History of Agriculture

Evidence of early agriculture has been found in many civilizations that back 7500 years or more.

Sumerian Texts reveal that the planting and cultivating of crops became an overnight science. Researchers, such as Zecharia Sitchin, believe this was due to the influence of extraterrestrials.

Finding agriculture's 'genetic signature' August 2002 - BBC News

Modern Europeans can trace a great deal of their ancestry to Middle or Near Eastern farmers who moved into the continent 10,000 years ago.

Farming's roots pushed back

July 12, 2001 - BBC

Modern farming is based on 13 millennia of experience.

Modern humans began farming centuries earlier than previously thought, a new study claims.

The transition from collecting wild grains to deliberately growing crops was one of the most dramatic changes in human history.

"This was the other great change for humanity after the mastery of fire. We began to imagine ourselves masters of the environment," explained Professor Gordon Hillman of University College London, UK.

He and his colleagues spent 27 years looking at the remains of a settlement in modern Syria and now believe that the systematic cultivation of cereal crops had already begun around 13,000 years ago, 1-2,000 years earlier than previously thought.

27-year study

Professor Hillman believes the first farmers may have been a small community of hunter-gatherers originally tempted to settle in one place by good food growing wild.

"It was all very rosy for them. It was getting warmer and wetter and they had a food base so luxuriant that they were tempted to settle. But then suddenly things reversed," he told BBC News Online.

Farming was the most dramatic development since the mastery of fire.

The weather suddenly began to get colder and drier, and the hunter-gatherers were faced with a choice: either move on and face the possible wrath of other hungry communities elsewhere or stay put and start farming.

They chose the latter, and as they did so, they changed the way that they harvested.

New technology

Instead of beating wild crops to release their grains, they began to uproot them or cut them down.

This change of approach favoured the survival of different types of crop, and within a short period, one of the things they had domesticated was what we now recognise as rye.

The change was probably not a deliberate policy on the part of the community, but rather a response to the worsening weather.

"We know from modern hunter-gatherers that they are usually reticent to make the change. Recent hunter-gatherers have resented Europeans coming to do just that, foreseeing some of the ecological damage that results," he said.

But in the end, the community prospered, reaching a strength of several thousand.

Flotation recovery

Professor Hillman and colleagues from Oxford University, UK, and Rochester Institute of Technology, US, explain their findings in the journal The Holocene.

They sifted through huge amounts of earth from the dig at Abu Hureyra to recover charred remnants of food.

"The only way this stuff survives is by being exposed to fire. Occasional scraps of food survive and we dunk the excavated earth in water. The little scraps float and we use a machine and a mesh to separate them out," he said.

The evidence from Abu Hureyra is the earliest start to farming so far found by researchers, but the group behind this latest discovery believes it will be backed up by other digs in the area, straddling the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where the modern way of life began.

"We anticipate that equally early evidence of analogous events will eventually be recovered from other sites in the Fertile Crescent," they write.

The prehistoric origins of farming

June 18, 2001 - USA News.com

Some of the first seeds of civilization sprouted when people stopped chasing dinner and started raising it. Settlers formed villages. Landowners gained power. And a boom in leisure time eventually led to gourmet delis and Internet cafes. But who shepherded the first lamb or watered the first asparagus crop?

Such questions have long intrigued anthropologists because of a basic curiosity about humanity's major cultural transitions. But recently geneticists have become interested as well, for more practical reasons. A long-range perspective on genetic diversity, they argue, could help modern farmers avoid the perils of selective breeding and cultivate meatier livestock and more resilient crops.

Much of the search for domestication's beginnings has focused on a vast region of the Middle East called the Fertile Crescent. Stretching from the Persian Gulf to southeastern Turkey and northern Egypt, the area's high mountain pastures and low-lying plains were generally hot, wet, and lush at the end of the last Ice Age, 11,000 years ago. Thick stands of barley, rye, wheat, and lentils grew wild. Cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and gazelles roamed free.

Such conditions were ripe for people to plant their own seeds and tame their own livestock, says Yale archaeologist Frank Hole. Even so, the switch from hunting and gathering to domesticating and cultivating seems to have happened independently in scattered places around the world, according to a flurry of new analyses involving both fossils and DNA.

Goats were likely the first to give up their wild ways, according to archaeologist Melinda Zeder of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. People don't kill their own goats the same way they kill wild ones, Zeder notes.

To maximize meat for their efforts, hunters kill the biggest animals first, while herders kill small, young males and keep females around longer to breed. In fact, Zeder found a fossil pattern in the Fertile Crescent site of Ganj Dareh, from about 10,000 years ago, that supports that theory.

Other DNA evidence indicates that after the initial domestication of goats, migrating people took the animals with them all over the world to trade as good sources of meat, milk, and wool. Other scientists have found multiple origins for cows, pigs, and yaks.

This new research suggests that modern breeders could learn some important lessons from their predecessors. For thousands of years, shepherds preserved the genetic vigor of their herds by keeping variety in the gene pool, Zeder says.

More recently, breeders have instead sacrificed such genetic diversity for profitable traits, including rapid growth, disease resistance, and higher-quality meat, milk, and fur.

Squash detective. In a similar way, research on ancient plant domestication could help improve today's crops, says Bruce Smith, an archaeobotanist with the National Museum of Natural History. He has pinpointed the origins of squash domestication to 10,000 years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico, and plans to cross wild squash with genetically modified squash to test whether genetic tinkering might threaten biodiversity.

Scientists are also on the trail of the first domesticated corn, beans, carrots, and garlic. One group recently announced dating the first domesticated maize, from a cave in Oaxaca, to about 6,300 years ago. Other work is revealing corn's genetic transformation from an unappetizing, unwieldy plant to the easily harvestable and succulent crop of modern times.