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History of agriculture

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Agriculture involving domestication of plants and animals was developed at least 10,000 years ago, although even earlier people began altering plant and animal communities for their own benefit through other means such as fire-stick farming. Agriculture has undergone significant developments since the time of the earliest cultivation. The Fertile Crescent of Western Asia, Egypt, and India were sites of the earliest planned sowing and harvesting of plants that had previously been gathered in the wild. Independent development of agriculture occurred in northern and southern China, Africa's Sahel, New Guinea and several regions of the Americas. Agricultural practices such as irrigation, crop rotation, fertilizers, and pesticides were developed long ago but have made great strides in the past century. The Haber-Bosch method for synthesizing ammonium nitrate represented a major breakthrough and allowed crop yields to overcome previous constraints.

In the past century, agriculture in the developed nations, and to a lesser extent in the developing world, has been characterized by enhanced productivity, the replacement of human labor by synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, selective breeding, and mechanization. The recent history of agriculture has been closely tied with a range of political issues including water pollution, biofuels, genetically modified organisms, tariffs, and farm subsidies. In recent years, there has been a backlash against the external environmental effects of mechanized agriculture, and increasing support for the organic movement and sustainable agriculture.

Early history

Scholars have proposed a number of theories to explain the historical development of farming. Early forms of farming are called protofarming. The transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies, based on evidence from south west Asia and China indicates an antecedent period of intensification and increasing sedentism, known as the Natufian in south West Asia and the Early Chinese Neolithic in China. Current models indicate that a range of resources were being used more intensively. Wild stands that had been harvested previously started to be planted. Evidence is also now emerging that the crops grown initially were wild and not domesticated. Crops such as emmer and einkorn wheat do not appear to have become domesticated until well into the Neolithic and 'ancient cultivated rice' (Oryza sativa) took 3000 years to become domesticated.

Localised climate change is the favoured explanation for the origins of agriculture in the Levant, the fact that farming was 'invented' at least three times elsewhere, suggests that social reasons may have been instrumental. When major climate change took place after the last ice age (c. 11,000 BC), much of the earth became subject to long dry seasons. These conditions favoured annual plants which die off in the long dry season, leaving a dormant seed or tuber. These plants tended to put more energy into producing seeds than into woody growth. An abundance of readily storable wild grains and pulses enabled hunter-gatherers in some areas to form the first settled villages at this time.

The Oasis Theory was proposed by Raphael Pumpelly in 1908, and popularized by Vere Gordon Childe who summarized the theory in his book Man Makes Himself This theory maintains that as the climate got drier, communities contracted to oases where they were forced into close association with animals which were then domesticated together with planting of seeds. The theory has little contemporary support, as the climate data for the time does not support the theory.

The Hilly Flanks hypothesis, proposed by Robert Braidwood in 1948, suggests that agriculture began in the hilly flanks of the Taurus and Zagros Mountains, and that it developed from intensive focused grain gathering in the region.

The Feasting model by Brian Hayden suggests that agriculture was driven by ostentatious displays of power, such as throwing feasts to exert dominance. This required assembling large quantities of food which drove agricultural technology.

The Demographic theories were proposed by Carl Sauer and adapted by Lewis Binford and Kent Flannery. They describe an increasingly sedentary population, expanding up to the carrying capacity of the local environment, and requiring more food than can be gathered. Various social and economic factors help drive the need for food.

The evolutionary/intentionality theory, advanced by scholars including David Rindos, is the idea that agriculture is a co-evolutionary adaptation of plants and humans. Starting with domestication by protection of wild plants, followed specialization of location and then domestication.

The Levantine Primacy Model was developed in the 1980s by Ofer Bar-Yosef and his collaborators. This provides a cultural ecology explanation, based on the idea that some areas were better favoured with domesticable plants and animals than others.

The domestication theory put forth by Daniel Quinn and others states that first humans stayed in particular areas, giving up their nomadic ways, then developed agriculture and animal domestication.

Another theory is that humans were prevented from staying in one place for much of their history, due to the risk of attacks from other tribes.

The Innovation and Specialisation Model was put forward recently by Rupert Gerritsen, in Australia and the Origins of Agriculture (2008). This theory considers the question in terms of economic development and treats agriculture as a form of specialisation arising from two factors, higher population densities and innovation in areas of higher net natural productivity, and long-term advantageous information acquisition at nodal points in communication in long range scale-free networks.

Neolithic era

Sumerian harvester's sickle, 3000 BCE, made from baked clay.

Identifying the exact origin of agriculture remains problematic because the transition from hunter-gatherer societies began thousands of years before the invention of writing.

Anthropological and archaeological evidence from sites across Southwest Asia and North Africa indicate use of wild grain (e.g., from the c. 20,000 BCE site of Ohalo II in Israel, many Natufian sites in the Levant and from sites along the Nile in the 10th millennium BCE). There is even evidence of planned cultivation and trait selection: grains of rye with domestic traits have been recovered from Epi-Palaeolithic (10,000+ BCE) contexts at Abu Hureyra in Syria, but this appears to be a localised phenomenon resulting from cultivation of stands of wild rye, rather than a definitive step towards domestication.

Previously, archaeobotanists/ paleoethnobotanists had traced the selection and cultivation of specific food plant characteristics in search of the origins of agriculture. One notable example is the semi-tough rachis (and larger seeds) traced to just after the Younger Dryas (about 9500 BCE) in the early Holocene in the Levant region of the Fertile Crescent. However, studies have demonstrated monophyletic characteristics attained without any sort human intervention, implying that what some may perceive as domestication among rachis could have occurred quite naturally. In fact, the timescale insisted upon for rachis domestication (approx. 3,000 years) coincidentally has been demonstrated to directly coincide with the statistically generated timeframe numerically modeled that would be required for monophyly to be reached if a population were simply abandoned and left to only natural demands, implying that if any sort of human intervention had occurred at all then the timescale insisted upon should be considerably shorter (than 3,000 years).

It was not until after 9500 BCE that the eight so-called founder crops of agriculture appear: first emmer and einkorn wheat, then hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, chick peas and flax. These eight crops occur more or less simultaneously on PPNB sites in the Levant, although the consensus is that wheat was the first to be grown and harvested on a significant scale.

At around the same time (9400 BCE), another study argues, parthenocarpic fig trees appear to have been domesticated. The simplicity associated with cutting branches off fig trees and replanting them alongside wild cereals owes to the basis of this argument.

By 7000 BCE, sowing and harvesting reached Mesopotamia, and there, in the fertile soil just north of the Persian Gulf, Sumerians systematized it and scaled it up. By 8000 BCE farming was entrenched on the banks of the Nile River. About this time, agriculture was developed independently in the Far East, probably in China, with rice rather than wheat as the primary crop. Maize was first domesticated, probably from teosinte, in the Americas around 3000-2700 BCE, though there is some archaeological evidence of a much older development. The potato, the tomato, the pepper, squash, several varieties of bean, and several other plants were also developed in the New World, as was quite extensive terracing of steep hillsides in much of Andean South America. Agriculture was also independently developed on the island of New Guinea.

In Europe, there is evidence of emmer and einkorn wheat, barley, sheep, goats and pigs that suggest a food producing economy in Greece and the Aegean by 7000 BCE. Archaeological evidence from various sites on the Iberian peninsula suggest the domestication of plants and animals between 6000 and 4500 BCE. Céide Fields in Ireland, consisting of extensive tracts of land enclosed by stone walls, date to 5500 BCE and are the oldest known field systems in the world. The horse was domesticated in Ukraine around 4000 BCE.

In China, rice and millet were domesticated by 8000 BCE, followed by the beans mung, soy and azuki. In the Sahel region of Africa local rice and sorghum were domestic by 5000 BCE. Local crops were domesticated independently in West Africa and possibly in New Guinea and Ethiopia. Evidence of the presence of wheat and some legumes in the 6th millennium BCE have been found in the Indus Valley. Oranges were cultivated in the same millennium. The crops grown in the valley around 4000 BCE were typically wheat, peas, sesame seed, barley, dates and mangoes. By 3500 BCE cotton growing and cotton textiles were quite advanced in the valley. By 3000 BCE farming of rice had started. Other monsoon crops of importance of the time was cane sugar. By 2500 BCE, rice was an important component of the staple diet in Mohenjodaro near the Arabian Sea. By this time the Indians had large cities with well-stocked granaries. Three regions of the Americas independently domesticated corn, squashes, potato and sunflowers.

Bronze age

Agricultural scene from Ancient Egypt.

By the Bronze Age, wild food contributed a nutritionally insignificant component to the usual diet. If the operative definition of agriculture includes large scale intensive cultivation of land, mono-cropping, organized irrigation, and use of a specialized labour force, the title "inventors of agriculture" would fall to the Sumerians, starting c. 5500 BCE. Intensive farming allows a much greater density of population than can be supported by hunting and gathering, and allows for the accumulation of excess product for off-season use, or to sell/barter. The ability of farmers to feed large numbers of people whose activities have nothing to do with agriculture was the crucial factor in the rise of standing armies. Sumerian agriculture supported a substantial territorial expansion which along with internecine conflict between cities, made them the first empire builders. Not long after, the Egyptians, powered by farming in the fertile Nile valley, achieved a population density from which enough warriors could be drawn for a territorial expansion more than tripling the Sumerian empire in area.

In Sumer, barley was the primary crop; wheat, flax, dates, apples, plums, and grapes were grown as well. Mesopotamian agriculture was both supported and limited by flooding from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as floods came in late spring or early summer from snow melting from the Anatolian mountains. The timing of the flooding, along with salt deposits in the soil, made farming in Mesopotamia difficult. Sheep and goats were domesticated, kept mainly for meat and milk, butter and cheese being made from the latter. Ur, a large town that covered about 50 acres (20 hectares), had 10,000 animals kept in sheepfolds and stables and 3,000 slaughtered every year. The city's population of 6,000 included a labour force of 2,500, cultivating 3,000 acres (12 km²) of land. The labour force contained storehouse recorders, work foremen, overseers, and harvest supervisors to supplement labourers. Agricultural produce was given to temple personnel, important people in the community, and small farmers.

The land was plowed by teams of oxen pulling light unwheeled plows and grain was harvested with sickles in the spring. Wagons had solid wheels covered by leather tires kept in position by copper nails and were drawn by oxen and the Syrian onager (now extinct). Animals were harnessed by collars, yokes, and headstalls. They were controlled by reins, and a ring through the nose or upper lip and a strap under the jaw. As many as four animals could pull a wagon at one time. The horse was domesticated in Ukraine around 4000 BCE, and was in use by the Sumerians around 2000 BCE.

Classical antiquity

In classical antiquity, Roman agriculture built from techniques pioneered by the Sumerians, transmitted to them by subsequent cultures, with a specific emphasis on the cultivation of crops for trade and export. Romans laid the groundwork for the manorial economic system, involving serfdom, which flourished in the Middle Ages. The farm sizes in Rome can be divided into three categories. Small farms were from 18-88 iugera (one iugerum is equal to about 0.65 acre). Medium-sized farms were from 80-500 iugera (singular iugerum). Large estates (called latifundia) were over 500 iugera.

The Romans had four systems of farm management: direct work by owner and his family; slaves doing work under supervision of slave managers; tenant farming or sharecropping in which the owner and a tenant divide up a farm’s produce; and situations in which a farm was leased to a tenant. There was a great deal of commerce between the provinces of the empire, all the regions of the empire became interdependent with one another, some provinces specialized in the production of grain, others in wine and others in olive oil, depending on the soil type.

Regional histories


European agriculture underwent a number of significant changes during the Middle Ages. Tools including the scythe and plow were improved from classical versions, a three field system of crop rotation was invented, and the moldboard plow and wheeled plow were increasingly used. Draft horses were bred and increasingly used as a working animal in many parts of Europe, while oxen continued to be used for this purpose. Metal horseshoes were widely adopted. Much of Europe had low population densities during this period, to which extensive farming was well-suited. In parts of Southern Europe, more intensive farming combined techniques continued from classical Roman agriculture and those transferred from Islamic regions. In the late Middle Ages, the use of manure as fertilizer increased, which in turn decreased the necessity of regular fallowing of fields.


Records from the Warring States (481 BC-221 BCE), Qin Dynasty (221 BC-207 BCE), and Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 CE) provide a picture of early Chinese agriculture which included a nationwide granary system, and widespread use of sericulture. An important early Chinese book on agriculture is the Chimin Yaoshu of 535 CE, written by Jia Sixia. Jia's writing style was straightforward and lucid relative to the elaborate and allusive writing typical of the time. Jia's book was also very long, with over one hundred thousand written Chinese characters, and it quoted many other Chinese books that were written previously, but no longer survive. The contents of Jia's 6th century book include sections on land preparation, seeding, cultivation, orchard management, forestry, and animal husbandry. The book also includes peripherally related content covering trade and culinary uses for crops. The work and the style in which it was written proved influential on later Chinese agronomists, such as Wang Zhen and his groundbreaking Nong Shu of 1313 CE.

For agricultural purposes, the Chinese had innovated the hydraulic-powered trip hammer by the 1st century BC. Although it found other purposes, its main function to pound, decorticate, and polish grain that otherwise would have been done manually. The Chinese also innovated the square-pallet chain pump by the 1st century CE, powered by a waterwheel or oxen pulling an on a system of mechanical wheels. Although the chain pump found use in public works of providing water for urban and palatial pipe systems, it was used largely to lift water from a lower to higher elevation in filling irrigation canals and channels for farmland.


Ancient Papuan peoples are thought to have begun practicing agriculture around 7000 BCE. They began domesticating sugarcane and root crops. Pigs may also have been domesticated around this time. By 3000 BCE, Papuan agriculture was characterized by water control for irrigation.


Wheat, barley, and jujube were domesticated in the Indian subcontinent by 9000 BCE; Domestication of sheep and goat soon followed. Barley and wheat cultivation—along with the domestication of cattle, primarily sheep and goat—continued in Mehrgarh culture by 8000-6000 BCE. This period also saw the first domestication of the elephant. Agro pastoralism in India included threshing, planting crops in rows—either of two or of six—and storing grain in granaries. By the 5th millennium BCE agricultural communities became widespread in Kashmir. Cotton was cultivated by the 5th millennium BCE-4th millennium BCE.

Archaeological evidence indicates that rice was a part of the Indian diet by 8000 BCE. The Encyclopædia Britannica—on the subject of the first certain cultivated rice—holds that: A number of cultures have evidence of early rice cultivation, including China, India, and the civilizations of Southeast Asia.

Irrigation was developed in the Indus Valley Civilization by around 4500 BCE. The size and prosperity of the Indus civilization grew as a result of this innovation, which eventually led to more planned settlements making use of drainage and sewers. Archeological evidence of an animal-drawn plough dates back to 2500 BCE in the Indus Valley Civilization.


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 squash and beans. Cocoa was also a major crop in domesticated Mexico and Central America. The turkey, one of the most important meat birds, was probably domesticated in Mexico or the U.S. Southwest.

In Mesoamerica, the Aztecs were active farmers and had an agriculturally focused economy. The land around Lake Texcoco was fertile, but not large enough to produce the amount of food needed for the population of their expanding empire. The Aztecs developed irrigation systems, formed terraced hillsides, and fertilized their soil. However, their greatest agricultural technique was the chinampas, or artificial islands, also known as "floating gardens". These were used to make the swampy areas around the lake suitable for farming. To make chinampas, canals were dug through the marshy islands and shores, then mud was heaped on huge mats made of woven reeds. The mats were anchored by tying them to posts driven into the lake bed and then planting trees at their corners that took root and secured the artificial islands permanently. The Aztecs grew corn, squash, vegetables, and flowers on chinampas.

South America

In the Andes region of South America the major domesticated crop was potatoes, domesticated perhaps 5,000 years ago. Large varieties of beans were domesticated, in South America, as well as animals, including llamas, alpacas, and guinea pigs. Coca, still a major crop, was also domesticated in the Andes.

The Andean civilizations were predominantly agricultural societies; the Incas took advantage of the ground, conquering the adversities like the Andean area and the inclemencies of the weather. The adaptation of agricultural technologies that already were used previously, allowed the Incas to organize the production a diversity of products of the coast, mountain and jungle, so them could be able to redistribute to villages that did not have access to other regions. The technological achievements reached to agricultural level, had not been possible without the workforce that was at the disposal of the Sapa Inca, as well as the road system that was allowing to store adequately the harvested resources and to distribute them for all the territory.

Eastern North America

The indigenous people of the Eastern U.S. appear to have domesticated numerous crops. Sunflowers, tobacco, varieties of squash and Chenopodium, as well as crops no longer grown, including marshelder and little barley, were domesticated. Other wild foods may have undergone some selective cultivation, including wild rice and maple sugar. The most common varieties of strawberry were domesticated from Eastern North America. Two major crops, pecans and Concord grapes, were utilized extensively in prehistoric times but do not appear to have been domesticated until the 19th century.

Southwestern North America

West Coast of North America

The natives in what is now California and the Pacific Northwest practiced various forms of forest gardening and fire-stick farming in the forests, grasslands, mixed woodlands, and wetlands, ensuring that desired food and medicine plants continued to be available. The natives controlled fire on a regional scale to create a low-intensity fire ecology which prevented larger, catastrophic fires and sustained a low-density agriculture in loose rotation; a sort of "wild" permaculture.


From the time British colonization of Australia began in 1788, Indigenous Australians were characterised as being nomadic hunter-gatherers who did not engage in agriculture or other forms of food production, despite some evidence to the contrary. Rhys Jones, however, proposed in 1969 that Indigenous Australians engaged in systematic burning as a way of enhancing natural productivity, what has been termed fire-stick farming. In the 1970s and 1980s archaeological research in south west Victoria established that the Gunditjmara and other groups had developed sophisticated eel farming and fish trapping systems over a period of nearly 5,000 years. Professor Harry Lournados suggested in the 1980s that there was evidence of 'intensification' in progress across Australia, a process that appeared to have in progress over the preceding 5,000 years. These concepts have led Bill Gammage to argue that in effect the whole continent was a managed landscape.

It is now being argued that in two regions of Australia, the central west coast and eastern central Australia, forms of early agriculture were being practiced, whereby plants were being sown or planted on a large scale and the yield being stored or preserved in significant amounts. It also appears that the people in these regions were living in permanent settlements of significant size (over 200 residents, possibly up to 1,000), in dwellings large enough to house 10 or more people, and they exhibited high degrees of sedentism. The Nhanda and Amangu of the central west coast grew yams (Dioscorea hastifolia), while various groups in eastern central Australia (the Corners Region) planted and harvested bush onions (yaua - Cyperus bulbosus), native millet (cooly, tindil - Panicum decompositum) and a sporocarp, ngardu (Marsillea drumondii).

Islamic world

From the 8th century, the medieval Islamic world underwent a transformation in agricultural practice which has been described by some as the "Arab Agricultural Revolution". This transformation was driven by a number of factors including the diffusion of many crops and plants along Muslim trade routes, the spread of more advanced farming techniques, and an agricultural-economic system which promoted increased yields and efficiency. The shift in agricultural practice led to significant changes in economy, population distribution, vegetation cover, agricultural production, population levels, urban growth, the distribution of the labour force, cooking and diet, clothing, and numerous other aspects of life in the Islamic world.

Muslim traders covered an expansive area of the Old World, and these trade routes enabled the diffusion of many crops, plants and farming techniques across the Islamic world, as well as the adaptation of crops, plants and techniques from beyond the Islamic world. Historian Andrew Watson has argued that this diffusion introduced a number of crops of major importance to Europe by way of Al-Andalus, along with the techniques for their cultivation. Important crops involved in this transfer included sugar cane, rice, and cotton. A number of additional fruit trees, nut trees, and vegetables were also transferred.

Agricultural technologies that were widely adopted during this period included intensive irrigation systems, crop rotation systems, and use of agricultural manuals. A sophisticated system of irrigation made use of norias, water mills, water raising machines, dams and reservoirs. Some irrigation infrastructure and technology was continued from Roman times, and some introduced by Muslims.


Between the 16th century and the mid-19th century, Great Britain saw a massive increase in agricultural productivity and net output. New agricultural practices like enclosure, mechanization, four-field crop rotation and selective breeding enabled an unprecedented population growth, freeing up a significant percentage of the workforce, and thereby helped drive the Industrial Revolution. By the early 19th century, agricultural practices, particularly careful selection of hardy strains and cultivars, had so improved that yield per land unit was many times that seen in the Middle Ages and before.

The 18th and 19th centuries also saw the development of glasshouses, or greenhouses, initially for the protection and cultivation of exotic plants imported to Europe and North America from the tropics. Experiments on Plant Hybridization in the late 19th century yielded advances in the understanding of plant genetics, and subsequently, the development of hybrid crops. Increasing dependence upon monoculture crops lead to famines and food shortages, most notably the Irish Potato Famine (1845–1849). Storage silos and grain elevators appeared in the 19th century.

Age of Discovery

The history of agriculture in the Age of Discovery and Early modern era was closely tied to the processes of European exploration and colonization. After 1492 the world's agricultural patterns were shuffled in the widespread exchange of plants and animals known as the Columbian Exchange. Crops and animals that were previously only known in the Old World were now transplanted to the New and vice versa. Perhaps most notably, the tomato became a favorite in European cuisine, and maize and potatoes were widely adopted. Other transplanted crops include pineapple, cocoa, and tobacco. In the other direction, several wheat strains quickly took to western hemisphere soils and became a dietary staple even for native North, Central and South Americans. Agriculture was a key element in the Atlantic slave trade, triangular trade, and the expansion by European powers into the Americas. In the expanding plantation economy, large plantations producing crops including sugar, cotton, and indigo, were heavily dependent upon slave labor.


A tractor ploughing an alfalfa field

With the rapid rise of mechanization in the late 19th century and 20th century, particularly in the form of the tractor, and later the combine harvester, farming tasks could be done with a speed and on a scale previously impossible. These advances, joined to science-driven innovations in methods and resources, have led to efficiencies enabling certain modern farms in the United States, Argentina, Israel, Germany and a few other nations to output volumes of high quality produce per land unit at what may be the practical limit. The development of rail and highway networks and the increasing use of container shipping and refrigeration in developed nations have also been essential to the growth of mechanized agriculture, allowing for the economical long distance shipping of produce.

While chemical fertilizer and pesticide have existed since the 19th century, their use grew significantly in the early 20th century. Until the development of chemical fertilizers, Guano was widely used as a fertilizer, though expensive. The Haber-Bosch method for synthesizing ammonium nitrate represented a major breakthrough and allowed crop yields to overcome previous constraints. It was first patented by German chemist Fritz Haber. In 1910 Carl Bosch, while working for German chemical company BASF, successfully commercialized the process and secured further patents. Norman Borlaug and other scientists began developing crops for increased yields in the 1940s in Mexico. Their work lead to the Green Revolution, which applied western advances in fertilizer and pesticide use to farms worldwide, with varying success. Other applications of scientific research since 1950 in agriculture include gene manipulation, Hydroponics, and the development of economically viable biofuels such as Ethanol.

Organic farming

Though the intensive farming practices pioneered and extended in recent history generally led to increased outputs, they have also led to the destruction of farmland, most notably in the dust bowl area of the United States following World War I. As global population increases, agriculture continues to replace natural ecosystems with monoculture crops. Since the 1970s, western farmers and consumers have become increasingly aware of, and in some cases critical of, widely used intensive agriculture practices. This growing awareness has led to increased interest in such areas of agriculture as organic farming, permaculture, heirloom plants and biodiversity, the growth of the Slow Food movement, and an ongoing discussion surrounding the potential for sustainable agriculture.

Agricultural revolutions

  • Neolithic Revolution
  • Muslim Agricultural Revolution
  • British Agricultural Revolution
  • Green Revolution
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