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A brief history of agriculture

I’ve worked for Farm and Dairy nearly four months now. During that time I’ve been to dairy farms, fruit farms, interviewed a country star, 4-H competitions and a farmer blogging workshop.

Unfortunately, even after all of those experiences, I still couldn’t begin to answer the question, “What is agriculture?”

I know that agriculture changed the world, but where did agriculture come from?

So I decided to do some research. After all, shouldn’t we know our past so we can inform our future?

Being curious as I am, I couldn’t just define agriculture. I’m the guy who asks questions. I want to know why, how and when things happen. So I turned to history.

Since The “History” Channel became a Nazi, Ancient Aliens and reality show inundated “entertainment” channel, I surfed the Internet, my favorite source of information.


The history of Agriculture

What is agriculture? cavemanFarming has been around for roughly 12,000 years; people have been around for much longer. Before we farmed the land, we were hunter-gatherers and we were good at it. In fact, humans lived as hunter-gatherers for most of our existence, so why the change? Because hunting and gathering is a tough, day-to-day existence. Seriously, who wants to have a hand-to-hand confrontation with wild game?

Not me.

Actually, there’s several theories as to why humans started domesticating plants and animals for sustenance.

Here’s a few examples:

  • The Oasis Theory: This theory suggests that as the climate got drier, communities moved to oases where they were forced to domesticate plants and animals because of their close proximity with them. Climate data no longer supports this theory.
  • The Evolutionary/Intentionality theory: This theory suggests that plants and humans co-evolved. This theory begins with the protection of wild plants, which eventually led to their domestication.
  • The Domestication Theory: This theory says that humans first gave up their nomadic ways, then began domesticating plants.
  • The Innovation and Specialization Theory: This is a relatively recent theory (2008), which treats agriculture as a form of specialization coming from two factors: higher population densities and innovation. Humans realized the long-term advantages of farming and agriculture.

Other theories include: The Hilly Flanks hypothesis, The Feasting model, The Demographic theories and The Levantine Primacy Model.

The reason why we have all of these theories, but no solid answer, is because agriculture came about before writing (some theories suggest writing was a bi-product of agriculture). So the only evidence we have of agriculture’s development comes from pottery, tools and seeds uncovered during archeological digs.

Unfortunately, there’s no smoking gun. All we know is agriculture developed at roughly the same time for several, unconnected groups.

Those groups were located in Asia, South America, Europe and The Fertile Crescent (an area near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that spans modern day Iraq and Syria).

But farming didn’t begin as a large scale operation, like many farms are today. It was more about convenience, I think.

The world’s first farm?

The first “farm” may have actually been a forest-garden. Forest-gardens are basically low-maintenance gardens that utilize several different vegetables, trees, shrubs and vines in a way that is sustainable. It’s believed they first developed on the banks of jungle rivers and the foothills of monsoon regions.The first farmFamilies gradually improved their immediate environment by protecting useful species of plants and eliminated undesirables. This method of gardening is still used today in tropical regions of the world.

Why did we do this?

People, from every era, like to make their lives a bit easier and part of that goal is limiting exposure to the dangerous things that you happen to eat for dinner, hence hunting tools. The goal is to stay away from the deadly parts of any animal.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. If necessity is the mother, then invention’s uncle must be comfort and safety. Honestly, if you were given a choice of hunting mammoths with a spear or picking fruit from a tree, would you opt for a danger filled hunting expedition? Probably not.

Though it may sound like agriculture, these forest-gardens didn’t develop wild plants into domestic products, they simply served as a place where good plants grew in abundance. We needed farms, not gardens to progress agriculture and civilization.


Fifty shades of grain

what is agricultureEight “founder crops” appeared around 9500 BC. These crops were emmers and einkorn wheat, hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, chick peas and flax. These crops appear in The Fertile Crescent at several locations more or less around the same time period. It’s generally agreed upon that wheat was the first of these crops to be grown and cultivated on a large scale.

After agriculture firmly took hold in The Fertile Crescent, the population boomed. Then, of course, Mesopotamians developed the wheel, the Egyptians utilized the Nile river’s annual flood to irrigate crops and the rest is history.

How it changed the world

Agriculture allowed for higher population densities. In a nutshell, agriculture provided the means to create metropolitan areas. Farmers specialized in growing food, which allowed the rest of the population to do other things like art, construction, war and governing.

Agriculture also provided the stepping stones towards democracy, commerce and religion. In fact, one of the reasons many religions worshiped the sun was because it provided the light to grow the wheat to feed the people.

Without agriculture we wouldn’t have New York City or The Great Pyramids.

Thanks for the history lesson, but what is agriculture?

Wikipedia says agriculture is, “The cultivation of animals, plants, fungi, and other life forms for food, fiber, biofuel and other products used to sustain life.”

Dictionary.com says, “The science, art or occupation concerned with cultivating land, raising crops and feeding, breeding and raising livestock; farming.”

Merriam-Webster says, “The science, art, or practice of cultivating the soil, producing crops, and raising livestock and in varying degrees the preparation and marketing of the resulting products.”

Those are the scientific and precise definitions, of course. More importantly is what do you think agriculture is. What does it represent to the farmer, the grocer, the field worker, the butcher and the customer?

For me, agriculture is the epitome of man’s power over the land and it is the ultimate altruistic act. Think about it, farmers spend countless hours growing food so the rest of us can eat.

Now we know how agriculture changed the world, but how has it changed your life? Sound off below!

PS: Here’s a couple interesting videos I found during my research.

The History Of Agriculture – Stop Motion from Ben Ross on Vimeo.

Here’s some sources:

Agriculture in Ancient Egypt
Forest Gardening
USDA National Agricultural Library
Wikipedia’s entry on Agriculture

Will is Farm and Dairy's newest writer. He's recently moved to Lisbon, Ohio where he lives in a church turned community theater. He enjoys writing (of course), theater and hiking.
Will Flannigan
View all posts by Will Flannigan

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