Early Agricultural Communities

Early Agricultural Communities

The Neolithic Age brought about the birth of agriculture as we now know it, as communities in Mesopotamia, China, and South America helped lead humans’ way of life from hunting and gathering to farming.


5 - 12


Anthropology, Biology, Ecology, Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations, World History


Babylonian Ruins

The Sumerians were among the first people to use agriculture. These Babylonian ruins are along the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia.

Photograph by nik wheeler/Alamy stock photo
The Sumerians were among the first people to use agriculture. These Babylonian ruins are along the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia.
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Modern agriculture is a big, efficient industry. It is capable of producing enough food to feed the world. So it might be difficult to picture a time when farming was a new idea. Yet, 10,000 to 15,000 years ago that development was changing human society. New agricultural communities in Mesopotamia, China and South America began tending the roots of farming as we know it today. Those early steps toward agriculture allowed groups to build settlements. It was a significant change from the nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes of the earlier era.

Farming in the Fertile Crescent

When did the transition to farming begin? It is difficult to pinpoint a definite time. However, anthropological and archaeological finds offer clues. They suggest that Mesopotamia, located in southwest Asia, and parts of northern Africa, were among the first civilizations to grow crops. Remarkably, agriculture also developed in distant regions, as well. It took place without these cultures communicating with each other. Some scientists think climate change may help explain why such distant societies started farming at about the same time. A big shift in global weather patterns occurred about 12,000 years ago. It created better conditions for farming.

There is no single event that started the shift from hunting to farming. Scientists believe it was likely due to local factors. Possibly individual farmers joined together in small settlements. With reliable food sources, these communities grew.

The Sumerians were one of the earliest civilizations to develop agriculture. Their homeland was in Mesopotamia, a historical region in the Middle East. There, the region's climate was hot and dry. One of the first challenges for those early farmers was finding a way to get water to their crops. The Sumerians developed irrigation systems for farming. They used ditches, canals, channels and reservoirs to bring water to plots and fields. Wheat was one of their first crops.

In the same region, another early farming community was Ain Ghazal. It was located near what is now Amman, Jordan. The people of Ain Ghazal are well-known for their early pottery and burial statues. However, they also grew crops like barley, wheat, chickpeas and lentils. They maintained herds of domesticated animals, as well.

Early Agriculture in Ancient China

Middle Eastern civilizations were not the only ones developing an agricultural base, according to archaeologists. Farming practices were also taking hold in the Far East. One of the earliest known farming cultures in China was the Yangshao people. These nomadic hunter-gatherers began building more permanent villages. These villages were located near what is now the Chinese city of Xi'an.

By around 9000 B.C., settlements in modern-day China and Mongolia were growing a variety of food crops. North of the Qin Mountains, farmers grew mostly wheat and millet. In the south, they cultivated rice. Not surprisingly, most settlements were established close to rivers. These nearby waterways made watering fields easier. In this way, agricultural communities developed throughout the region. Some tried new crops. They farmed tea, soybeans, millet, peaches, persimmons, hemp and water chestnuts. They even cultivated silkworms to produce silk. Silk, and the cloth made with it, would become very valuable in the centuries to come.

Agricultural Development in the West

Across the oceans, civilizations in South America had also begun farming. Evidence suggests they were growing potatoes about 10,000 years ago.

The Andes mountains became a center of agriculture in South America. The region has provided some of the best archaeological evidence of early farmers. Plant and seed remains have been found in caves and mountain locations. Early forms of lima beans, squash, and peanuts have all been traced to these Andean farmers. To farm in the mountains, they developed terracing. This farming method develops flat areas on steep slopes. This protects the soil. It also aids irrigation. Terracing freed communities from having to farm only in fertile lowland river areas.

This farming revolution changed how people lived. It provided more reliable sources of food. Reliable food made settlements and more complex societies possible.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
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Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
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Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
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Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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