The Rise of Agriculture

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Podcast Transcript

For hundreds of thousands of years, humans lived a nomadic life, hunting for game and foraging for food. 

Then, several thousand years ago, they stopped. They began domesticating animals, started growing crops, and lived a sedentary lifestyle. 

The question anthropologists have asked is, why? 

Learn more about the rise of agriculture, aka the Neolithic Revolution, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

There is an argument to be made that the most important thing in human history was the transition from being hunter-gatherers to becoming farmers. 

When, where, and why this happened has been the subject of much debate. However, almost everything we take for granted in our world is the direct or indirect result of the transition to agriculture. 

Agriculture allowed for cities and civilization, which in turn allowed the rise of writing, mathematics, and technology, which eventually led to the industrial revolution, and ultimately, you listening to this podcast right now.

It is all a path that began with the rise of agriculture. 

The first thing to know about the rise of agriculture is that it wasn’t a single event that occurred at a single point in time or even in a single place. 

It occurred over thousands of years in different places at different speeds. 

There is much that we don’t know, but let’s start with what we do know.

Humans have been eating grains in some limited amounts for at least 100,000 years. At some point, probably by accident, people probably threw seeds on the ground at one of the campsites and then found grain growing when they came back the next year. 

Once they noticed it, it was possible to do it on purpose. They would throw the seeds on the soil, and then there would be plants when they later returned. 

The rise of agriculture wasn’t the same thing as the discovery of plant cultivation. Plant cultivation had probably been known for thousands of years, it was just that no one structured their lives around it.

The first place where we have evidence that agriculture arose was in the fertile crescent about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. This is the important period that occurred after the end of the last ice age.

The fertile crescent is the area that stretches from the top of the Persian Gulf through the Levant and down into Egypt. 

There were eight principal crops that were grown in the region, which are known as the founder crops. There were three cereals, emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, and barley. Four pulses, lentils, peas, chickpeas, and bitter vetch. The final crop, flax, had only limited use as a food but was mostly used as a fiber.

These crops were unique to the region. They were not unique to agriculture. Soon after agriculture developed in the fertile crescent, it independently arose in other regions. 

Soon after the rise of agriculture in the fertile crescent, about 9000 to 9500 years ago,  agriculture appeared in China in the Yangtze River basin. The first crops grown in China were rice and barley, although they also grew crops such as acorns, water chestnuts, and foxnuts.

By all accounts, the rise of agriculture in China was completely independent of the development of farming in Mesopotamia. 

About 8500 to 9000 years ago, the cultivation of barley appeared in the Indus River Valley in what is today Pakistan. It isn’t known if this was an independent development or if it came from Mesopotamia. 

Many of the early crops were similar to those that were growing in the fertile crescent. 

Across the ocean in the Western Hemisphere, where as far as we know, there was absolutely no communication with the Old World, there were several independent developments of agriculture. 

The Americas saw agriculture rise in a very different way than it did in China or Mesopotamia. The Americas didn’t have large seed grains like wheat that could be domesticated. 

In Mesoamerica, around modern-day Mexico, about 8000-10000 years ago, the wild grass teosinte, was over a period of centuries of selective breeding, transformed into the crop we know as maize or corn.  Teosinte didn’t naturally have large grains. It was humans who created the crop, which has the large grains that we know today.

Further south, the earliest known evidence of agriculture was discovered in modern-day Colombia and Ecuador. The crops grown in this region included leren, arrowroot, squash, and bottle gourd. 

Agriculture in the Americas was very different from agriculture in Eurasia. Agriculture in Mesopotamia and China, for example, tended to be single crops planted in a field, and later they used domesticated animals to help them plow and harvest. 

In the Americas, they didn’t have the same type of domesticated animals. They only had human labor, so they tended to plant multiple crops in the same field, usually at a much higher density.

The regions of Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica, and South America are widely considered to be the four core independent places where agriculture arose. 

While these were the largest epicenters of agriculture, they probably weren’t the only ones. The domestication of plants may have taken place in different forms in other areas.

There is new evidence that suggests that people in the Amazon rainforest were shaping the land to selectively encourage the growth of certain types of trees. This wasn’t domestication per se, and they weren’t planting crops, but it is very close to agriculture. 

Likewise, there is now evidence that suggests there was limited crop growing in Australia and that they used fire to modify the land to encourage the growth of certain plant and animal species.

In North America, the native people grew sunflower, squash, and tobacco. However, they usually didn’t rely exclusively on growing crops. They usually grew crops in conjunction with hunting and fishing. 

In Papua New Guinea, bananas, root vegetables, and sugar cane might have been cultivated as early as 8000 years ago. 

In the Andes mountains, about 8000 years ago, potatoes also were domesticated. 

The interesting thing is that all over the world, at around the same time, give or take one or two thousand years, people that had absolutely no contact with each other began growing crops as their primary means of subsistence. 

Moreover, also around the same time plants were being domesticated, so were animals. Sheep, goats, chickens, and cattle were all being domesticated around the same time. In fact, it isn’t even certain which came first, plant or animal domestication. 

So the big question is why did people around the world all start to engage in the same behavior, in what, evolutionarily speaking, was at the same time. 

I should note up front that there is no consensus answer to this question. 

There have been dozens of theories. 

The first is that something happened after the last ice age. One possibility is the large megafauna that was the primary hunting targets either went extinct or numbers decreased so greatly that they couldn’t support their populations. 

This meant that agriculture wasn’t so much a choice as it was forced on the people at the time. They probably already knew the secrets to growing plants, so they doubled down on it to survive. 

The other theory held that conditions after the ice age were simply better for growing crops. In this case, it wasn’t so much an issue of shifting to crop cultivation to survive as it was an opportunity to thrive by growing more food.

Another theory is that agriculture was a response to rising populations who were in need of greater sources of food. 

Yet another theory is that the rise of agriculture was due to tribal chiefs who wanted to throw ever larger feasts to display their power. 

Whatever the reason, it happened, and the Agricultural Revolution had profound consequences. 

The first of which is that it made it easier to survive bad times. 

Hunter-gatherers had to follow large game, but sometimes the game just wasn’t around. When that happened, they had to move, hunt small game, forage for plants, or starve. 

Hunting small game and scrounging for plants wasn’t as calorically efficient as hunting large game and was arguably more difficult.

Farming and animal tending, on the other hand, allowed for more calories to be created per person. Moreover, in the case of grains, they could be stored for extended periods of time. If there was a drought, it was possible to just eat what you had stored from previous harvests.

Similarly, in a hunter-gatherer society, everyone was somehow involved in the acquisition or preparation of food. That was the entire point of their society. 

In an agricultural society, the caloric surplus created by farming allowed for other people in society to focus on things other than food production. This caloric surplus is the basis of civilization. 

All of the other downstream benefits of civilization stem from this caloric surplus. 

When people speak of the agricultural revolution and all its benefits, it is usually spoken of as being only beneficial. However, there were downsides as well.

While the number of calories produced went up, overall nutrition went down. Life expectancy actually dropped. Diets became much more monotonous as only a small number of foodstuffs were produced which meant fewer nutrients.

Tooth decay was almost non-existent amongst humans before the rise of agriculture. The first signs of obesity and heart appeared in ancient Egypt, where the common people ate a diet that was overwhelmingly dependent on bread. 

Likewise, the rise of cities and urbanization also allowed for organized mass warfare, taxes, and the rise of monarchies.

It is hard to overstate just how just how important the Agricultural Revolution was. It was more important than the industrial revolution because it was more foundational.

The most remarkable thing isn’t the long list of civilizational achievements that agriculture was responsible for, it is the fact that so many different places developed the idea independently of each other at roughly the same time.