First Farmers










This rice field in southern Senegal grows a crop that was domesticated in China, then spread around the tropics and sub-tropics.
© David Tenenbaum













The root crop manioc was domesticated in South America and is now a staple in Africa, where this woman sorted her harvest
© David Tenenbaum






Agricultural revolution
Agriculture was the invention that changed everything. Bright green rice paddies are separated by dikes on which palm trees grow.Deliberately growing plants and animals allowed population size and density to soar -- as indicated by the archeological record following the domestication of cereals. "Within a short time, you see the emergence of big villages," says archeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef.

The hamlets of pre-agricultural Natufians ranged between 2,000 and 5,000 square meters. After domestication -- just a couple of hundred years later -- villages were 10 times as large, Bar-Yosef says -- the first urban sprawl...

But how, exactly, was agriculture invented? The archeological record is silent on this score, but Bar-Yosef credits a lone inventor -- a Natufian Thomas Edison. Innovation, he says, "always starts with one individual who invents a machine or an improvement. I think [agriculture] started in one village."

But ag didn't stay local for long, Bar-Yosef speculates, since a resident of a nearby village would quickly realize that "Uncle is right" and start copying him.

Follow the leader
Thus Bar-Yosef figures that change occurred rapidly after the crucial invention. "I think it spread very fast. A woman in tie-dyed blue skirt holds a root of manioc that's almost two feet long.It probably was similar to the Industrial Revolution" in the sense that invention followed invention, becoming a steady advance in technology. To raise and eat grains, for example, you need sickles, grinding stones, and storage and cooking devices. By around 10,000 BP, sheep and goats had been domesticated, adding animal protein to the benefits of the agricultural revolution.

In subsequent years, farming moved east and west from the Levant, into the rest of the Fertile Crescent, an area that would eventually house the Sumerians, who invented writing, and the empires and religions of the Middle East.

Did you hear the one about the first Danish ham?


          back more
    The Why Files     There are 1 2 3 4 5 6 pages in this feature.
Bibliography | Credits | Feedback | Search