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A Brief History of Food and Agriculture

Food and agriculture are two sides of the same coin. However, historical record has demonstrated that the quest for food had evolved before the invention of agricultural practices. Prior to the invention and development of agricultural practices, human being obtained food through hunting and gathering from the wild. What is Agriculture ? Broadly, agriculture may be defined as the human activities of producing food, feed, fiber, and other products required by human through cultivation of certain plants and the raising of domesticated animals (livestock) by employing techniques to process soil and other suitable media. Agriculture has no single origin that can be pointed to a specific date or place of birth. Agriculture developed throughout the human history, through the quest for food since the very beginning of human species appearance on earth. Agriculture developed over thousand of years, along with the process of domestication of plants and animals at different times, in many places that can not be easily claimed as the very birth place of agriculture, although it was suggested that the earliest agriculture activities may have been originated in Southwest Asia. Archaeological records suggest that agriculture may have developed as early as the last Pleistocene glacial period about 11,700 years ago (1).

Paddy field

farmer 1Prior to plant cultivation and animal raisings, human beings obtained food through hunting and gathering of wild animals, including prehistoric megafauna such as mammoths, wooly rhinos and giant elk, and wild plants. Since the appearance of human species on earth, the quest for food had become the driving force of human civilisation. Palaeoanthropologists estimate that human species, Homo sapiens originated about 150,000 years ago (2), while the process of transition towards cultivating crops and raising animals for food began around 11,000 BCE (3). Archaeobotanists (paleoethnobotanists) suggest that selection and cultivation of specific food characteristics, such as semi-tough rachis and larger seeds, began in the Younger Dryas about 9,500 B.C.E) in the early holocene in the levant region of the Fertile Crescent (New World Encyclopedia, 2015). However, there is also earlier evidence of the use of wild cereal or wild grains in the sites across Southwest Asia and North Africa (ca. 20,000 B.C.E of Ohalo II in Israel, many Natufian sites in the Levant, and along the Nile ca. 10,000 B.C.E.

rice fieldLevant is an approximate historical geographical term referring to a large area in the eastern Mediterranean with its islands, including all countries along the eastern Mediterranean shores, extending from Greece to Cyrenaica (4). Natufian was an Epipaleolithic culture that existed from 12,500 to 9,500 BC (5) in the Levant. Natufian was a sedentary, or semi-sedentary, before the introduction of agriculture. Some evidence suggests that Natufian culture initiated the cultivation of cereals, specifically rye and, in general, Natufian exploited wild cereals, while hunted animals included gazelles, wild goats and sheep. Early evidence of planned cultivation and trait selection of rye with domestic traits was recovered from Epi-Palaelothic (10,000 BCE) at Abu Hureyra in Syria although it appears to be a localised phenomenon, and not a definitive step towards domestication, but a result of cultivation of wild rye.

farmer 3Eight founder of agricultural crops, first emmer and einkorn wheat, then hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, chick peas, and flax emerged around 9,500 BCE. These eight founder crops occur more or less on Pre-Pottery Neolithic B sites in the Levant. However, it is believed that wheat was the first crop to be sown and harvested on a quite significant scale (6). In the Americas, squash (Cucurbita pepo and C. moschata) existed as domesticated plants in southern Mexico and northern Peru by about 10,000 – 9,000 BCE. In the Old World, the archaeological record for the earliest agriculture is not well known, but by 8500 – 8000 BCE, millet (Setaria italica) and Panicum milliaceum, and rice (Oryza sativa) were being domesticated in East Asia1. By 7,000 BCE, sowing and harvesting practice reached Mesopotamia, in a very fertile soils just north of Persian Gulf. Sumerian ingenuity developed a systematic system and scaled the production up. By 6,000 BCE, agriculture practices entered the banks of Nile river. By 5,000 BCE, agriculture was practiced in every major continent, except Australia (7).

Maize was first domesticated from teosinte in Americas around 3,000 – 2,700 BCE although there is also evidence that it might have developed much earlier. Archaeological records also noted that potato, tomato, pepper, squash, several varieties of bean, and several other plants were also developed in the New World, as was quite extensive terracing of steep hillsides in much of Andean South America. Agriculture was also independently developed on the island of New Guinea.

In animal world, dog appears to have been the earliest domesticated animal by the end of the last glacial period as shown around the world in many archaological sites. The earliest dogs found in Americas are all the descendants of the Chinese group which shows the greatest genetic diversity. Interestingly, genetic evidence indicates that a very small number of females, as few as three,  were believed to be ancestral to 95% of domesticated dogs. The Chinese origin of domesticated dogs in Americas suggests that dogs accompanied the first people to reach the New World which occurred at around 13,000 years ago. Human beings reached Beringia, the temporary land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, as long as 40,000 years ago, suggesting that dogs may have been domesticated even earlier (1).


Tattersall I. Homo sapiens (hominin). Britannica Online Encyclopedia.2011. Available at: http://www. EBchecked/topic/1350865/Homo-sapiens.

Montgomery D. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press; 2008).

Bulliet RW, Crossley PK, Headrick DR, Johnson LL, Hirsch SW. 2008. The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History, Volume I. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.