The Development of Agriculture

The Development of Agriculture

The development of agricultural about 12,000 years ago changed the way humans lived. They switched from nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles to permanent settlements and farming.


3 - 12


Social Studies, World History

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The Farming Revolution

Agriculture took root around 12,000 years ago in an age we now call the Neolithic period. Farming immediately triggered a huge change in society and the way in which people lived.

Before farming, humans traditionally were hunter-gatherers, always moving their homes and searching for their food. This ended as people could now form permanent settlements and have a reliable food supply.

Out of agriculture, cities and civilizations grew. Crops and animals could now be farmed to meet more people's needs. Soon after, the global population rocketed. Ten thousand years ago the world had about five million people. Today, there are eight billion.

There was no single reason that led people to try farming in different parts of the world. Some early evidence of farming exists in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East, which includes areas we know today as Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, and Turkey. There, farming could have been brought on by climate changes at the end of the last ice age.

Perhaps different weather brought better seasonal conditions. This weather may have been better for plants that only survived for a year, like wild wheat and barley. Elsewhere, such as in East Asia, increased pressure on natural food resources may have forced people to find new solutions. Whatever the reasons for its beginnings, farming sowed the seeds for the modern world we live in today.

Plant Domestication

Humans first started growing wild crops including wheat (Triticum aestivum), barley (Hordeum vulgare), and peas (Lathyrus oleraceus) in the Fertile Crescent. Cereals were grown around what we today know as Syria as long as 9,000 years ago. Figs (Ficus carica) were cultivated even earlier. Seedless fruits discovered in the Jordan Valley suggest fig trees were being planted about 11,300 years ago.

Slowly, humans moved on from wild harvesting and tried farming at home. Instead of roaming, people had a more settled way of life. There is proof of this in early villages, where homes were equipped with grinding stones for processing grain. 

The origins of rice and millet farming date to around 6,000 B.C.E. in China. The world's oldest known rice paddy fields were discovered in eastern China in 2007. They reveal evidence of ancient growing techniques such as flood and fire control.

In Mexico, squash cultivation began around 10,000 years ago. However, corn (maize) came later. Maize first began as a grass-like plant known as teosinte. At some point, the plant had a change in its genes that made it grow into the corn that we know of today.

Genes are made up of tiny segments of DNA. This DNA contains the instructions for how each part of a living thing works and is passed on from parents to children. 

Mutations are changes that happen in DNA. These changes can be inherited from parents or acquired throughout a living thing's lifetime. Maize-like plants derived from mutated teosinte were likely grown at least 9,000 years ago. Since more people were growing it, the mutated teosinte genes lived on. However, the first corn cob dates only to around 5,500 years ago. 

Corn later reached North America, where cultivated sunflowers also started to bloom some 5,000 years ago. This is also when potato growing in the Andes mountain region of South America began.

Farmed Animals

Cattle (Bos taurus), goats (Capra hircus), sheep (Ovis aries), and pigs (Sus domesticus) all have their origins as farmed animals in the Fertile Crescent.

Dates for the domestication of these animals range from between 13,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Agriculture spread from Eastern regions further west into Europe. Genetic studies show that goats and other livestock came along with it. This helped to revolutionize Stone Age society. It's unclear which farmers themselves migrated west.

Still, the huge effect of dairy farming on European people is clearly shown in their DNA. Before domestic cattle arrived in Europe, prehistoric people weren't able to drink raw cow milk. Then, something changed during the spread of farming into southeastern Europe. A mutation in human genes occurred. People could then tolerate lactose, a natural chemical in milk, which they could not before.

Milk has many health benefits to the body. More people began drinking it, and the ones that could tolerate lactose passed on their genes to their children. Today, a great number of Europeans have the milk-drinking gene. As many as 90 percent of people in northern countries such as Sweden have it. This proves the vast majority of them are descended from cow farmers.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

January 5, 2024

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