A summary of what is known about the origins of agriculture thousands of years ago.
Humanity, as we know it today, would not have been possible if our species had not transitioned from nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples to sedentary farming peoples.
Agriculture has been crucial for humans to be able to survive without depending on the elements. However, it is also because of agriculture that we live in societies with social and economic inequalities.
Next we will discover what are the origins of agriculture, how it was made over the millennia and how it has influenced the development of modern civilizations.
How was the origin of agriculture?
The emergence of agriculture is considered one of the most revolutionary processes in the history of mankind. Thanks to the cultivation of vegetables for human consumption, our species stopped totally depending on the elements to control them. With agriculture, the human being was no longer subject to how benign and generous nature was, and he began to directly exercise control and dominance over it.
The first humans were nomads and subsisted on hunting and gathering wild vegetables. They survived by exploiting the resources of a region, hunting its animals and gathering its fruits. As in many cases the fruits were toxic or were not sure that it was for human consumption, nomadic peoples directly preferred to hunt animals, no matter how unappetizing and nutritious they might be. Edible vegetables were a rare commodity in the wild.
After spending several days or weeks in the same area, resources were becoming scarce. To avoid starving, they couldn’t wait for that region to naturally replenish itself on its own: the time had come to emigrate again. Thus, the Homo sapiens primeval were in constant motion, seeking new areas in which to spend a few weeks and go on living, always being under the threat of chronic hunger.
Because they were constantly on the move, they rarely noticed how the environment changed over time. The first nomadic peoples did not have enough time to see how one of the seeds of the fruits they had eaten, when falling to the ground and receiving the water from the rains, germinated forming a bud that, with the passage of months or even years, it would transform into a fruit tree. Before that tree had grown, the town that accidentally planted it was already far away, looking for a new place to survive.
This is why it is believed that the most primitive human beings associated the growth of vegetables with magical forces. Hunter-gatherer societies, by not paying enough attention to how seeds germinated, had not related the idea that a new plant could grow from a seed. Surely, they thought that all the fruit trees that were found were there by pure chance, having grown spontaneously and thanks to the designs of forest spirits. How did it come about?
Normally, when we talk about agriculture, it is understood by all the techniques that involve the action of growing more or less domesticated plants, with or without the help of domesticated animals. The farmers’ task is to sow, cultivate and harvest plants from which they will obtain food, tissue, wood and natural remedies. Although this definition is the most widely accepted, it has not prevented a wide debate on what should be considered as the first agricultural techniques and who carried them out.
Be that as it may, for agriculture to resemble what we know today, many attempts were necessary, the use of intelligence, observation and patience. It took many years, even millennia, for the human species to come to make domestic varieties of plants that today cannot be lacking in any home, such as corn, rice, wheat, all kinds of fruits or cotton that we use in many garments.
Agriculture was traditionally thought to have arisen by chance. The first farmers “invented” agriculture without really knowing what they were doing. At some point they must have seen how a seed accidentally buried was transformed into a small sprout and, later, into a plant with the same fruits as those of the plant of the fruit to which that seed belonged and, thus, they discovered by pure chance how to sow , grow and harvest all kinds of vegetables.
However, the scientific community has been critical of this belief. Early agricultural techniques seem too complex to be considered due to chance. Of course, there is a certain trial and error component to all learning, however, figuring out how and when to plant different varieties of plants, when to water them, and when to harvest them must have been the product of extensive and meticulous observation.
Another controversial idea about the origins of agriculture is gender differences. For a long time the idea that men went hunting and women gathered fruits and looked after the little ones has been accepted. At some point, these women, who had direct contact with vegetables, observed how the seeds grew when they fell to the ground and spent a few days, being the discoverers of agriculture. Since the idea that there were marked gender differences in roles within nomadic villages is questioned, this idea has been questioned.
Be that as it may, what is clear is that the first farmers were experimenting with plant varieties and how to obtain better fruits. They must have seen that the seeds of better plants gave rise to good daughter plants and, if they crossed them with other varieties, they could obtain new types of plants with more meat, less husk, smaller seeds, better quality wood or more resistant tissues. With the birth of agriculture came artificial selection. The first agricultural peoples, without even knowing what evolution was, exercised it in their own crops.
Where and when did agriculture arise?
As surprising as it may seem, agriculture did not arise in one place. Different human populations came to develop the first agricultural techniques on their own, sharing many characteristics without even knowing that the same thing was being done in other parts of the world.
They may grow different cereals and fruits, but in many cases the techniques, the tools and the way they did it were very similar. It is as if agriculture, more than an invention or discovery, is a natural step in human evolution, along with bipedalism and the development of language.
Although the chronology of the emergence and development of agriculture is debated, it is more or less accepted that the first agricultural behaviors must have occurred around 30,000 years ago, although they must have been very rudimentary and experimental. Between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago, people from different parts of the world began to care for and then plant wild plants that were of some interest for food, medicine or obtaining fibers and wood.
Subsequently, they selected the seeds of the best plants and, little by little, with the passage of generations and applying artificial selection, plant species began to be domesticated. However, these techniques were not something widespread at all, since the Earth was in an ice age and it would not be until 15,000 years ago that it would end, making the climate milder and more suitable for plants. Before the end of this period it was not possible to intentionally cultivate plants that had a minimal chance of surviving the action of the elements.
Between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, plants that could be considered domesticated were already being cultivated in the Neolithic. The human being enjoyed very productive crops, ceasing to depend on how generous nature was and leaving behind the constant threat of hunger. It is around this time that we can identify four regions with developed agricultural techniques : the Fertile Crescent, current Iran, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey; China, New Guinea and Mesoamerica, mainly Mexico and Central America.
Some 2,000 or 4,000 years later the domestication of crops was already a worldwide phenomenon. There are eight new regions in which agricultural techniques were applied: African Sahel, Ethiopia, West Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Southeast North America, the Central Andes (Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and North of Chile and Argentina) and the Amazon (Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru).
Historical consequences of agriculture
Agriculture gave way to livestock. Thanks to being able to grow vegetables, human beings not only obtained a more or less stable source of food for human consumption, but also could select varieties that were more suitable for animal consumption. Applying the same domestication processes in animals, varieties of chickens, pigs, dogs, cows and goats useful to people were obtained. Some of these animals became bigger, with better meat, better milk or, as in the case of the dog, they were more faithful, using them for hunting.
After all these processes, the human being was acquiring the idea that whoever works on a piece of land is its owner, and everything he obtains from it is his. Agriculture is not only associated with a new production system and an increase in survival, but also with the idea of property. The fruits of the earth are for those who have cultivated them, their families and other members of the village, not for those who are strangers to it. The idea of belonging to a territory arises, in addition to the psychological notion of the endogroup and the outgroup.
Power and influence in the village no longer depends solely on the strength of men or women. Now, the one who has the most influence is the one who has cultivated a land that has given him many fruits. When more food is produced, the less hunger is spent and, in addition, it is easier to exchange other products, be it food, jewelry or tools, with other farmers. Exchange, wealth arises and, in turn, the first classes and estates emerge, in short, social inequalities arise.
As they have settled down and cultivate the land, there is an improvement in living conditions. A better diet implies a higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality, making the villages have more and more inhabitants. The larger the size, the more complex the social interactions and, to prevent anarchy from reigning, the first governments emerged. This, little by little, will give rise to complex civilizations, such as China, Mesopotamia, Egypt or India. In short, without agriculture, humanity would not be as we know it today.
- Tayles, N., Domett, K., & Nelsen, K. (2000). Agriculture and dental caries? The case of rice in prehistoric Southeast Asia. World Archeology, 32 (1): pp. 68-83.
- Bar-Yosef, O. and Meadows, R. H (1995). The origins of agriculture in the Near East. In TD Price and A. Gebauer (eds) Last Hunters – First Farmers: New Perspectives on the Prehistoric Transition to Agriculture: pp. 39 – 94.