First Farmers


POSTED 22 NOV 2000
























Rice is one of the largest crops in the world. It can be grown in dry fields, or flooded fields like the paddies shown here.
Courtesy International Rice Research Institute












A blacksmith in Senegal demonstrates one of the many crafts that flourished after the dawn of agriculture.
© David Tenenbaum


Domestication dominates!
Red delicious apple with the words Red delicious stamped on itThinking about food? Everybody else is:

Mad cow disease is causing a mini-panic in France.

Europeans are stewing about the discovery of genetically modified corn in their food -- despite assurances that "Frankenfood" would not reach food stores.

Consumers aren't swallowing red delicious apples -- the rot-proof fruit that, after years of intensive crop breeding, tastes better'n, well, cardboard. With the market gone bust, some farmers in Washington State, United States, are burning their orchards.

Thanksgiving has arrived in the United States, and the gobbling of turkey is heard across the land.

We don't know about you, but here at The Why Files, we're feeling intense food-related intellectual hunger pangs. Where, when and why did people quit hunting and gathering wild food and start raising it instead? As the Europeans fret about genetically engineered food, we wonder about the genetic changes caused by our ancestors when they began planting and harvesting plants and animals.

This process of "domestication" happened first in the Middle East, then in China, the Sahel region of Africa and elsewhere. (This being the season, we should mention two New World contributions to Thanksgiving: turkey and cranberry.)

photo of man with boots, in water, standing next to flooded rice fieldsNot invented here
More often than not, farming spread by diffusion rather than invention. Seeing the advantages of growing crops, hunters and gatherers planted the same wild plants as their neighbors, cadged or stole a few seeds, or swapped a pair of live oxen, say, for a brace of dead antelopes. Often, agriculture spread with the migration of people who already knew how to farm.

However it spread, you can't exaggerate agriculture's impact:

By improving the diet and eliminating the need to follow wild plants and animals, farming caused population explosions in the Middle East, China, Mesoamerica and Europe.

Higher populations and greater population density lead to larger, more complex social organizations, empires and armies.

In a shady hut, a smith pounds glowing iron, making a farming tool.Farming peoples, with their greater numbers, better weapons, and larger armies, often conquered neighboring hunter-gatherer societies, further spreading the need to seed.

No longer required to find food, some people retired their hoes and pursued crafts like textiles, metal-working and ceramics. Call it freedom from farming.

The need to keep track of fields, crops and taxes was a major impetus for the invention of writing.

For myriad reasons, farming proved a compelling lifestyle, adds T. Douglas Price, a professor of anthropology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has studied the origin of agriculture for decades. Over the millennia since farming was invented, "Essentially everybody buys into this. Virtually everybody adopted agriculture in lots of cultures around the world."

Shoulder your flint hoe. Grab your digging stick. The Why Files is gathering the goods on the first farmers.

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