I think many people think about farming as “old technology”. Many of us have mental images of farmers that look like the Midwesterners in Grant Wood’s iconic painting, American Gothic.
However, looked at over the duration of human existence agriculture was a revolutionary moment and farmers were revolutionaries.
Imagine yourself as one of the early modern humans who emerged from east Africa some 100,000 to 400,000 years ago. You were part of a small society among similar others that spread out to the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East Europe and eventually to China and elsewhere.
As a member of a small hunter-gatherer society you spent much of your day looking for food and water. Early people had a number of strategies for provisioning themselves depending on where they were located. Their physical environment – whether they were in woodlands or grasslands, on mountains or in coastal areas – shaped what resources were available and how they could serve as energy sources – calories and materials for heat and cooking.
Hunter-gatherers often had deep knowledge of a region’s edible plants and animals and had diverse diets. Nomadic people traveled to follow available food sources as they were exhausted by periodic overconsumption or made more available over changing seasons.
Agriculture probably emerged as a strategy for providing food energy between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago. Archeologists think that the earliest farming settlements were in the “Fertile Crescent” of Mesopotamia where domesticated grains including wheat and barley were cultivated. Independently, rice cultivation developed in the Ganges Valley of India and the Yangzi Valley of China where different wild grasses became food staples.
There were other regions where hunting wild animals turned into a form of herd management in order to reduce the effort of finding animals. In some jungle environments, such as the New Guinea highlands, forests were manipulated to favor crops of bananas, taro and other nutrient-dense foods. Humans manipulated their environments to produce food energy.
Domesticating seeds, animals, and cultivating land enabled fewer people to provide food energy for the group, and it took fewer hours in the day. Agricultural technologies made farming even more efficient and food preservation technologies enabled people to stockpile food. Given growing food security Neolithic populations developed into villages and new cultural practices emerged to manage relations among larger settled groups.
When farming began the Earth supported about 4 million people. But the ready supply of food energy supported the growth of humans as a species. By the beginning of the industrial revolution there were more than 700 million people. Today the Earth supports more than 7.5 billion people, many through industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture is aided by the energy revolution that spurred on the Industrial Revolution, but the first energy revolution was farming.
Sonya Atalay and Christine A. Hastorf, 2006.. “Food, Meals and Daily Activities: Food Habitus at Neolithic Çatalhöyük.” American Antiquity, Vol. 71, No.2, pp. 283-319.
Sterling Evans, 2012. “Agricultural Production and Environmental History, ”Chapter 12 in The Oxford Handbook of Food History. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press.
Chris Gosden, 2003. Prehistory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press.