Agriculture in World History
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Agriculture in World History

Mark B. Tauger

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eBook - ePub

Agriculture in World History

Mark B. Tauger

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About This Book

Civilization from its origins has depended on the food, fibre, and other commodities produced by farmers. In this unique exploration of the world history of agriculture, Mark B. Tauger looks at farmers, farming, and their relationships to non-farmers from the classical societies of the Mediterranean and China through to the twenty-first century.

Viewing farmers as the most important human interface between civilization and the natural world, Agriculture in World History examines the ways that urban societies have both exploited and supported farmers, and together have endured the environmental changes and crises that threatened food production.

Accessibly written and following a chronological structure, Agriculture in World History illuminates these topics through studies of farmers in numerous countries all over the world from Antiquity to the contemporary period. Key themes addressed include the impact of global warming, the role of political and social transformations, and the development of agricultural technology. In particular, the book highlights the complexities of recent decades: increased food production, declining numbers of farmers, and environmental, economic, and political challenges to increasing food production against the demands of a growing population. This wide-ranging survey will be an indispensabletext for students of world history, and for anyone interested in the historical development of the present agricultural and food crises.

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Chapter 1

The origins of agriculture and the dual subordination

The origins of agriculture are visible to us today only from archaeological digs and studies of foraging societies and groups that survived into the twentieth century. Western ideas about agricultural origins began when Europeans encountered “primitive” peoples, who were often foragers and knew little or nothing about farming. Other investigations found that humans and their societies and technologies had evolved over long evolutionary periods that came to be called Paleolithic and Neolithic, and that crop plants and domesticated animals of the world's agricultural systems had definite geographical and temporal origins.
These findings led in the 1930s to the idea that early humans had developed agriculture in a “Neolithic Revolution” approximately 10,000 years ago, in response to a drying climate after the end of the last Ice Age. This shift to agriculture led to the development of cities and civilization some 5,000 years later. In this view, farming first developed in the “fertile crescent” of Mesopotamia, where the local flora and fauna included the wild progenitors of the main domesticated food crops and animals.
New archaeological research has qualified this conception of the first “agricultural revolution.” Several scholars argued that the shift to farming was so rapid that it must have been preceded by “protoagriculture” for thousands of years before the Neolithic period. A cool and dry period about 11,000 years ago, the Younger Dryas, was followed by a warmer period favorable for the spread of plants and animals in the Near East. New research and rethinking of the evidence have shown that some of the presumed centers of agricultural development actually acquired the idea and techniques of farming from one or more of the smaller number of earlier centers. Studies of human remains from the periods before and after the shift to farming, and of modern surviving pre-agricultural peoples, have led to more complex and uncertain explanations for the shift to agriculture and evaluations of its nutritional, social, and political consequences.
The Earth's changing climate, especially its history of ice ages, served as the background for these developments. The last expansion of the ice sheets peaked about 20,000 years ago and then receded. By 14,000 BCE the planet was in a warm interglacial period, but around 11,000 BCE a brief resurgence of cold in the Younger Dryas, expanded glaciers for several centuries. By 10,000 BCE warmth returned and the recent period or Holocene began.
In the Holocene glaciers steadily receded until by about 5000 BCE they may have covered a smaller area than they do now. Climate in the equatorial and temperate regions became warm and humid; much of the Sahara desert until about 6000 BCE had significant plant growth. These were ideal conditions for developing farming in many parts of the world.

Foragers, protoagriculture, and the first farmers

Humans who evolved from primate ancestors foraged and hunted for their food. They formed small groups and periodically settled in certain places only to move on later. Through most of the Paleolithic era human remains include mainly bones of relatively larger animals. Starting about 50,000 years ago, however, the proportion of large animal remains declines, while that of birds, fish, and other small animals increases. Sites in the Near East show that beginning at least 23,000 years ago people began to gather increasing amounts of a wide range of plants, including wild grains that would later be domesticated. This shift, the “Broad Spectrum Revolution,” resulted from increasing human populations in foraging regions, and also from the “Pleistocene Extinctions,” the disappearance of large mammals after the Ice Age, which many scholars attribute to over-hunting by early man.
Remains from the last millennia of the Broad Spectrum Period suggest that people engaged in protoagriculture by watering plants, removing undesirable plants from stands of desirable ones, storing gathered food, burning fields and then returning to them to gather new growth, and sowing gathered seeds. The Qadan sites in the upper Nile show that people appeared there about 13,000 BCE, and used grinding stones and blades for cutting and grinding wild crops. After 11,000 BCE, these tools disappeared, the people returned to a more primitive level of foraging, and then abandoned the sites because of the drying and cooling effects of the Younger Dryas. Their remains also include people killed by arrowheads and other weapons, so the abandonment could have resulted from internal wars or foreign invasions.
Studies in Central America, Asia, and the Near East have found many sites with evidence of semi-agricultural methods, as well as the remains of an increasing variety of animals, in use thousands of years before the Neolithic developments. The Broad Spectrum Revolution overlapped with the experiments of protoagriculture. The crucial step was domestication.
People began to raise domesticated crops and livestock in several different regions of the world at different times. The archaeological evidence is uncertain on many points but agriculture probably developed in the Near East earlier and more fully than elsewhere. Evidence exists for domestication of plants in other regions at about the same time, but in these other areas (including China and South America) the agricultural systems developed into towns and historical states much later.
Archaeological remains from farmers differ from those found earlier. Remains of domesticated animals show that they generally had smaller bones than their wild ancestors, and include many more bones of young animals and diseased animals because human herding of them helped communicable diseases to spread among them. Domesticated grains, including wheat, barley, millet, and rice, differ from their wild counterparts in more subtle ways. Grains, like other grass seeds, take the form of spikelets that contain a small seed with a heavy protective husk or glume, and attach to the stem of the plant by a small stem called a rachis. In wild grains, evolution favors plants with a weak or brittle rachis that allows the mature seeds to scatter easily, and with a glume that protects the seed long enough for it to sprout the following season. Domesticated grains, as a result of selection by early farmers, developed larger seeds with a lighter or smaller glume and a tough rachis that holds the grains much more securely in the plant.
The archaeological record shows that human settlements at various sites in the eastern Mediterranean littoral, ranging from the low mountain ranges in what is now southern Turkey, the Levant (present-day Israel, Lebanon, and Syria), and upper Mesopotamia had domesticated wheat, rye, sheep, goats, and pigs, and to a lesser extent cattle, by 9000–8500 BCE. This region was unusually rich in the “raw materials” for agriculture. It had many large wild animal species, like sheep and goats, that were social “herd” animals, amenable to domestication. It had numerous wild varieties of grains, legumes, and other plants, capable of rapid genetic variation in response to environmental changes, including human-generated ones. After the Younger Dryas the region had a stable climate, which allowed changes that enabled domestication to take hold.
As these people became more agricultural, they began living in larger settlements, villages of ten to sixteen hectares, almost the size of a small town. Their buildings were larger and remains include religious symbols, from sculptures of voluptuous women, which most scholars consider to have been goddess-figures, to rooms or buildings that appear to have been monuments or shrines, because of their wall paintings and separation from other structures. The settlements have special rooms or even buildings filled with human remains buried in a ritualized way or manipulated, such as skulls coated with plaster and with cowrie shells inserted in the eye sockets. Some argue that the beginnings of religion preceded and supported agricultural development by changing people's attitudes toward nature. After 7000 BCE many of the settlements shrank or were abandoned, but many new agricultural villages were founded in neighboring regions as people moved from the earlier centers of domestication.
Farming spread from about 8000 BCE around the Mediterranean. In the Balkans, Greece, and Italy, farming villages appear from 7500 BCE. After 7000 BCE farming villages emerge in northern Europe, with remains of cattle and pigs, more suited to northern regions than the sheep and goats of the Mediterranean environment. These villagers cleared thousands of farms in the European forests by 6000 BCE. They did not reach the North Sea and England until some time later.
Despite the size and significance of the later historical Egyptian farming system, Egypt did not have the wild wheat or other crops of Southwest Asia. The early Egyptians during the Ice Age hunted, fished, and foraged. The protoagriculture of the Younger Dryas period had disappeared by the time of the earliest archaeological evidence of farming in the Nile, from 5500 BCE, which already had the complex of plants and animals of the farming settlements of Southwest Asia. The remains of sites such as Fayum, an agricultural region near the Nile delta, have characteristic Egyptian artifacts but clearly Southwest Asian farming, which was the basis for the great development of the Egyptian state around 4000 BCE.
The settlements that became the Mesopotamian city-states are located in the southeast end of the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. These regions were rich with wildlife, and hunting and fishing remained important food sources. Farmers here used the Southwest Asian complex as the Egyptians did, but had to learn to adapt it to the flood cycle of the rivers. Regulating this process and organizing people to deal with it gave rise to city-states and eventually the imperial states of the Ancient Near East.
The pattern of the development of agriculture in these core regions followed by dissemination to neighboring regions recurred in China and America. The new region often had its own domesticated food sources. In most cases, however, once the core region's farming complex was introduced, it became dominant.


China was less affected by the Ice Ages and as a result has ancient, deep and rich soils as well as plant species, like the gingko, that are “living fossils” dating back before large-scale glaciations. In particular, north-central China, where its people first began farming, had loess or aeolian soils, formed from wind-blown sediments, which are fertile and easily worked. China is also relatively flat and traversed by several major rivers that provided water sources and transport.
Sites in central China near the Yangtze River show that people were gathering wild rice and millet by at least 12,000 BCE. Early villages during the seventh millennium BCE in north-central China and south of the Yangtze have remains of domesticated rice and millet. While both crops were found in both regions, the evidence indicates that millet remained the main crop in the north, while rice came to dominate around and especially south of the Yangtze.
Wild millet was native to China, and by 5000 BCE a substantial population of Chinese farmers cultivated millet extensively in many settlements, consuming it as boiled whole grain and ground into flour. They lived in villages of five hectares or larger, with sunken houses and storage pits that in one site could hold 100 tons of grain. Early Chinese written sources indicate that millet was more important than rice through the first millennium BCE. The ancient Book of Odes emphasizes the importance of millet and has few references to rice. The ancestor of the ruling clan of the Chou dynasty, the longest-lived before the emergence of the Chinese Empire, was named “lord of millet” (Hou Chi).
At the same time many settlements south of the Yangtze grew rice. Remains at Hemudu, located on the central coast of China, include, in addition to tools and artifacts, rice husks and other evidence of more than 120 tons of rice. At this phase, Chinese farmers grew rice as either a dry field crop or in swamps or wetlands, both of which gave low yields but required relatively little work. The earliest evidence of wet-rice cultivation and transplanting (to be discussed more below) dates back only approximately to CE 100.
The Chinese also grew barley and wheat. These crops came much later and represented special, even luxury, foods. Chinese farmers also domesticated a legume later than the Near Eastern farmers, but one with an enormous future: soybeans. Sources from the Chou dynasty indicate that people were cultivating soy by 1000 BCE. By the eighth century BCE conquered peoples gave the Chou ruler soybeans as tribute, and by the fourth century BCE the two main Chinese crops were millet and soybeans. Farmers recognized that soy cultivation improved the soil, and may have suspected the reason, because the Chinese character for soybeans refers to the nodules on the roots of the plant, which were later shown to contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
China did not have the wild herd animals of the Near East and Europe. They domesticated pigs as their primary farm animal. The earliest sites had remains of pigs, as well as dogs, which were domesticated earlier and that in many parts of Asia were a food source as well. Some sites have remains of cattle, water buffalo, and goats, but pig remains are more widespread and numerous. The Chinese also appear to have independently domesticated chickens, the earliest remains of which were found in sites dating to 5400 BCE.

Southeast Asia

This region consists of two main parts: mainland Southeast Asia, including the present-day states of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and part of Malaysia, and island Southeast Asia that stretches from Taiwan through the Philippines, Indonesia, and the island chains in the south and central Pacific Ocean. These regions acquired agriculture relatively late, some only in the modern period.
Mainland Southeast Asia resembles southern China with many rivers, good soils, and monsoon rainfall patterns. Nonetheless, archaeologists have found evidence for food production in the region only from 3500 BCE. Agricultural production moved into the region slowly, some scholars argue, because foragers resisted the introduction of farming. When farming did begin in the region, its methods derived first from China to the north. Taiwan's first evidence of rice and millet cultivation dates back to 3500 BCE, but many sites have been found from slightly later periods. Rice cultivation spread from Taiwan to the Philippines and Indonesia.
Farming spread much more slowly through the island societies of Southeast Asia. These societies did not need agriculture urgently; these regions are generally quite rich in a wide variety of plant and animal food sources. Archaeological sites have vast remains of nuts, fruits, roots, and seeds, as well as wild birds and animals. Yet even in this region, highland New Guinea may have been an independent locale of domestication, as from 5000 BCE its inhabitants began domesticating taro, yams, and certain other crops, growing them in gardens.

South Asia

The prehistoric agriculture of South Asia, from present-day Afghanistan to Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, combined indigenous components, such as humped cattle, with agricultural complexes from the Near East, Africa, and East Asia. The first clear evidence of agriculture in the subcontinent was found at Mehrgarh, west of the Indus River, and dates back to 7000 BCE. Remains at the region indicate the existence of a near-complete Near Eastern complex with wheat and barley, as well as the characteristic sheep, goats, and cattle. The Mehrgarh remains also contain the rectangular houses and female figurines similar to those found at the Near Eastern Neolithic sites.
This agricultural complex supported the Harappan or Indus valley civilization that began in the third millennium BCE. By the last phases of this civilization, 2600–1900 BCE, archaeologists found rice and millets from Asia, and sorghum and pearl millet from Africa. The Indus people apparently obtained these crops by trade, the African crops through Sumerian intermediaries and the rice via Southeast Asia and central India. By this time the Indus civilization had developed large and complex cities with elaborate but still untranslated symbols and language. Other regions of the subcontinent have remains of early farming that date back at most to the time of the late Harappan cultures. Their farming complexes include a similar blend of Asian rice, Near Eastern wheat and animals, and local South Asian plants and cattle.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa, a very large and diverse region, has limited remains from the Neolithic period. After the Ice Age, the Sahara was smaller and less arid, and the Sahel region of grasslands and savannah extended hundreds of miles further north than it does now. The region had a rainy season that formed lakes, and people lived there hunting wild cattle and other animals, and gathering grasses including wild sorghums and millets. These favorable conditions began to change by about 4000 BCE, and by 2000 BCE the Sub-Saharan environment resembled present-day conditions.
The most definite evidence for domestication of cattle dates back only to 3000 BCE. Plant domestication and farming came much later, 2000 BCE at the earliest, and in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa much later. The staple plants in the region differed from those of the Near East: Afric...

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