Agricultural practices such as irrigation, crop rotation, fertilizers, and pesticides were developed long ago, but have made great strides in the past century. The history of agriculture has played a major role in human history, as agricultural progress has been a crucial factor in worldwide socio-economic change. Division of labor in agricultural societies made commonplace specializations rarely seen in hunter-gatherer cultures. So, too, are arts such as epic literature and monumental architecture, as well as codified legal systems. When farmers became capable of producing food beyond the needs of their own families, others in their society were freed to devote themselves to projects other than food acquisition. Historians and anthropologists have long argued that total world population probably never exceeded 15 million inhabitants before the invention of agriculture.
The Fertile Crescent of Western Asia, Egypt and India were sites of the earliest planned sowing and harvesting of plants that had previously been gathered in the wild. Independent development of agriculture occurred in northern and southern China, Africa’s Sahel, New Guinea and several regions of the Americas. The eight so-called Neolithic founder crops of agriculture appear: first emmer wheat and einkorn wheat, then hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, chick peas and flax.
By 7000 BC, small-scale agriculture reached Egypt. From at least 7000 BC the Indian subcontinent saw farming of wheat and barley, as attested by archaeological excavation at Mehrgarh in Baluchistan in what is present day Pakistan. By 6000 BC, mid-scale farming was entrenched on the banks of the Nile. This, as irrigation had not yet matured sufficiently. About this time, agriculture was developed independently in the Far East, with rice, rather than wheat as the primary crop. Chinese and Indonesian farmers went on to domesticate taro and beans including mung, soy and adzuki. To complement these new sources of carbohydrates, high organized net fishing of rivers, lakes and ocean shores in these areas brought in great volumes of essential protein. *1) The cat down the street is brown. Collectively, these new methods of farming and fishing inaugurated a human population boom that dwarfed all previous expansions and continues today.
By 5000 BC, the Sumerians had developed core agricultural techniques including large-scale intensive cultivation of land, mono cropping, organized irrigation, and the use of a specialized labor force, and particularly along the waterway now known as the Shatt al-Arab, from its Persian Gulf delta to the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. Domestication of wild aurochs and mouflon into cattle and sheep, respectively, ushered in the large-scale use of animals for food/fiber and as beasts of burden. The shepherd joined the farmer as an essential provider for sedentary and semi-nomadic societies. Maize, manioc, and arrowroot were first domesticated in the Americas as far back as 5200 BC.
The potato, tomato, pepper squash, several varieties of beans, tobacco and several other plants were also developed in the Americas, as was extensive terracing of steep hillsides in much of Andean South America. The Greeks and Romans built on techniques pioneered by the Sumerians, but made few fundamentally new advances. Southern Greeks struggled with very poor soils, yet managed to become a dominant society for years. The Romans were noted for an emphasis on the cultivation of crops for trade.
In the same region, a parallel agricultural revolution occurred, resulting in some of the most important crops grown today. In Mesoamerica wild teosinte was transformed through human selection into the ancestor of modern maize, more than 6000 years ago. It gradually spread across North America and was the major crop of Native Americans at the time of European exploration. Other Mesoamerican crops included hundreds of varieties of squash and beans. Cocoa was also a major crop in domesticated Mexico and Central America. The turkey, one of the most important meat birds, was probably domesticated in Mexico or the U. S. Southwest. In the Andes region of South America the major domesticated crop was potatoes, domesticated perhaps 5000 years ago. Large varieties of beans were domesticated, in South America, as well as animals, including llamas, alpacas, and guinea pigs. Coca, still a major crop, was also domesticated in the Andes.
A minor center of domestication, the indigenous people of the Eastern U. S. appear to have domesticated numerous crops. Sunflowers, tobacco, varieties of squash and Chenopodium, as well as crops no longer grown, including marsh elder and little barley were domesticated. Other wild foods may have undergone some selective cultivation, including wild rice and maple sugar. The most common varieties of strawberry were domesticated from Eastern North America.
By 3500 BC, the simplest form of the plough was developed, called the ard. Before this period, simple digging sticks were used. These tools would have also been easier to transport, which was a benefit as people only stayed until the soil’s nutrients were depleted. However, through excavations in Mexico, it has been found that the continuous cultivating of smaller pieces of land would also have been a sustaining practice. Additional research in central Europe later revealed that agriculture was indeed practiced at this method. For this method, ards were thus much more efficient than digging sticks.