History of Agriculture

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[ History of Agriculture ] Agriculture in Post War Britain ] Population Pressure ] Agricultural Decline ] Land use & production ]


The scale below provides an indication of how recent the phenomenon of farming is:

bulletThe world was formed ca 4, 600 million years ago.
bulletEukaryotic life forms: ca. 1,000 million years ago
bulletFirst hominid life forms 4 million years ago (hunter gatherers)
bulletFirst human farmers: about 12,000 years ago.
bulletGlobal Agricultural Evolution: 1650 1850 AD
bulletModern Agricultural Evolution: 1950 - present

 Some of the food gathering mechanisms utilised by hunter-gatherer societies were relatively advanced. 

In such conditions of trial-and-error experimentation and manipulation of species, the scene was set for the domestication of plants and animals. In addition, these hunter-gatherer societies probably paved the way for domestication by developing :

bulletSocial structure (promote cooperation)
bulletKnowledge of cultivation techniques
bulletSpecialization on particular plant/animal foods

CLICK HERE for domestication case studies

Domestication versus cultivation

However, the primary distinguishing feature between hunter-gatherers and the beginnings of modern agriculture lies in the domestication of species:

bulletCultivation involves the deliberate sowing or other management of plants which do not necessarily differ from wild populations.
bulletDomestication can be defined as the human modification of a plant/animal one that is identifiably different from its wild ancestors and its extant wild relatives. In short, domestication involves genetic change through conscious or unconscious human selection.

NB. Hunter-gatherers promoted yield and changed environmental conditions. However, the future seed bank was consistently derived from the plants that they left behind in the field, thus there were none of the selective pressures that promoted domestication.

Areas of domestication

Although there are many scholarly debates about the details, it is widely recognized that there are seven main areas in the world in which domestication of plant and animals arose:

bulletNear East (Fertile Crescent)
bulletSouth China (Yangtze River)
bulletNorth China (Yellow River)
bulletSub-Saharan Africa
bulletSouth-central Andes
bulletCentral Mexico
bulletEastern USA

Pause for thought..... Can you suggest 4 reasons why domestication arose in the seven areas listed above as opposed to elsewhere?


Newly Cultivated Field - India

Photograph Courtesy of Dr. T. R. Wheeler

Why initiate farming

"Why farm? Why give up the 20-hour work week and the fun of hunting in order to toil in the sun? Why work harder for food that is less nutritious and a supply more capricious? Why invite famine, plague, pestilence and crowded living conditions? Why abandon the Golden Age and take up the burden?" (Harlan, 1992)

bulletNot necessarily because it was a better diet
bulletNot necessarily because it was easier


However, it did increase food production per unit area, making it easier to feed a population from the same amount of land around a settlement. The alternative scenario suggests that man had to reach a certain level of social organization or tool-making development, with a settled mode of life, before agriculture was possible, and this stage of human development was only reached 9 - 10 000 years ago.

The move from shifting agriculture to domesticated agriculture was preceded and made possible by the millennia of accumulated experience of wild plants and animals, and trial-and-error experimentation. There was probably a gradual shift from collecting to cultivation with continued reliance on hunting and gathering. Finally there was almost complete reliance on agriculture as the major source of nutrition.

In some areas of the world, primitive methods are still the most effective

Photographs Courtesy of Dr. T. R. Wheeler

Characteristics of domesticated plants

The stages of harvesting, planting and storing imposed various artificial selection pressures such as the following:

bulletPlants with favoured characteristics are preferentially harvested
bulletPlants preferentially harvested are resown

In more detail, some of these selection pressures involved the following:

bulletPlants provided with a seed bed of open soil encounter diminished competition
bulletHarvesting and resowing of larger clusters of seed heads
bulletSingle harvesting event
bulletSeeds with larger food reserves germinate quicker
bulletQuick germination confers competitive advantage, and reduced need for protective seed coat and dormancy.

Over time, these selection pressures produced changes in the crop and seeds that are characteristic of domesticated crops. These changes (referred to as domestication markers) are most pronounced when comparisons are made between the domesticated crop and its wild relatives.

Typical domestication characteristics exhibited by modern varieties of maize (left) and Wheat (right)

Benefits of animal domestication

bulletWool, hides, dung etc.

Galton (1822 - 1911) identified behavioural and physiologic characteristics of animals which would make them better candidates for domestication i.e. pre-adaptations to domestication:

bulletHardy, flexible, generalist feeding habits; easily adjusting to new conditions of disease, temperature and confinement
bulletA liking for humans
bulletBreed freely - fewest and least constraining behavioural, situational cues for reproduction
bulletEasy to tend social and roaming animals capable of group interactions
bulletGregarious, social groups of both sexes, maintain a dominance hierarchy, and are thus predisposed to submission. e.g. goats and sheep are placid, slow-moving foragers, not territorial and form highly social groups with a single dominant leader.

Goats exhibit more pre-adaptations to domestication than pigs


Consequences of food production (from Bender, 1975)

bulletIncreased carrying capacity of the land
bulletDevelopment of sedentary societies
bulletChanges in social structure
bulletCraft specialization

Pause for thought.....List 5 advantages and 5 disadvantages to a community that may arise when communities become sedentary

The progress of farming in Medieval Europe

Improvements of the plough
bulletHorses replace oxen
bulletNew crop rotations
bulletFeeding for the winter
bulletNew sources of power
bulletClimate change

Global Agricultural Evolution 1650- 1850

Characterized by:

bulletNew rotations with leguminous and root crops
bulletScientific method employed in agricultural research
bulletUse of fossil fuels, increased yields and labour productivity
bulletInvention of mechanized farm equipment
bulletBeginning of food-processing industries
bulletTransfer of crops and livestock from lands of origin as part of the era of European exploration

Pause for thought........Can you find out using the internet the percentage of UK households that grow any of their own food?

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