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A Very Brief History of Agriculture

Woman collective farmer with newly harvested wheat. Ca. 1935-40
Everett Historical/Shutterstock

Life during quarantine has many people stocking up on pantry staples like rice, beans, and flour. These foods have reliably sustained us for centuries, but there was also a time before crops we cultivated crops at all. How did we go from nomadic hunting and gathering to growing our food?

If we hadn’t started growing crops, society as we know it would never have developed. Agriculture let us settle down and form communities, which eventually became cities and nations.

So, that rice in your pantry isn’t just a cooking staple: it’s a window into human history. Let’s take a look at how it all began.

When Did We Start Farming?

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact origin of agriculture, but as far as we know, farming got started about 12,000 years ago.

However, agriculture didn’t arise in a vacuum. Our ancestors were probably experimenting with cultivating wild plants for thousands of years before becoming full-blown farmers. The exact origins of agriculture are hard to trace because not that much evidence remains from that time in history.

Why Did We Start Farming?

Some researchers think harsh climate changes or shortages in the wild food supply may have inspired people to take up agriculture. However, it’s also possible that farming was the result of natural human experimentation, rather than of crisis. For now, we aren’t quite sure of the real reasons people started to farm.

Who Were the First Farmers?

The world’s first farmers lived in what we now call the Middle East, in an area called the Fertile Crescent. This crescent-shaped region had very fertile soil, which helped the first farmers get started.

Those early farmers were fully modern humans: as far as we know, Homo sapiens originated some 300,000 years ago, long before we started farming. This means that as a species, humans have spent way more time hunting and gathering than we have farming!

However, it’s not clear whether it was a single group that started farming or multiple groups that developed agriculture independently.

Modern research suggests that different groups of people in the Fertile Crescent developed agriculture on their own, then migrated in different directions, bringing the concept to other parts of the world. Like many of the world’s great inventions, agriculture may have started independently in separate places at around the same time.

What Were Our Earliest Crops?

Today, there’s a noticeable difference between domesticated crops and edible plants that grow in the wild. But when agriculture first began, that difference didn’t exist.

The world’s earliest farmers started with the edible wild plants they knew, which included barley, peas, and lentils. We still eat those plants today, but our modern versions of those crops are quite different since they’ve been subjected to thousands of years of selective breeding. Over the centuries, we’ve carefully bred crops to benefit us even more, such as by yielding more food or tasting better.

Alongside these early crops, the first farmers started taking care of herds of wild animals, such as goats. Over time, they domesticated those animals and started raising them in captivity.

How Did Agriculture Change the World?

Agriculture created a massive shift in human society. For the first time, it allowed nomadic humans to settle down and form villages.

Because there was a predictable supply of food for the first time in history, agriculture caused populations in those farming villages to grow rapidly. People started to build permanent structures, from houses to food storage buildings. Their villages turned into cities and kingdoms.

From a modern perspective, it’s easy to imagine that these changes happened fast. However, this was a transition that took thousands of years. For a while, people were probably semi-nomadic, staying in one area where food was plentiful for years before moving on to the next place.

Before planting fields of their own, people may have simply settled down near areas that had plentiful wild crops until the natural fields ran out. These semi-nomads probably also herded wild goats and other food animals with them when they traveled. Over many generations, they gradually shifted into permanent settlements where they cultivated crops and livestock on farms.

These settled villages caused technology and culture to advance and change much faster since lots of people were together in one place where they could share ideas and experiment. Everything from irrigation to elaborate religious and cultural practices developed as a result of agriculture.

Near the world’s first farms, the world’s first civilizations gradually developed. With time and travel, the idea of farming spread across the globe, becoming something that we can’t imagine living without.

Of course, farming hasn’t always been an unequivocal benefit to humans. Things like toxic pesticides and the destruction of natural habitats for farms can cause us more harm than good. So, the future of agriculture may still see significant changes as we develop new technologies that we hope will feed the world more sustainably.

However, understanding the history of agriculture can help us figure out what the future should be. Farming gave us civilization as we know it, and proved that humans were capable of reinventing the way we live and eat. In the future, we might need to reinvent food production yet again to make life even better for the next generations.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »