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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With the highly efficient, organized nature of modern farming, it can be difficult to envision a world where agriculture was an innovative new technology. Yet, 10,000 to 15,000 years ago that was what was happening. 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

Pinpointing the exact time when agriculture began to take root is difficult. However, anthropological and archaeological finds suggest that Mesopotamia (Southwest Asia) and parts of northern Africa were among the first civilizations to grow crops. 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 combination of local factors that linked individual farmers to small populations. These populations in turn grew into larger agricultural communities. Remarkably, agriculture developed independently around the same time in several regions around the world. There was no known form of communication between the societies. One reason for this simultaneous push may include local climate change. A shift in dominant weather patterns was a post-Ice Age development. It created more favorable conditions for settlement and farming.

Mesopotamia is a historical region in the Middle East. There, the Sumerians were one of the earliest civilizations to shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture as a way to feed themselves. The region's climate was hot and dry. One of the first challenges for those early farmers was finding a method to bring water to the crops. The Sumerians built on Egyptian technology and developed an advanced irrigation system for farming. They used ditches, canals, channels, and reservoirs to transport water to crops. The Sumerians initially grew wheat as one of their primary crops. Then, when the land accumulated more salt from flooding, draining, and evaporation through the irrigation system, they gravitated toward 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, and for maintaining herds of domesticated animals.

Early Agriculture in Ancient China

Archaeological data from the Neolithic period shows that Middle Eastern civilizations were not the only ones developing an agricultural base. In the Far East, farming was developing independently of the growth of agriculture in Mesopotamia. One of the earliest known agricultural communities in China was the Yangshao people. Its nomadic hunter-gatherers began to gather into 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 growing a range of subsistence crops. North of the Qin Mountains, farmers grew mostly wheat and millet. In the south, they cultivated rice. Settlements took form close to rivers such as the Huang He (Yellow River) basin. The rivers offered ready access to water for crops. Thus, agricultural communities flourished throughout the region. In addition to rice, the early Chinese farmers branched out into crops like tea, soybeans, 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 come to define much of the region's economy and culture in later centuries. Archaeological finds suggest the Yangshao practiced a very early form of silkworm cultivation (also known as sericulture) and silk production.

Agricultural Development in the West

At the same time agriculture was emerging in the East, Neolithic civilizations in South America were evolving toward agriculture as well. Archaeologists found evidence South American civilizations were growing potatoes approximately 10,000 years ago. Potatoes later became a staple crop throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Civilizations sprung up in the Andes mountain region of South America. They have provided some of the best-preserved archaeological evidence of early agricultural pioneers. Their plant and seed remains have been found in caves and other high-elevation rock structures. Early forms of lima beans, squash, and peanuts have all been traced to these Andean farmers. To compensate for steep, rocky land, these highland dwellers also developed the farming method known as terracing. Terracing involves flattening land on steep slopes. It limits erosion and fosters irrigation. This process allowed agricultural communities to branch out from the more traditionally fertile lowland river areas.

Throughout the world, this "Neolithic revolution" helped communities settle in one place. They laid the foundation for the cities, towns, and economic growth that would shape the globe as we know it.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
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Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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