Agriculture is something that we all need in our lives. To make a ham sandwich for example wheat has to be grown for the bread, pigs have to be reared for the ham and cows have to be milked to produce the butter. Then if we have lettuce or tomato on the sandwich then we have to grow and harvest both plants which in itself takes a matter of months. Agriculture is essential to our lives and many historians cite the development of agriculture as the start of civilization (although 'civilization' is a heavily contested term). What is curious also to note about agriculture is how it developed simultaneously around 10,000 BCE (Before Common Era) in the Fertile Crescent, Papua New Guinea, China, West Africa, Sahel, Ethiopia, Mesoamerica, the Andes, the Amazon and Eastern USA. For many years debates surrounded the origins of agriculture but before we look at them we have to look at to period of time between the gradual abandoning of hunter-gathering and the gradual adoption of agriculture.
The inbetween times: c.12,000 BC onward
The transition to agriculture from hunter-gatherer societies occurred at different times all across the globe. As Britain was adopting agriculture Mexico, China and the Middle East had long adopted agriculture by a good 5000 years. This inbetween period also has multiple names depending on where in the world you lived: the Middle East it was called the Epipalaeolithic, in the Americas the Late Paleoindian and in Europe the Mesolithic. During this period of time several societies started to settle in areas, sometimes permanently, and partially adopt agriculture. At Olsen-Chubbuck, USA there is a kill site of 190 bison from the Folsom culture dating to around 11,000 BCE which shows some signs of sedentary living. Lepenski Vir in Serbia is a good example of this mix between hunter-gathering and sedentary lifestyle. It was occupied between 9500-6000 BCE on a river where the inhabitants had created trapezoidal structures to live in. Bones of two meter long sturgeon have been found and the inhabitants have been believed to have worshiped a possible fish deity.
The image above is just one of the stone statues found at Lepenski Vir over graves. The people of Lepenski Vir had started to adopt a sedentary life but still based their livelihood on hunting and gathering.
Theories on Agricultural Origins
The above image is of celebrated archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe (he also happens to be one of the few real world archaeologists mentioned in Indiana Jones). Theories about the origin of agriculture had abounded before his time but he was the first person to devote extensive research to finding an origin. He split the Stone Age into two: the Palaeolithic (pre-farming) and Neolithic (farming). His theory was that agriculture originated in the Fertile Crescent in present day Israel and Palestine. Like the Industrial Revolution he imagined a Neolithic, or Agricultural, Revolution which then spread around Eurasia and eventually an Urban Revolution occurred at the start of the Bronze Age. The revolution was interpreted by Childe as being caused by droughts so farming would solve the issue of a lack of food caused by the droughts. This gained widespread support due to the appeal of the idea showing human progression. However in the 1950s with the development of carbon dating and palynology (the study of pollen) found Childe's evidence was far older than he imagined or not from the area at all. It was also found that the Fertile Crescent had not experienced droughts during the time that Childe had hypothesized. Robert Braidwood in 1948 created a new theory based on new research methods. Like Childe agriculture originated in the Fertile Crescent but in the 'Hilly Flanks' of the Tauros and Zagros mountains. The general consensus is that one of agriculture's origins is in this area but why many archaeologists disagree on. Barbara Bender (1985) put forward the idea that trading caused social connections and to keep these connections food had to be traded which in turn required a surplus and farming to achieve this. Ester Boserup (1965) argued that food production was flexible in the fluctuating climate so people hunted more, with more food population rose putting strain on resources so farming was needed to alleviate this shortage. Ian Hodder even suggested that farming originated due to humanity's urge to control nature! Hunter-gatherers only have to work six hours a day to in excess of twelve hours for farmers. These theories may explain why people abandoned an easy life for more strenuous work.
Farming in the Middle East, Asia and Oceania: 11,000-4,000 BCE
The above image is just one section of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey which was in use from 9500 BCE to 8000 BCE. It portrays multiple columns several meters high, detailed art and sculptures but with an apparent lack of pottery. At around 300 meters in diameter it is amazing to think that people who lacked pottery could create such impressive structures that rival that of Greece and Rome. It is the oldest known stone monument ever built.
Carvings and motives like the one above show leopards, vultures, snakes and scorpions but few animals which were readily hunted like antelope and goats. This has led to many theories surrounding the purpose of Göbekli Tepe such as one with the site being a house with the art representing family symbols.However, one theory proposed by the discoverer Klaus Schimdt is that it could be a temple and if true it would make Göbekli Tepe the oldest known temple. This can be found all across Anatolia and the Middle East. Hunter-gatherers seemed to adopt either basic cultivation of crops or herding of goats before building impressive stone structures with religious significance. Abu Hureyra in Syria is a prime example when in 10,000 BCE the locals were exploiting nearby nut trees and by 9,000 BCE they were planting wheat and herding goats. Tel es-Sultan (better known as Jericho) in Palestine was a early urban area dating to around 9,600 BCE and was in use until around 6800 BCE. It is fascinating as it lacked pottery but had a wall which went around the entire site. There was a tower named the Chock of Jericho inside the wall itself which has been interpreted as a religious tower or a tower to impress traders rather than a defensive one (due to it being inside the wall). Curious to note as well is how many skulls were found in houses. These skull were covered in plaster and seem to have been venerated by the inhabitants of the city in some form of religion.
Around 8,000 BCE in Northern China the domestication of rice and millet started quickly followed by soy, mung and azuki. Quite rapidly agriculture had spread across China so by 7,000 BCE all of China had adopted agriculture. Many of the irrigation channels that were used to create the first rice paddies can still be found. From China and India agriculture spread to southeast Asia and Japan. Like in the Middle East the adoption of agriculture in these areas brought elaborate burials and large villages such as at Khok Phanom Di, Thailand which covers 5 hectares and lies in a mound 7 meters deep. Over 150 burials have been found here covering a period of time of around 600 years. Large scale trade of metals bringing in an influence of Indian culture where sites such as Lamongan, Java and Hau Xa, Vietnam adopted Indian jewelry creation. Cultivation in Japan started around 5,000 BCE but they had pottery since 10,000 BCE with the Jomon culture. By 500 BCE all of Japan had adopted wet rice farming stimulated through emigrants from the continent. The similarity between Korean and Japanese sites have led to the idea that agriculture went through Korea from Machuria and into Japan.
New Guinea saw another origin of agriculture. Around 11,000 BCE at Kuk Swamp drainage ditches have been discovered. The earliest cultivation of taro and yams have been found at this site, at least a thousand years before the development of agriculture in the Middle East! Around 6,900 BCE bananas and sugarcane started to be domesticated in the lowlands and just over a thousand years later in Melanasia slash and burn techniques were being used. Agriculture was partially spread to Australia, Melanasia and Polynesia but the conditions in these areas meant that agriculture was only done to supplement people's diet in times of hardship. Gourd, taro and sweet potato were grown all across New Zealand's North Island and parts of the South Island. However dog domestication occurred with dingos being introduced to Australia and kuri (now extinct) to New Zealand.
Africa, Europe and the Americas: 11,000 BCE- 1200 CE
Agriculture originated in the Nile around the same time as it did in the Fertile Crescent based on wheat. The rich banks of the Nile allowed rapid crop growth and eventually one of the most famous ancient society. Around 7,000 BCE in Ethiopia coffee, noog and teff were domesticated, in Sahel sorghum was domesticated and in West Africa yams, oil palm and nuts were domesticated. From 1000 BCE and 1000 CE the Bantu people who originated in Sahul spread farming across central and southern Africa with it merging with various other cultures such as the Xhosa and Zulu.
In the Americas maize was domesticated from the crop teosinte and was quickly followed by squash and beans. One of the earliest sites dates to 8,000 BCE at Guila Naquitz where squash and maize were first domesticated. At Koster, Illinois burials of dogs were found dating as early as 6,500 BCE! The dogs had been buried with jewelry and tools indicating some sort of affection that we have with our own pets. Turkeys were even domesticated by 800 BCE at Jemez Cave, New Mexico. By 1200 CE maize, sunflower and squash were being grown all across the United States, Central America and South America leading to some of the most interesting societies in existence including the Mayans and Incas.
Europe is the only inhabited continent which did not see agriculture arise. Instead Europe adopted agriculture thanks to migration from the Fertile Crescent. Although at Franchthi Cave, Greece 7,500 BCE snails were actually being raised for food and Knossos in Crete had been known to trade obsidian with cultures in the Middle East. By 6,500 BCE at Thessaly, Greece the domestication of wheat started. Like in Asia the adoption of agriculture in Europe was rather rapid with all of Europe growing wheat by 4,900 BCE (Britain and Scandinavia were the last to adopt agriculture). By this time pottery was widely used and has been used to identify the various cultures. One of the most interesting originated on the Danube in 5500 BCE and would spread all the way to central France. It has been named Linearbandkermaik (LBK) for the pottery is characterized by straight linear running across it. LBK sites are known for their longhouses which can be up to 12 meters long!
|A scaled model of the LBK longhouses|
In northern Europe there seemed to be a reaction against agriculture. It has been seen as Mesolithic peoples keeping a part of their original culture in the form of stone monoliths and elaborate burials. Teviec in Brittany had large elaborate tombs dating from 5,000 BCE which could hold many people. In Ireland several monoliths align with the sun or stars at certain times of the year indicating some religious or spiritual significance, the Hill of Tara for example aligns with the moon on Halloween.
Why is this important?
Understanding the origins of agriculture allows us to define what it means to be a civilization. For years we called any culture with agriculture as 'civilized' or being a 'civilization'. Nineteenth century historians called the Native Americans uncivilized and called Genghis Kahn's Mongol empire a civilization. They also insisted that any culture that used agriculture to be a civilization. This insistence falls flat when we remember that the Mongols were nomads and that many Native Americas harvested maize and squash. Understanding agriculture helps us understand human society, helps us question what it means to be a civilization and helps us know where we have come from.
Thank you for reading and next time we'll cover some of the first cities. In the meantime I'll leave you with one of the most famous of the monoliths created four thousand years ago. The sources which I have used include The Human Past by Chris Scarre, World Prehistory: A Brief Introduction by Brian Fagan, Earliest Civilisations of the Near East by James Mellaart, A History of Japan by R.Mason and J.Caiger, Complete History of the World by Richard Overy and History and Settlement in Lower Nubia and A History of Archaeological Thought by Bruce Trigger.
For a list of other World History posts please see here