The Shift to Agriculture

The Shift to Agriculture

From its origins during the Neolithic era, to its cultivation at Mesopotamia, on through the Bronze Age, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and beyond, the evolution of agriculture has been and continues to be the main driving force of complex societies around the globe.


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Lettuce Farm

The technology used for agriculture has changed drastically since its beginning about 10,000 years ago. This farm in Darling Downs, Queensland, Australia, uses automated machines to plant lettuce seeds.

Photograph by Nick Rains
The technology used for agriculture has changed drastically since its beginning about 10,000 years ago. This farm in Darling Downs, Queensland, Australia, uses automated machines to plant lettuce seeds.

Agriculture is the process of cultivating plants and animals to produce food, fuel, materials, and other goods for human consumption. The history of agriculture is the core story of humankind’s growth. Since its first tentative steps during the Neolithic era, agriculture has been a major driving force behind human culture for about 10,000 years. In the preagricultural world, humans were largely hunters and gatherers. They lived in small, mobile groups who followed the food supply. There was no single event that caused a shift from nomadic living. Rather, scientists believe it may have been a combination of factors. Archaeological evidence suggests one of the main reasons for this change may have been local climate change, which occurred after the Ice Age and created an environment ideal for farming. Food surpluses may also have encouraged people to stay in one place longer and find new ways to grow and tend the food they needed.

The earliest known attempts at agriculture may have been in the Fertile Crescent, or Mesopotamia. Early Mesopotamian farmers struggled with dry climates and challenging land. They developed irrigation methods and domesticated animals to supplement farming. At the same time, populations around the world, from the Andes mountain dwellers to the river-centric villages in China and Mongolia, were developing local staple crops like rice, millet, and potatoes. Each of these civilizations also contributed to the domestication of animals as livestock, and Neolithic China pioneered the earliest kind of sericulture (cultivating silkworms to produce silk). Around then, broader use of tools and more advanced farming methods helped fuel the growth of cities and more complex societies.

Most human peoples were still not fully dependent on domestic farming and animals until the Bronze Age (3000 B.C.E.–1200 B.C.E.) improved tools and agricultural technology. Building on the agricultural knowledge of those early civilizations (particularly in the Middle East), ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome all created and maintained large populations and cities. With the help of further farming technology from the Middle East, these civilizations began to turn agriculture from small subsistence farms to large-scale farming operations capable of supporting much bigger populations.

From there, the biggest agricultural developments focused on efficiency. The Middle Ages saw the development of a system of three-field crop rotation that helped preserve land fertility. Farmers would use one field for planting crops, a second for raising livestock, and a third left empty, rotating the fields every year. Rotating crops this way enabled the soil's nutrients to be replenished. Improved tools, like the Chinese moldboard plow and the water mill, made farming even more efficient by reducing the amount of human effort needed to plant and harvest crops.

During the Renaissance, new travel routes expanded trade. This allowed various regions to swap techniques, knowledge, crops, and livestock. Ultimately, the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s helped transition agriculture into a modern industry. The spread of technology, like tractors and other large mechanical tools plus improved animal husbandry techniques and land management policies, created the large-scale farms that still exist around the world.

Media Credits

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

October 19, 2023

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