To answer the question of what agriculture is, let’s look at the definition first; then, we can dive into history and learn how agriculture started and how it looks today.
Agriculture is the science of farming; it includes cultivating the soil for growing crops, rearing animals to provide food, wool, and other products, and harvesting grown crops as effectively as possible.
It is agriculture that has allowed human civilization to expand to the great heights that it is today, and it is agriculture that took humanity from the simple hunter-gatherer way of life to a more complex society.
The Origin of Agriculture
Agriculture was not ‘invented’ in a single flash of genius by one of our ancestors. Instead, plant and animal domestication happened gradually over centuries and often independently worldwide. However, such development was only made possible after the last great Ice Age, when climates worldwide became more stable, and human populations could thrive again.
Historians have been able to track the development of agriculture in four significant places around the world; the earliest signs come from the Middle East and China before it spread into the Mediterranean and Europe and finally developed independently again in the Andes and mountains of South America. So let’s dive back into time and see how these civilizations used agricultural skills to improve their world.
The hunters and gatherers of early human societies, particularly in the fertile crescent (modern-day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq), we’re experts on the plants and animals around them. The movement, needs, and abilities of each animal were well known to these people because they relied on that knowledge to feed themselves and their children.
Around 11,000 BCE, people began to protect and herd the wild herds of goats, sheep, cows, and pigs that moved up and down the valley. They also harvested wild cereals such as einkorn, emmer, and barley. At first, they used random and unorganized; people would pull weeds out of the ground to promote the growth of more plants they ate or bring water from the river to water the plants. They would herd the animals but did not build farms for them yet.
At around 8800 BCE, scientists noticed a change in our genetics; for the first time, humans in this area had switched from primarily wild food to mainly farmed food.
Agriculture developed entirely independently in China and other countries of the far east of Asia. However, findings at archaeological digs suggest that pig herding was being used as a method of food production as far back as 10,500 BCE in the Yellow River Valley.
By 8000 BCE, this area had become a center of millet cultivation and, alongside the pig farming industry, sustained large villages such as Cishan. The domestication of wild rice soon followed and is still a stable ingredient in Asian cooking to this day.
The development of agriculture within Europe differs slightly from its development in China or the Middle East; early European societies benefited from the work done by the communities in the Fertile Crescent. Knowledge was traded back and forth between cultures living on the shores of the Mediterranean for many centuries, and with it came the knowledge of farming.
Around 7000 BCE, farming was introduced to areas that would become modern-day Greece, Italy, and Spain, before moving north into Central Europe. It is thought that new arrivals from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East brought domesticated plants and animals; elsewhere, local people adopted the same skills.
Once the skills had been taught, the art of farming exploded in Europe, with much of the land well suited to growing plants and feeding livestock.
In the Andes mountains of South America, people experimented with cultivating potatoes and other root vegetables around 5000 BCE. They used llamas and alpacas to help them plow the soil and even farmed the local guinea pigs as a food source.
The hunter-gatherer way of life existed alongside farming here because there were far fewer species of animals suited to domestication, and the land was more difficult to farm.
How did agriculture change human civilization?
Culturing crops and animals allowed humans to evolve beyond the nomadic lifestyle they had relied on for thousands of years. Hunter-gatherer societies had to rely on the movements of animals, and this could lead to periods when hunting was very fruitful (but they could not store the meat for long) or periods with very little to eat.
Once more permanently, settlements were established around farming communities; people could store food they could use during the winter months when hunting and gathering weren’t possible. It also meant that for the first in human history, people could specialize in different tasks; until the advent of agriculture, each person dedicated their time to food production for themselves, their family, and their communities. Once farming took hold, people had more food than they needed. In addition, they had time to develop new ways of building, new tools, and skills such as art, blacksmithing, and even music.
Let’s look deeper at some changes and innovations made possible by agriculture.
The earliest farming villages were small huddles of mud-brick houses nestled together and separated by narrow spaces. These soon started to grow as more animals were added to the herds and as more crops were planted. In the Jordan Valley, Jericho is one of the earliest villages to have flourished in this way. By 8000 BCE, the population had gone from a few families to a massive community of hundreds who created stone houses and a wall to protect their town and animals.
The ability to produce more food from a smaller area allowed populations to grow together and develop into towns and even cities. Without that, our society would not be possible.
Scientists have looked at the remains of humans throughout our history. Following the agricultural ‘revolution,’ they saw a marked increase in food and the quality available food. People no longer had to survive on the food they could immediately find; they could split up their meals and food. As a result, cereal grain has become a staple part of the diet in the Middle East, China, and Europe, along with bread, porridge, water, milk, and a variety of high-protein meats.
Such a stable diet saw changes in human health, with less evidence of intestinal diseases or worms!
Living in farming communities meant that not everyone had to work towards producing food daily, every day. A network of people would live together for generations, which meant they could develop specific skills and roles in their communities. For example:
- Some people herded and gathered animals
- Some people worked on the farms and cropland
- Others prepared food
More importantly, not everyone had to have a job on the farm:
- Some people started to make pottery or build houses
- Some could become traders or merchants
- Some people could develop tools for better farming
Without the diversification of all these skills, we would not have invented all the superior technology and creations we have today.