History of agriculture  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Agriculture was developed at least 10,000 years ago, and it has undergone significant developments since the time of the earliest cultivation. Evidence points to the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East as the site of the earliest planned sowing and harvesting of plants that had previously been gathered in the wild. Independent development of agriculture is also believed to have 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 has been characterized by enhanced productivity, the substitution of human labor for 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. Most likely, there was a gradual transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies after a lengthy period during which some crops were deliberately planted and other foods were gathered in the wild. Although 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.Template:Fact 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.Template:Fact

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 support from contemporary scholars, 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.Template:Fact

The Feasting model by Bryan 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 specialisation of location and then domestication.

Neolithic era

Identifying an exact origin of agriculture remains problematic because the transition from hunter-gatherer societies began thousands of years before the invention of writing. Nonetheless, archaeobotanists/paleoethnobotanists have traced the selection and cultivation of specific food plant characteristics, such as a semi-tough rachis and larger seeds, to just after the Younger Dryas (about 9,500 BC) in the early Holocene in the Levant region of the Fertile Crescent. There is earlier evidence for use of wild cereals: anthropological and archaeological evidence from sites across Southwest Asia and North Africa indicate use of wild grain (e.g., from the ca. 20,000 BC site of Ohalo II in Israel, many Natufian sites in the Levant and from sites along the Nile in the 10th millennium BC). There is even evidence of planned cultivation and trait selection: grains of rye with domestic traits have been recovered from Epi-Palaeolithic (10,000+ BC) 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. It isn't until after 9,500 BC 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 sown and harvested on a significant scale.

By 7000 BC, 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 6000 BC 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 BC, 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 BC. Archaeological evidence from various sites on the Iberian peninsula suggest the domestication of plants and animals between 6000 and 4500 BC. The horse was domesticated in Ukraine around 4000 BC.

In China, rice and millet were domesticated by 8000 BC, followed by the beans mung, soy and azuki. In the Sahel region of Africa local rice and sorghum were domestic by 5000 BC. 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 BC have been found in the Indus Valley. Oranges were cultivated in the same millennium. The crops grown in the valley around 4000 BC were typically wheat, peas, sesame seed, barley, dates and mangoes. By 3500 BC cotton growing and cotton textiles were quite advanced in the valley. By 3000 BC farming of rice had started. Other monsoon crops of importance of the time was cane sugar. By 2500 BC, 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

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 ca. 5,500 BC. 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.Template:Fact

In Sumer, barley was the primary crop; wheat, flax, dates, apples, plums, and grapes were grown as well. Mesopotamia was blessed with flooding from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but floods came in late spring or early summer from snow melting from the Anatolian mountains. This, along with salt deposits in the soil, made farming in Mesopotamia difficult. Sheep and goats were also 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, cultivated 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.Template:Fact

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 BC, and was in use by the Sumerians around 2000 BC.Template:Fact

Roman era

Roman agriculture built off 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 iugera 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.

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, Muslim farmers in North Africa and the Near East developed and disseminated agricultural technologies including irrigation systems based on hydraulic and hydrostatic principles, the use of machines such as norias, and the use of water raising machines, dams, and reservoirs. They also wrote location-specific farming manuals, and were instrumental in the wider adoption of crops including sugar cane, rice, citrus fruit, apricots, cotton, artichokes, aubergines, and saffron. Muslims also brought lemons, oranges, cotton, almonds, figs and sub-tropical crops such as bananas to Spain.

The invention of a three field system of crop rotation during the Middle Ages, and the importation of the Chinese-invented moldboard plowTemplate:Fact, vastly improved agricultural efficiency. 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.

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