How important is agriculture from a historical perspective? There is more to this topic than growing food. Farming is a science, a practical activity and a cultural phenomenon. The science and practices of agriculture can be fascinating, particularly when you look at how humans of the past made great scientific advances before science was even invented, but this is history; our focus is on the culture of farming. Without doubt, it is one of the most important developments in human history.
Briefly, we should look at what came before farming. This is commonly called the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in which people relied on wild plants and animals for food by, predictably, hunting and gathering them (and fishing). The important part of this equation is not the hunting or gathering (or fishing), it is the fact that these food species were wild. Humans did not control food production; it was entirely subject to natural forces governing abundance.
If a flooded river diverted bison away from their customary grazing ground, the people in that area would not be able to hunt bison until they returned. Compare this to agriculture, where the grazing patterns of domesticated cattle are controlled by the herders, who can rely on the abundance of meat by reducing the impact of external forces. Agriculture was not preferred by our ancestors because it was easier than hunting and gathering, in fact hunter-gatherers had more free time than farmers, but agriculture provided greater abundance through increased control.
So how did it all start? Agriculture began around 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, ancient Mesopotamia, around the same time the first humans arrived in the Americas. This corresponds with parts of present-day Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Although, what we mean by saying farming “began” in Mesopotamia is that it appeared there first. Farming was invented independently at different dates in present-day China 2,000 years later, New Guinea in another 2,000 years, Central and South America after another 2,000 years, and finally in sub-Saharan Africa around 4,000 years ago.
In terms of domesticated plants, grains proved to be dominant. These are grasses which produce edible seeds, benefiting from being hardier than vegetables and more resistant to environmental changes, while also providing higher nutritional value by mass. In the Fertile Crescent, corn and barley were the favoured crops; in China, rice and millet; taro (a root vegetable) and banana in New Guinea; maize, beans, squash and avocados in Central America; peppers and potato in South America; and sorghum, millet and rice in Africa. More easily-digested plants were fed to humans and others to animals.
Early domesticated animals included: sheep, goats, cows, pigs and dogs in the Fertile Crescent; pigs, dogs and chickens in China; dogs in Central America; guinea pigs, llamas and alpacas in South America; and cows in Africa. Many of these were used to supplement farmers’ plant-based diets, but they also performed a variety of other functions. Cows and llamas could be used to transport burdens over long distances or pull ploughs, and dogs were useful companions in hunting, which remained an important way to supplement the human diet.
But how did farming change humanity? We have already noted that agriculture was more labour-intensive, but it also increased abundance. This abundance created something crucial to future human development: surplus. A food surplus was something entirely unique to agriculture, at least in terms of its frequency.
Even when wild plants and game were abundant, a hunter-gatherer had no reason to collect more than she could eat. The energy exerted would only require more food to replace it and there was always the risk of being injured or killed in the hunt. By contrast, a field or herd might produce more food than the farmer or his family could eat in a year without any added effort on his part. This surplus production would allow someone in his community to be fed without needing to grow their own food. They could perform a function which was not associated with farming, herding, hunting or gathering (or fishing). They might be a chief, warrior, priest or artisan.
In North America, a society of farmers on the banks of the Mississippi used the surplus provided by maize, squash and sunflower to built monumental earthen mounds, complex social organisation, widespread trade networks, sculpture and pottery. This relationship between agriculture, surplus, and social and cultural complexity would eventually make possible the empires of ancient Rome, Persia and China, the Industrial Revolution and eventually the internet. That is not to say agriculture has necessarily been a positive factor in the development of human societies. This view is too close for comfort to the notion of “civilised” and “uncivilised” cultures. In the end, it is a matter of personal preference. Would you prefer to experience the greater free time and connection with nature of a hunter-gatherer, or the technologically and socially complex advantages of an agricultural society with its smartphones, internet and diverse professions? The choice is yours. Let me know in the comments!