Early Agriculture and the Rise of Civilization

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Early Agriculture and the Rise of Civilization


People began farming at different times in different parts of the world. Around 8500 b.c. hunter-gatherers in the area of southwest Asia known as the Fertile Crescent began to cultivate wild grains and domesticate animals. One thousand years later, people in northern and southern China were growing rice and millet and raising pigs. Archeological evidence shows that crops were planted in Central America as early as 7000 b.c., and around 3500 b.c. in the Andes mountains and Amazon river basin of South America. Farmers in Africa began growing crops around 5000 b.c. Three thousand years later, native Americans in the eastern United States planted a few crops, but still depended on hunting and gathering. As agriculture evolved in these locations, so did the social, economic, and cultural practices that led to what is known as civilization.


The shift from hunting and gathering to farming was a gradual process that happened 10,000 years ago in some parts of the world, 5,000 years ago in others, and never in still others. These disparities are due not to human differences from place to place, but to differences in indigenous plants and animals and local climate and geography.

For the thousands of years before plants and animals were domesticated, people roved in small bands, foraging for enough food to stay alive. Because of the abundance of wild foods in the Fertile Crescent, hunter-gatherers settled there permanently. They progressed from gathering wild grains to planting them, choosing seeds from plants with the most desirable characteristics. Their first crops were emmer wheat and barley, which were high in protein and easy to domesticate compared to plants native to other parts of the world. Cultivated emmer wheat, for example, is very similar to its wild ancestor, while it took thousands of years for modern corn to evolve from its half-inch-long ancestor.

The climate and geography of the Fertile Crescent were varied, ranging from valleys to mountains and from deserts to riverbeds. In addition to supporting a variety of plant life, this diversity supported a variety of mammals. Surrounded by an abundance of natural resources, it is not surprising that the people of the Fertile Crescent were the first farmers. But agriculture appeared in less fertile parts of the world as well. The first crop grown along the Yellow River in China was millet, followed by rice and soybeans, significant sources of protein. In Central American, the earliest cultivated foods are still characteristic of that region: squash, beans, tomatoes, avocados, chocolate, corn, and chili peppers. Farther south, on the Pacific coast of modern Panama, archeologists have found traces of manioc, yams, arrowroot, and corn on ancient grinding stones. Central Americans also domesticated wild turkeys. The first farmers in the Andes mountains of South America raised sweet potatoes, manioc, peanuts, and quinoa (a grain), as well as llamas, alpacas, and guinea pigs. The only crops domesticated in the eastern United States were squash and a few seed plants. Sorghum and millet were cultivated in sub-Saharan Africa, tropical West Africa, and Ethiopia, but archeologists are unsure whether agriculture arose there independently or in response to outside influences.


In the case of agriculture, necessity was not the mother of invention. It was hunter-gatherers who already had enough to eat that made the shift to farming. Permanent homes and stockpiles of wild cereals gave them enough time and energy to experiment with cultivating seeds and breeding animals without the risk of starvation. As food was grown and stored more efficiently, populations increased and settlements grew larger, creating both the incentive and the means to produce even more food on more land.

Agriculture spread at different rates, depending on climate and geography. From the Fertile Crescent, it moved west through Europe and Egypt and east through Iran and India, reaching the Atlantic Coast of Ireland and the Pacific Coast of Japan by the beginning of the Christian era. From its origins in China, agriculture moved south, eventually spreading across the Polynesian islands. In contrast, agriculture passed either slowly or not at all through the tropical and desert climates surrounding early agricultural sites in Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, and the Andes. Domesticated animals did not reach South Africa until around a.d. 200, the same time corn reached the eastern United States. It was therefore the plants, animals, and farm-related technologies of the Fertile Crescent and China that had the greatest impact on future civilizations.

The hunter-gatherers of the Fertile Crescent and China had been making tools from stone, wood, bone, and woven grass for thousands of years. Once farming took hold, people improved their tools so they could plant, harvest, and store crops more efficiently. One of the earliest tools was a pointed digging stick, used to scratch furrows into the soil. Eventually handles were attached to make a simple plow, sometimes known as an ard. Around 3000 b.c. Sumerian farmers yoked oxen to plows, wagons, and sledges, a practice that spread through Asia, India, Egypt, and Europe. After iron metallurgy was invented in the Fertile Crescent around 900 b.c., iron tips and blades were added to farming implements. The combination of iron-tipped plows and animals to pull them opened previously unusable land to cultivation. Although seeds were most often simply thrown into furrows, some farmers in Egypt and Babylonia dropped seeds through a funnel attached to the end of the plow. The seeds were then trampled into the ground by a person or a herd of sheep or pigs. Grains were harvested with wooden-handled sickles, with either stone or iron blades.

The evolution of agriculture can also be traced through the evolution of containers, essential for storing surplus harvests. Nomads favored portable leather or straw baskets and also dug underground storage pits. When people began to live in permanent settlements, they built heavier but more functional storage containers from clay that they dried in the sun. They also lined underground ovens with clay. Not only did the ovens bake the ground-wheat batter, they also hardened the clay into pottery. Experience with high-temperature underground ovens later proved crucial to the invention of bronze and iron metallurgy.

The domestication of animals was a gradual process. Some animals were easy to tame and breed; others impossible. The most docile or productive animals were allowed to reproduce while the least were slaughtered. Animals also evolved in response to their new environments, some becoming larger and others smaller. The first domesticated animal was the dog, which was bred for hunting and food in several places around the world. Other small animals and birds, like guinea pigs in South America, turkeys in Central America, ducks and geese in Eurasia, and chickens in China, provided food, eggs, and feathers. But it was the five mammals found in the Fertile Crescent—sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and horses—that had the greatest impact on food productivity. The power of oxen and horses was harnessed to pull plows and wagons, grind grain, and build irrigation projects. Grazing animals also fertilized fields with their manure and cleared them of under-growth. In contrast, the rest of the globe had either no large mammals (as with North America, Australia, and sub-Saharan Africa) or only one (the ancestor of the alpaca and llama in South America). The result was both short- and long-term advantages for civilizations with domesticated animals. They had more food, larger populations, and land transportation, so were able to move into neighboring territories and ultimately conquer other continents, as the Spanish did in Central and South America.

The domestication of animals also influenced the rise of epidemic diseases like smallpox, influenza, and measles. Using manure and human waste as fertilizer infected people with harmful bacteria. Once people started to live in close contact with animals, they were exposed to animal viruses that over time mutated into new ones causing human epidemics. When carriers of these diseases invaded unexposed populations—again, as the Spanish did in Central and South America—the result was devastating. For example, the natives of Hispaniola were entirely wiped out by germs carried by Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) and his sailors. The same process of virus mutations in farm animals is believed to occur today in southern China, where certain influenza viruses periodically shift to new forms that require new vaccines.

Early farmers along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of Mesopotamia used three methods of water regulation. They dug shallow canals through high riverbanks to allow water to flow into nearby fields. Because the population continued to grow and crops had to be cultivated farther away from rivers, the canals were extended. Farmers also built embankments around their fields to protect them from too much water. Another method of water regulation was dams, constructed upstream of fields before spring flooding. These techniques allowed a smaller number of people to farm larger areas of land, which no longer had to be naturally productive. Water regulation not only developed engineering and construction skills, but also had important social effects. A stratified society of laborers, supervisors, and administrators was necessary for planning, building, and maintaining large-scale dams and canals. The intensive farming made possible by irrigation and embankments also led to social stratification since productive land became much more profitable. Some acquired more wealth and power than others, and it did not take long for societies to be divided into royalty, peasants, and slaves, as happened in Sumeria, Egypt, and China.

In a two-way circle of growth, populations and food production kept increasing and so did technology. Since every moment no longer had to be spent on food, people could specialize in occupations, such as that of the potter, baker, metallurgist, and engineer, that supported agriculture. These new occupations, in turn, increased population density and food production even more. A counting system based on clay tokens was devised in the Fertile Crescent to keep track of crop yields and animals. The first writing system, Sumerian cuneiform, joined pictures of objects to numerals scratched on flat clay tablets, giving birth to another specialist, the scribe. Other writing systems from China, Egypt, and Mexico also spread and evolved, providing a tool for governance. As societies learned to produce, store, and distribute food, they developed the characteristics of modern civilizations: densely populated cities, centralized government, organized religion, private property, specialized occupations, public works, taxation, technology, and science. People lived as hunter-gatherers for tens of thousands of years before they began to plant crops and domesticate animals. Once this happened, however, the transition to modern civilization was rapid and fundamental.


Further Reading

Cowan, C. Wesley, and Patty Jo Watson, eds. The Origins of Agriculture. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Heiser, Charles B., Jr. Seed to Civilization. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1973.

MacNeish, Richard S. The Origins of Agriculture and Settled Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Rahn, Joan Elma. Plants that Changed History. New York: Atheneum, 1982.

Smith, Bruce D. The Emergence of Agriculture. New York: Scientific American Library, 1995.

Struever, Stuart, ed. Prehistoric Agriculture. Garden City, NY: Natural History Press, 1971.

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