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Prehistoric Agriculture  
Early farmers were, archaeologists agree, largely of Neolithic culture. Sites occupied by such people are located in southwestern Asia in what are now Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey; in southeastern Asia, in what is now Thailand; in Africa, along the Nile River in Egypt; and in Europe, along the Danube River and in Macedonia, Thrace, and Thessaly (historic regions of southeastern Europe). Early centers of agriculture have also been identified in the Huang He (Yellow River) area of China; the Indus River valley of India and Pakistan; and the Tehuacán Valley of Mexico, northwest of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.





The dates of domesticated plants and animals vary with the regions, but most predate the 6th millennium BC, and the earliest may date from 10,000 BC. Scientists have carried out carbon-14 testing of animal and plant remains and have dated finds of domesticated sheep at 9000 BC in northern Iraq; cattle in the 6th millennium BC in northeastern Iran; goats at 8000 BC in central Iran; pigs at 8000 BC in Thailand and 7000 BC in Thessaly; onagers, or asses, at 7000 BC in Iraq; and horses around 4000 BC in central Asia. The llama and alpaca were domesticated in the Andean regions of South America by the middle of the 3rd millennium BC.

According to carbon dating, wheat and barley were domesticated in the Middle East in the 8th millennium BC; millet and rice in China and Southeast Asia by 5500 BC; and squash in Mexico about 8000 BC. Legumes found in Thessaly and Macedonia are dated as early as 6000 BC. Flax was grown and apparently woven into textiles early in the Neolithic Period.

The transition from hunting and food gathering to dependence on food production was gradual, and in a few isolated parts of the world this transition has not yet been accomplished. Crops and domestic meat supplies were augmented by fish and wildfowl as well as by the meat of wild animals. The farmer began, most probably, by noting which of the wild plants were edible or otherwise useful and learned to save the seed and to replant it in cleared land. Lengthy cultivation of the most prolific and hardiest plants yielded stable strains. Herds of goats and sheep were assembled from captured young wild animals, and those with the most useful traits—such as small horns and high milk production—were bred. The wild aurochs was the ancestor of European cattle, and an Asian wild ox of the zebu, was the ancestor of the humped cattle of Asia. Cats, dogs, and chickens were also domesticated very early.

Neolithic farmers lived in simple dwellings—caves and small houses of sunbaked mud brick or reed and wood. These homes were grouped into small villages or existed as single farmsteads surrounded by fields, sheltering animals and humans in adjacent or joined buildings. In the Neolithic Period, the growth of cities such as Jericho (founded about 9000 BC) was stimulated by the production of surplus crops.

Pastoralism (individual country living) may have been a later development. Evidence indicates that mixed farming, combining cultivation of crops and stock raising, was the most common Neolithic pattern. Nomadic herders, however, roamed the steppes of Europe and Asia, where the horse and camel were domesticated.

The earliest tools of the farmer were made of wood and stone. They included the stone adz, an axlike tool with blades at right angles to the handle, used for woodworking; the sickle or reaping knife with sharpened stone blades, used to gather grain; the digging stick, used to plant seeds and, with later adaptations, as a spade or hoe; and a rudimentary plow, a modified tree branch used to scratch the surface of the soil and prepare it for planting. The plow was later adapted for pulling by oxen.

The hilly areas of southwestern Asia and the forests of Europe had enough rain to sustain agriculture, but Egypt depended on the annual floods of the Nile River to replenish soil moisture and fertility. The inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Middle East also depended on annual floods to supply irrigation water. Drainage was necessary to prevent the erosion of land from the hillsides through which the rivers flowed. The farmers who lived in the area near the Huang He developed a system of irrigation and drainage to control the damage caused to their fields in the flood plain of the meandering river.

Although Neolithic settlements were more permanent than the camps of hunting peoples, villages had to be moved periodically in some areas when the fields lost their fertility from continuous cropping. This was most necessary in northern Europe, where fields were produced by the slash-and-burn method of clearing. Settlements along the Nile River, however, were more permanent, because the river deposited fertile silt annually.

See also Archaeology.

B Historical Agriculture Through the Roman Period  
With the close of the Neolithic period and the introduction of metals, the age of innovation in agriculture was largely over. The historical period—known through written and pictured materials, including the Bible; Middle Eastern records and monuments; and Chinese, Greek, and Roman writings—was highlighted by agricultural improvements. A few high points must serve to outline the development of worldwide agriculture in this era, roughly defined as 2500 BC to AD 500. For a similar period of development in Central and South America, somewhat later in date (see Native Americans).


Some plants became newly prominent. Grapes and wine were mentioned in Egyptian records about 2900 BC, and trade in olive oil and wine was widespread in the Mediterranean area by the 1st millennium BC. Rye and oats were cultivated in northern Europe about 1000 BC.

Many vegetables and fruits, including onions, melons, and cucumbers, were grown by the 3rd millennium BC in Ur (now Iraq). Dates and figs were an important source of sugar in the Middle East, and apples, pomegranates, peaches, and mulberries were grown in the Mediterranean area. Cotton was grown and spun in India about 2000 BC, and linen and silk were used extensively in 2nd-millennium BC China. Felt was made from the wool of sheep in Central Asia and the Russian steppes.

The horse, introduced to Egypt about 1600 BC, was already domesticated in Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. The ox-drawn four-wheeled cart for farm work and two-wheeled chariots drawn by horses were familiar in northern India in the 2nd millennium BC.



Improvements in tools and implements were particularly important. Tools of bronze and iron were longer lasting and more efficient, and cultivation was greatly improved by such aids as the ox-drawn plow fitted with an iron-tipped point, noted in the 10th century BC in Palestine. In Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC a funnel-like device was attached to the plow to aid in seeding, and other early forms of seed drills were used in China. Farmers in China further improved efficiency with the invention of a cast-iron moldbar plow. Threshing was also done with animal power in Palestine and Mesopotamia, although reaping, binding, and winnowing were still done by hand. Egypt retained hand seeding through this period on individual farm plots and large estates alike.

Storage methods for oil and grain were improved. Granaries—jars, dry cisterns, silos, and bins containing stored grain—provided food for city populations. Without adequate food supplies and trade in both food and nonfood items, the high civilizations of Mesopotamia, northern India, Egypt, Greece, and Rome would not have been possible.

Irrigation systems in China, Egypt, and the Middle East were refined and expanded, putting more land into cultivation. The forced labor of peasants and the growth of bureaucracies to plan and supervise work on irrigation systems were probably basic in the development of the city-states of Sumer (now Iraq and Kuwait). Windmills and water mills, developed toward the end of the Roman period, increased control over the many uncertainties of weather. The introduction of fertilizer, mostly animal manures, and the rotation of fallow and crop land increased crop production.

Mixed farming and stock raising, which were flourishing in the British Isles and on the continent of Europe as far north as Scandinavia at the beginning of the historical period, already displaying a pattern that persisted throughout the next 3000 years. In many regions, fishing and hunting supplemented the food grown by farmers.

About AD 100 Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus described the Germans as a tribal society of free peasant warriors who cultivated their own lands or left them to fight. About 500 years later, a characteristic European village had a cluster of houses in the middle, surrounded by rudely cultivated fields comprising individually owned farmlands; and meadows, woods, and wasteland were used by the entire community. Oxen and plow were passed from one field to another, and harvesting was a cooperative effort.

Rome appears to have started as a rural agricultural society of independent farmers. In the 1st millennium BC, after the city of Rome was established, however, agriculture started a development that reached a peak in the Christian era. Large estates that supplied grain to the cities of the empire were owned by absentee landowners and cultivated by slave labor under the supervision of hired overseers. As slaves, usually war captives, decreased in number, tenants replaced them. The late Roman villa of the Christian era approached the medieval manor in organization; slaves and dependent tenants were forced to work on a fixed schedule, and tenants paid a predetermined share to the estate owner. By the 4th century AD, serfdom was well established, and the former tenant was attached to the land.

C Feudal Agriculture  The feudal period in Europe began soon after the fall of the Roman Empire, reaching its height about AD 1100. This period was also marked by development of the Byzantine Empire and the power of the Saracens in the Middle East and southern Europe. Agriculture in Spain, Italy, and southern France, in particular, was affected by events outside continental Europe.

As the Arab influence extended to Egypt and later Spain, irrigation was extended to previously sterile or unproductive land. In Egypt, grain production was sufficient to allow the country to sell wheat in international markets. In Spain, vineyards were planted on sloping land, and irrigation water was brought from the mountains to the plains. In some areas of the Middle East, oranges, lemons, peaches, and apricots were cultivated.

Rice, sugarcane, cotton, and vegetables such as spinach and artichokes, as well as the characteristic Spanish flavoring saffron, were produced. The silkworm was raised and its food, the mulberry tree, was grown.

By the 12th century agriculture in the Middle East had become static, and Mesopotamia declined to subsistence production levels when irrigation systems were destroyed by invading Mongols. The Crusades, however, increased European contact with Islamic lands and familiarized western Europe with citrus fruits and silk and cotton textiles.

The structure of agriculture was not uniform. In Scandinavia and eastern Germany, the small farms and villages of previous years remained. In mountainous areas and in the marshlands of Slavic Europe, the manorial system could not flourish.

A manor required roughly 350 to 800 hectares (about 900 to 2000 acres) of arable land and the same amount of other prescribed lands, such as wetlands, wood lots, and pasture. Typically, the manor was a self-contained community. On it was the large home of the holder of the fief—a military or church vassal of rank, sometimes given the title lord—or of his steward. A parish church was frequently included, and the manor might make up the entire parish. One or more villages might be located on the manor, and village peasants were the actual farmers. Under the direction of an overseer, they produced the crops, raised the meat and draft animals, and paid taxes in services, either forced labor on the lord’s lands and other properties or in forced military service.

A large manor had a mill for grinding grain, an oven for baking bread, fishponds, orchards, perhaps a winepress or oil press, and herb and vegetable gardens. Bees were kept to produce honey.



Woolen garments were produced from sheep raised on the manor. The wool was spun into yarn, woven into cloth, and then sewn into clothing. Linen textiles could also be produced from flax, which was grown for its oil and fiber.

The food served in a feudal castle or manor house varied according to the season and the lord’s hunting prowess. Hunting for meat was, indeed, the major nonmilitary work of the lord and his military retainers. The castle residents could also eat domestic ducks, pheasants, pigeons, geese, hens, and partridges; fish, pork, beef, and mutton; and cabbages, turnips, carrots, onions, beans, and peas. Bread, cheese and butter, ale and wine, and apples and pears also appeared on the table. In southern Europe olives and olive oil might be used, often instead of butter.

Leather was produced from the manor’s cattle. Horses and oxen were the beasts of burden; as heavier horses were bred and a new kind of harness was developed, they became more important. A blacksmith, wheelwright, and carpenter made and maintained crude agricultural tools.

The cultivation regime was rigidly prescribed. The arable land was divided into three fields: one sown in the autumn in wheat or rye; a second sown in the spring in barley, rye, oats, beans, or peas; and the third left fallow. The fields were laid out in strips distributed over the three fields, and without hedges or fences to separate one strip from another. Each male peasant head of household was allotted about 30 strips. Helped by his family and a yoke of oxen, he worked under the direction of the lord’s officials. When he worked on his own fields, if he had any, he followed village custom that was probably as rigid as the rule of an overseer.

About the 8th century a four-year cycle of rotation of fallow appeared. The annual plowing routine on 400 hectares would be 100 hectares plowed in the autumn and 100 in the spring, and 200 hectares of fallow plowed in June. These three periods of plowing, over the year, could produce two crops on 200 hectares, depending on the weather. Typically, ten or more oxen were hitched to the tongue of the plow, often little more than a forked tree trunk. The oxen were no larger than modern heifers. At harvest time, all the peasants, including women and children, were expected to work in the fields. After the harvest, the community’s animals were let loose on the fields to forage.

Some manors used a strip system. Each strip, with an area of roughly 0.4 hectare (about 1 acre), measured about 200 m (about 220 yd) in length and from 1.2 to 5 m (4 to 16.5 ft) in width. The lord’s strips were similar to those of the peasants distributed throughout good and bad field areas. The parish priest might have lands separate from the community fields or strips that he worked himself or that were worked by the peasants.

In all systems, the lord’s fields and needs came first, but about three days a week might be left for work on the family strips and garden plots. Wood and peat for fuel were gathered from the commonly held wood lots, and animals were pastured on village meadows. When surpluses of grain, hides, and wool were produced, they were sent to market.

In about 1300 a tendency developed to enclose the common lands and to raise sheep for their wool alone. The rise of the textile industry made sheep raising more profitable in England, Flanders (now in Belgium), Champagne (France), Tuscany and Lombardy (Italy), and the Augsburg region of Germany. At the same time, regions about the medieval towns began to specialize in garden produce and dairy products. Independent manorialism was also affected by the wars of 14th- and 15th-century Europe and by the widespread plague outbreaks of the 14th century. Villages were wiped out, and much arable land was abandoned. The remaining peasants were discontented and attempted to improve their conditions.

With the decline in the labor force, only the best land was kept in cultivation. In southern Italy, for instance, irrigation helped increase production on the more fertile soils. The emphasis on grain was replaced by diversification, and items requiring more care were produced, such as wine, oil, cheese, butter, and vegetables.

D Scientific Agriculture  
By the 16th century, population was increasing in Europe, and agricultural production was again expanding.

The nature of agriculture there and in other regions was to change considerably in succeeding centuries. Several reasons can be identified for this trend. Europe was cut off from Asia and the Middle East by an extension of Turkish power. New economic theories were put into practice, directly affecting agriculture. Continued wars between England and France, within each of these countries, and in Germany consumed capital and human resources.

A new period of global exploration and colonization was undertaken to circumvent Turkey’s control of the spice trade, to provide homes for religious refugees, and to provide new resources for European nations convinced that only precious metals constituted wealth.

Colonial agriculture was intended not only to feed the colonists but also to produce cash crops and to supply food for the home country. This meant cultivation of such crops as sugar, cotton, tobacco, and tea, and production of animal products such as wool and hides.

From the 15th to the 19th century the slave trade provided laborers needed to fill the large workforce required by colonial plantations. Many early slaves replaced indigenous peoples who died from diseases carried by the colonists or were killed by hard agricultural labor to which they were unaccustomed. Slaves from Africa worked, for example, on sugar plantations in the Caribbean region and on indigo and cotton plantations in what would become the southern United States. Native Americans were virtually enslaved in Mexico. Indentured slaves from Europe, especially from the prisons of Great Britain, provided both skilled and unskilled labor to many colonies. Both slavery and serfdom were substantially wiped out in the 19th century. See Peonage; Plantation; Slavery.



When encountered by the Spanish conquistadors, the more advanced Native Americans in the New World—the Aztec, Inca, and Maya—already had intensive agricultural economies, but no draft or riding animals and no wheeled vehicles. Squash, beans, peas, and corn had long since been domesticated. Land was owned by clans and other kinship groups or by ruling tribes that had formed sophisticated governments, but not by individuals or individual families. Several civilizations had risen and fallen in Central and South America by the 16th century.


The scientific revolution resulting from the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment in Europe encouraged experimentation in agriculture as well as in other fields. Trial-and-error efforts in plant breeding produced improved crops, and a few new strains of cattle and sheep were developed. Notable was the Guernsey cattle breed, which is still a heavy milk producer. Land enclosure was increasingly practiced in the 18th century, enabling individual landowners to determine the disposition of cultivated land and pasture that previously had been subject to common use.

Crop rotation, involving alternation of legumes with grain, was more readily practiced outside the village strip system inherited from the manorial period. In England, where scientific farming was most efficient, enclosure brought about a fundamental reorganization of land ownership. From 1660 large landowners had begun to add to their properties, frequently at the expense of small independent farmers. By the mid-19th century the agricultural pattern was based on the relationship between the landowner, dependent on rents; the farmer, producer of crops; and the landless laborer, the hired hand of American farming lore. Drainage brought more land into cultivation, and, with the Industrial Revolution, farm machinery was introduced.

It is not possible to fix a clear decade or series of events as the start of the agricultural revolution through technology. Among the important advances were the purposeful selective breeding of livestock, begun in the early 1700s, and the spreading of limestone on farm soils in the late 1700s. Mechanical improvements in the traditional wooden plow began in the mid-1600s with small iron points fastened onto the wood with strips of leather. In 1797, Charles Newbold, a blacksmith in Burlington, New Jersey, reconceived of the cast-iron moldboard plow (first used in China nearly 2,000 years earlier). John Deere, another American blacksmith, further improved the plow in the 1830s and manufactured it in steel. Other notable inventions included the seed drill of English farmer Jethro Tull, developed in the early 1700s and progressively improved for more than a century; the reaper of American Cyrus McCormick in 1831; and numerous new horse-drawn threshers, cultivators, grain and grass cutters, rakes, and corn shellers. By the late 1800s, steam power was frequently used to replace animal power in drawing plows and in operating threshing machinery.

The demand for food for urban workers and raw materials for industrial plants produced a realignment of world trade. Science and technology developed for industrial purposes were adapted for agriculture, eventually resulting in the agribusinesses of the mid-20th century.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the first systematic attempts were made to study and control pests. Before this time, handpicking and spraying were the usual methods of pest control. In the 19th century, poisons of various types were developed for use in sprays, and biological controls such as predatory insects were also used. Resistant plant varieties were cultivated; this was particularly successful with the European grapevine, in which the grape-bearing stems were grafted onto resistant American rootstocks to defeat the Phylloxera aphid.

Improvements in transportation affected agriculture. Roads, canals, and rail lines enabled farmers to obtain needed supplies from remote suppliers and market their produce over a wider area. Food could be protected during transport more economically than before as the result of rail, ship, and refrigeration developments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Efficient use of these developments led to increasing specialization and eventual changes in the location of agricultural suppliers. In the last quarter of the 19th century, for example, Australian and North American suppliers displaced European suppliers of grain in the European market. When grain production proved unprofitable for European farmers, or an area became more urbanized, specialization in dairying, cheesemaking, and other products was emphasized.

The impetus toward increased food production following World War II (1939-1945) was a result of a new population explosion. A so-called green revolution, involving selective breeding of traditional crops for high yields, new hybrids, and intensive cultivation methods adapted to the climates and cultural conditions of densely populated countries such as India, temporarily stemmed the pressure for more food. A worldwide shortage of petroleum in the mid-1970s, however, reduced the supplies of nitrogen fertilizer essential for the success of the new varieties. Simultaneously, erratic weather and natural disasters such as drought and floods reduced crop levels throughout the world. Famine seemed to be imminent in the Indian subcontinent and was common in many parts of Africa south of the Sahara. Economic conditions, particularly uncontrolled inflation, threatened the food supplier and the consumer alike. These problems became the determinants of agricultural change and development. See Energy Supply, World; Environment; Food Supply, World.






















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