Abrasive minerals found their way into the grain when it was ground with stone and wore down the teeth in many cases wearing through the enamel and reaching the sensitive dentine which is prone to infections and rotting.
Consequences of Agriculture and Animal Domestication
Triticum durum The development of agriculture, grain storage and animals domestication made it possible to for populations to expand. Women became more sedentary which made it easier to raise large numbers of children. Children were no longer a burden that had to be carried along. They could harnessed at an early age to perform agricultural chores.
The population of the Middle eats jumped from 100,000 in 8,000 B.C. to 3.2 million before 4,000 B.C. (a fortyfold increase in 4,000 years).
After agriculture and herding were developed, people were from freed foraging for food and were able to develop complex technologies and social organizations that gave them an edge over the people they conquered.
Timothy Taylor, an English archaeologist, has argued that the invention of farming played a major role in the oppression of women. "The domestication of animals and the availability of animal milk in addition to breast milk meant that women could raise their children in quicker succession than before, becoming even more tied to the hearth and home in the process."
Agriculture also led to the a more hierarchal society: When irrigation was developed someone had to control the water supplies and large numbers of laborers were needed to dig the ditches. The development of irrigation about 8,200 years ago occurred at a time when the world was undergoing a mini Ice Age.
Population increases produced deforestation and soil erosion. The pressure from domesticated animals caused large areas to become transformed into scrubland. It has been theorized that as this happened meat again became scarce, nutritional standards fell, disease were transmitted among domestic animals, setting the stage for a new age in which warfare and violence would play a major part in the lives of people.
First Crops, Einkorn and Emmer Wheat
eikorn Triticum The earliest crops were wheat, barley, various legumes, grapes, melons, dates, pistachios and almonds. The world's first wheat, peas, cherries, olives, rye, chickpeas and rye evolved from wild plants found in Turkey and the Middle East.
Scientists have found genetic evidence that the world's four major grains—wheat, rice, corn and sorghum—evolved a common ancestor weed that grew 65 million years ago.
The first domesticated crop is believed to have been einkorn wheat, a kind of nourishing grass adapted from a wild species of grass native to the Karacadag mountains near Diyarbakir in southwestern Turkey first cultivated around 11,000 years ago. Scientists deduced this by examining the DNA of modern strains of einkorn wheat and found the were more similar to einkorn wheat grown in the Karacadag mountains than in other places. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 20, 1997]
Collecting seeds from wild grass is not an easy matter. If you pick the seeds before they are ripe they are too small and hard to eat. If you wait so long they fall from the stem and you have to pick them up one by one. With some grasses the period in which the seeds are feasible to collect is only a few days a year. If one wants to get a long term food supply it makes sense to collect as much as you can and take it back to your cave and store it.
Emmer wheat, rye and barley were cultivated around the same time, and is difficult to say which was cultivated first. Emmer wheat and another wheat strain from the Caspian Sea are thought to be the first bread wheats. Emmer wheat is a wild grass. It is thought to have been singled out because its seeds stay attached to the stem significantly longer than that of other grasses.
Cereals were being cultivated in what is now Syria. Lebanon, Israel and Palestine around 10,000 years ago in the 8th millenniums B.C. Barley was first grown in the Jordan valley about 10,000 years ago. The earliest levels of excavations at Jericho indicate that the people that lived there collected seeds of cereal grass from rocky crags flanking the valley and planted them in the fertile alluvial soil.
Spread of Agriculture to Europe
Wheat and barley agriculture spread out of Fertile crescent by 7000 B.C. By 6000 B.C., it had gotten as far as the Black Sea and present day Greece and Italy. By 5000 B.C. it had spread to most of southern Europe. The Linear Pottery Culture of central Hungary is believed to have introduced agriculture to central Europe around 5000 B.C. Agriculture finally reached southern Britain and Scandinavia around 3800 B.C. and north Britain and central Scandinavia by 2,500 B.C.
According to the “wave of advance” model of Luca Cavalli Sforza agriculture moved westward slowly by farmers whose, swelling population forced them to seek new land in the west. This model is based partly on the fact that agriculture developed in Europe from plants grown in the Middle East not Europe. According to some estimates, the rate of advancement was only about a mile a year. Other scholars believe that agriculture was spread from farmers to hunter-gatherers in a cultural exchange rather than a migration of people.
After the introduction of agriculture and livestock raising in Britain, there was dramatic shifts in what people ate. This was determined based on the presence of certain isotopes, linked with different foods, found in bones. Around 3200 B.C. there was a sudden shift from a predominately seafood diet to one consisting of foods from plants and animals.
Some think agriculture was carried westward more suddenly and dramatically in early ships. Remains of boats found in Sardinia and Crete show that men have been crossing seas for more than 10,000 years.
Agriculture developed independently from the Middle East in China, Peru and Mexico and other places. The plow was invented about 3000 B.C., greatly increase the food output of a given parcel of land.
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 March 2011