Yams in Chad
Agriculture developed independently outside the Near East in China, Peru, Mexico and other places. At least 11 separate regions have been identified as independent centers of origin. Some of the earliest known domestications were of animals. Pigs were domesticated from wild boar about 10,500 years ago in several places, including locations in the Near East, Europe, East Asia and Southwest Asia. In the Sahel region of Africa, local rice and sorghum were domesticated by 5000 B.C. Kola nut and coffee were domesticated in Africa. In New Guinea, ancient Papuan peoples began practicing agriculture around 7000 B.C. domesticating sugarcane and taro. Banana cultivation, including hybridization, dates back to 5000 B.C., and possibly to 8000 B.C. in Papua New Guinea. The plow was invented about 3000 B.C., greatly increasing the food output of a given parcel of land.

According to the summary of “Origins of Agriculture in East Asia” by Martin K. Jones and Xinyi Liu published in Science May 9, 2009: “Some of the world's most important crops, including rice and soybean, originate from eastern Asia. This region is also the original home of several minor crops, such as buckwheat and certain types of millet. In their search for the earliest farms, archaeologists have been drawn to China's two major river valleys: the Yellow River in the north and the Yangtze River in the south. Grains of broomcorn and foxtail millet have been found in Neolithic farmsteads in the Yellow River region, and sites in the Yangtze River region have yielded the world's earliest evidence of harvested rice grains.”

In Mesoamerica, wild teosinte was transformed through human selection into the ancestor of modern maize, more than 6,000 years ago. It gradually spread across North America and was the major crop of Native Americans at the time of European exploration. Other Mesoamerican crops include hundreds of varieties of locally domesticated squash and beans, while cocoa, also domesticated in the region, was a major crop. The turkey, one of the most important meat birds, was probably domesticated in Mexico or the U.S. Southwest. [Source: Wikipedia]

Websites and Resources of Early Agriculture and Domesticated Animals: Britannica; Wikipedia article History of Agriculture Wikipedia ; History of Food and Agriculture museum.agropolis; Wikipedia article Animal Domestication Wikipedia ; Cattle Domestication; Food Timeline, History of Food ; Food and History ;

Archaeology News and Resources: : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

First Farmers in Southeast Asia

20120207-New Guinea Yams.jpg
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.

Early Agriculture and Domesticated Animals in China

The first agriculturalists outside of Mesopotamia and the Near East — or perhaps the first agriculturists period — lived in China. Crop remains, bones of domestic animals, as well as polished tools and pottery first appeared in China round 7500 B.C., about a thousand years after the first crops were raised in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia. Millet was domesticated about 10,000 years ago in China around the same time the first crops — wheat and barely — were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent.

The earliest identified crops in China were two drought-resistant species of millet in the north and rice in the south (see below). Domesticated millet was produced in China by 6000 B.C. Most ancient Chinese ate millet before they ate rice. Among the other crops that were grown by the ancient Chinese were soybeans, hemp, tea, apricots, pears, peaches and citrus fruits. Before the cultivation of rice and millet, people ate grasses, beans, wild millet seeds, a type of yam and snakegourd root in northern China and sago palm, bananas, acorns and freshwater roots and tubers in southern China.

The earliest domesticated animals in China were pigs, dogs and chickens, which were first domesticated in China by 4000 B.C. and 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.

According to the ancient Chinese myth, in 2853 B.C. the legendary Emperor Shennong of China declared the five sacred plants to be: rice, wheat, barley, millet and soybeans. Wheat, barley, cows, horses, sheep, goats and pigs were introduced to China from the Fertile Crescent in western Asia. Tall horses, like we are familiar with today, were introduced to China in the first century B.C.

Early Agriculture in India

In the period of the Neolithic revolution, roughly 8000-4000 B.C., agriculture was far from the dominant mode of support for human societies. Agro pastoralism in India included threshing, planting crops in rows—either of two or of six—and storing grain in granaries.Barley and wheat cultivation—along with the rearing of cattle, sheep and goat—was visible in Mehrgarh by 8000-6000 B.C. [Source: Wikipedia +]

According to Gangal et al. (2014), there is strong archeological and geographical evidence that neolithic farming spread from the Near East into north-west India. Yet, Jean-Francois Jarrige argues for an independent origin of Mehrgarh. Jarrige notes the similarities between Neolithic sites from eastern Mesopotamia and the western Indus valley, which are evidence of a "cultural continuum" between those sites. Nevertheless, Jarrige concludes that Mehrgarh has an earlier local background," and is not a "'backwater' of the Neolithic culture of the Near East."Singh et al. (2016) investigated the distribution of J2a-M410 and J2b-M102 in South Asia, which "suggested a complex scenario that cannot be explained by a single wave of agricultural expansion from Near East to South Asia," but also note that "regardless of the complexity of dispersal, NW region appears to be the corridor for entry of these haplogroups into India." +

India, one fo the first places hemp was domesticated

By the 5th millennium B.C. agricultural communities became widespread in Kashmir. Zaheer Baber (1996) writes that 'the first evidence of cultivation of cotton had already developed'. Cotton was cultivated by the 5th millennium B.C. -4th millennium B.C.. The Indus cotton industry was well developed and some methods used in cotton spinning and fabrication continued to be practiced till the modern Industrialisation of India. +

A variety of tropical fruit such as mango and muskmelon are native to the Indian subcontinent. The Indians also domesticated hemp, which they used for a number of applications including making narcotics, fiber, and oil. The farmers of the Indus Valley, which thrived in modern-day Pakistan and North India, grew peas, sesame, and dates. Sugarcane was originally from tropical South Asia and Southeast Asia. Different species likely originated in different locations with S. barberi originating in India and S. edule and S. officinarum coming from New Guinea. +

Wild rice cultivation appeared in the Belan and Ganges valley regions of northern India as early as 4530 B.C. and 5440 B.C. respectively.Rice was cultivated in the Indus Valley Civilisation. Agricultural activity during the second millennium BC included rice cultivation in the Kashmir and Harrappan regions.Mixed farming was the basis of the Indus valley economy. +

Denis J. Murphy (2007) details the spread of cultivated rice from India into South-east Asia: “Several wild cereals, including rice, grew in the Vindhyan Hills, and rice cultivation, at sites such as Chopani-Mando and Mahagara, may have been underway as early as 7000 BP. The relative isolation of this area and the early development of rice farming imply that it was developed indigenously....Chopani-Mando and Mahagara are located on the upper reaches of the Ganges drainage system and it is likely that migrants from this area spread rice farming down the Ganges valley into the fertile plains of Bengal, and beyond into south-east Asia. “

Did Agriculture Spread From Iran to India 10,000 Years Ago?

In 2016, scientists said that a previously unknown group of Stone Age farmers from present-day Iran may have introduced agriculture to South Asia, challenging earlier theories that attributed the spread of farming to a different population. Associated Press reported: “Previous research held that a single group of hunter-gatherers developed agriculture in the Middle East some 10,000 years ago and then migrated to Europe, Asia and Africa, where they gradually replaced or mixed with the local population. [Source: Associated Press, July 14, 2016 *]

Zagros mountains in Iran

“But scientists who analyzed ancient human remains found in the Zagros mountains of present-day Iran say they belonged to a completely separate people who appear to have taken up farming around the same time as their cousins further west in Anatolia, now Turkey. “There was this idea that there’d been one group of genius inventors who developed agriculture,” said Joachim Burger, one of the authors of the study published online Thursday in the journal Science. “Now we can see there were genetically diverse groups.” *\

“Scientists from Europe, the United States and Iran who examined the DNA of 9,000 to 10,000-year-old bone fragments discovered in a cave near Eslamabad, 600 kilometers (370 miles) southwest of the Iranian capital of Tehran, found they belonged to a man with black hair, brown eyes and dark skin. Intriguingly, the man’s diet included cereals, a sign that he had learned how to cultivate crops, said Fereidoun Biglari of National Museum of Iran, who was also involved in the study.*\

“Along with three other ancient genomes from the Zagros mountains, researchers were able to piece together a picture of a population whose closest modern relatives can be found in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and among members of Iran’s Zoroastrian religious community, said Biglari. The Zagros people had very different genes than modern Europeans or their crop-planting ancestors in western Anatolia and Greece, said Burger, an anthropologist and population geneticist at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. He said the study’s authors calculated that the two populations likely split at least 50,000 years ago, shortly after humans first ventured out of Africa. *\

“Burger said even though the two ancient farming populations didn’t mix, it’s probable that they knew of – and even learned from – each other, given that the development of agriculture is highly complex and therefore unlikely to have spontaneously occurred twice around the same time. “You have to build houses, clear forests, cultivate several plants and ensure a plentiful supply of water. You also have to domesticate several animals, be able to grind flour, bake bread,” said Burger. “This is a huge process that takes several thousand years.” Burger said the findings could help shed light on important developments in human history that have been neglected due to researchers’ long habit of focusing on ancient migratory movements into Europe.” *\

Early Agriculture and Domesticated Animals in Africa

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]

Ankole cattle

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

Cacao, the source of chocolate, an early domesticated crop in America

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.

"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 4,500 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.

Earliest Evidence of Agriculture in the Americas: 10,000 Year-Old Squash

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.

Spencer P.M. Harrington wrote in Originally excavated in 1966 by University of Michigan archaeologist Kent Flannery, then at the Smithsonian, the Guilá Naquitz (White Cliff) Cave revealed evidence of human occupation dating back 10,000 years; finds included squash seeds, rind fragments, and peduncles, or stems. Some of the larger seeds were identified as belonging to a domesticated squash species, Cucurbita pepo, which includes modern pumpkins. Based on radiocarbon dates of charcoal found with the seeds, and on the size and thickness of the rinds, Flannery estimated the squash were nearly 10,000 years old. This date drew fire from some archaeologists who believed the seeds came from later occupation layers and did not offer clear signs of domestication. These scholars have held that the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture occurred between 5,000 and 3,500 years ago. [Source: Spencer P.M. Harrington,, July/August 1997]

Flannery could not, however, date the specimens directly because radiocarbon-dating techniques then available would have required destroying the samples. Smith used accelerator mass spectrometer radiocarbon dating, which can be used on very small samples, to establish the seeds’ age. “Bruce has vindicated us,” says Flannery. “He’s shown that our excavations didn’t have any mixing of occupation layers.”

So far there is no evidence to suggest that New World people were cultivating anything but squash before 5,000 years ago. While Chinese and Near Eastern peoples appear to have shifted to a diversified agricultural economy within 1,000 years of the cultivation of their first crops, in the Americas the transition to an agricultural life-style appears to have taken much longer. Though Smith hesitates to predict when evidence for other early New World crops will emerge, he does admit that it “would seem unusual to have 5,000 years pass before corn and beans become domesticated.”

Early Development and the Late Arrival of Villages in the Americas

Mayan image of chocolate drink

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: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, 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.

Last updated September 2018

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