Modern farming is an efficient, organized industry capable of feeding the world. So, it can be difficult to picture a time when agriculture was an experimental new technology. 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. This period is known as the Neolithic, or "New Stone Age." Those early steps toward agriculture helped stabilize populations and allowed them to grow. It was a significant change from the nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes of the earlier era.
Farming in the Fertile Crescent
When did hunting and gathering begin the transition to farming? It is very difficult to pinpoint a definite time. However, anthropological and archaeological finds offer clues. They suggest Mesopotamia, located in southwest Asia, and parts of northern Africa, were among the first civilizations to grow crops. Remarkably, agriculture developed independently around the same time but in different regions of the world. It took place with no form of communication between the cultures. Climate change may help explain why such distant regions found success in farming. A shift in global weather patterns was a post-Ice Agge development. It created more favorable conditions for settlement and agriculture.
Just like there is no single "birthplace" of agriculture, there is also no single event that triggered the change from mostly hunting to mostly farming. Scientists believe it was likely due to a mix of local factors that linked individual farmers to small communities. Farming gave these communities the resources to expand.
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 main challenges for those early farmers was developing ways to bring water to their crops. Adapting Egyptian technology, the Sumerians developed irrigation systems. They used ditches, canals, channels, and reservoirs to transport water to plots and fields. They initially grew wheat as one of their primary crops. When salt built up in the soil due to irrigation, they switched to more salt-tolerant crops like barley.
In the same region, another early farming community was Ain Ghazal. It was a Neolithic settlement located near what is now Amman, Jordan. The people of Ain Ghazal are now well-known for their early pottery and burial statues. However, they may be best remembered for growing crops like barley, wheat, chickpeas and lentils. They also maintained herds of domesticated animals.
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. There, nomadic hunter-gatherers were establishing more permanent villages. These villages were located near what is now the Chinese city of Xi'an.
By around 9000 B.C.E., settlements in modern-day China and Mongolia were planting a range of food crops. North of the Qin Mountains, farmers grew mostly wheat and millet. In the south, they cultivated rice. Settlements formed close to rivers, which offered ready access to water for irrigation purposes. In this way, agricultural communities flourished throughout the region. Rice was an early staple. However, Chinese farmers branched out into crops like tea, soybeans, millet, peaches, persimmons, hemp, and water chestnuts.
These communities domesticated a broad range of plants and animals. Their skills and experience led to one of the most significant developments to emerge from this era of Chinese agriculture: the silkworm. Silk production and trade would become increasingly important to the region's economy and culture.
Agricultural Development in the West
In South America, Neolithic civilizations were also developing farming practices. Evidence suggests they were growing potatoes about 10,000 years ago. Potatoes later became a staple crop throughout the Western Hemisphere.
The Andes mountains were a center in the development of farming in South America. The region has provided some of the best archaeological evidence of early agricultural pioneers. Plant and seed remains have been found preserved in caves and mountain locations. Early forms of lima beans, squash, and peanuts have all been traced to these Andean farmers. To adjust for steep, rocky land, these highland dwellers developed terracing. This farming method develops flat areas on steep slopes. It limits erosion and fosters irrigation. This process allowed agricultural communities to farm away from fertile lowland river areas.
Throughout the world, this "Neolithic revolution" helped communities settle in one place. They laid the foundation for new towns and cities and made more complex societies possible.