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Anatomically modern humans evolved about 200,000 years ago. During most of their existence, humans subsisted by hunting and gathering. Between about 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, however, humans in several parts of the world developed agriculture, an achievement that led to the rise of civilization. From its origins, agriculture was the primary economic activity and remains so in many parts of the globe. Government, the class system, armies, large-scale trade, writing, and education all depended on the secure food supply that agriculture made possible. Surplus goods allowed people to specialize in other pursuits, though their numbers cannot have been large. Through antiquity, the food surplus was only some 10 percent, meaning that only 10 percent of the population could escape from farming. Yet the cities and their dwellers often exploited the countryside. This is clear in Roman antiquity, when the emperors subordinated Sicily and Egypt to grain production. Indeed, beginning with Augustus, the emperors declared Egypt their private property.
The Origins Of Agriculture
In southwestern Asia, humans developed agriculture about 10,000 years ago in response to the drying climate following the retreat of the glaciers of the last ice age. So momentous was this development that scholars have termed it the Neolithic Revolution. By 5,000 years ago, farmers in the Near East provided regular surpluses necessary for civilization. They domesticated wheat, barley, peas and lentils, chickpeas, rye, sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle. Peas, chickpeas, and lentils are legumes and are rich in protein, an essential nutrient. Legumes make a vegetarian diet possible. Because sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle formed herds, they were easy to domesticate. Nonetheless, the first farmers were malnourished, leading one to wonder how beneficial agriculture was in its early centuries.
By 8,000 years ago, farming had spread not only to the eastern Mediterranean basin—Turkey, Syria, and Israel—but also to the western Mediterranean and became the source of civilization on which the Greeks and Romans built. Even parts of northern Europe adopted farming by 7,000 years ago. Egypt was a relative latecomer at 6,000 years ago. This is puzzling because Egypt must have had access to the crops and livestock of the eastern Mediterranean from an early date. Once agriculture began, it created stupendous wealth for the Pharaohs, who lived opulent lives and built some of the world’s most cherished tombs. The case of Pharaoh Tutankhamun is instructive for the wealth of artifacts in his tomb, and he was a minor pharaoh. How much grander must the tombs of Ramses II and the Tutmoses have been!
In China, agriculture seems to have sunk roots first in what would become the north-central provinces. These areas specialized in rice and millet. The rice must have been dryland varieties, for the introduction of paddy rice was a comparatively late development. Soybean too would emerge as an important crop. It is curious and important that nearly everywhere humans began farming they domesticated at least one legume. By 5000 b.c.e., farmers in the north were subsisting on millet. Ancient sites reveal the capacity of China to store 100 tons of grain, pointing to a reliable food surplus. South of the Yangtze River, rice dominated. Again, dryland varieties prevailed until about 100 c.e., when paddy rice became more important. Like the people of western Asia, China also grew wheat and barley, possibly having borrowed these crops from the western areas of the continent. The Chinese considered wheat and barley to be luxuries, and they never rivaled rice. Soybean was cultivated as early as 1000 b.c.e. By the 4th century b.c.e., rice and soybean were the principal crops. Like the Romans later with peas and lentils, the Chinese were quick to observe the benefits of soybeans in rotation, suspecting that the root nodules had a role in enriching soils.
Though they did not know it, their insight was based on the fact that the nodules harbored bacteria that synthesized nitrogen and oxygen or nitrogen and hydrogen to form an ion, which roots absorbed easily. Legumes therefore made their own nitrogenous fertilizers, and the amount left over enriched the soil for future crops. Planting a legume one year enriched the soil for the next year’s crop. This phenomenon of nitrogen fixation would not be discovered until the 19th century, confirming the wisdom of China and Rome.
The pig was China’s chief livestock, though chickens were also important. Southeast Asia, including the islands of the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, and others in the south and central Pacific Ocean, was a latecomer to agriculture. About 3500 b.c.e., paddy rice came to the region, and the people of Taiwan were subsisting on rice and millet by this date. From Taiwan, agriculture spread to the Philippines and Indonesia. New Guinea provided an interesting contrast, domesticating taro and yams as early as 5000 b.c.e.
Farmers along the Indus River in what is today India began farming about 7000 b.c.e. Wheat, barley, sheep, goats, and cattle were important from the outset. Rice, millet, and sorghum were later additions.
Africa has two chief regions: North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. North Africa, being part of the Mediterranean, developed in step with the rise and development of Mediterranean agriculture. Sub-Saharan Africa developed a different trajectory, domesticating cattle about 3000 b.c.e. About 1,000 years later, rice became an important crop, though it is important to note that this was not an Asian transplant. African rice was a different subspecies from the rice grown in Asia. There was no borrowing from China or Southeast Asia. In the Sahel, sorghum and millet were important crops. Teff was the staple in Ethiopia. Elsewhere, oil palm and cowpeas, another legume, were important. The spread of agriculture throughout sub-Saharan Africa was gradual.
The rise of agriculture in the Americas represents an independent development. American crops were different from Old World domesticates.
Farming arose in the Americas around 3000 b.c.e. Corn was the staple from Canada to the southern tip of South America. In its ability to tolerate a range of climates and geographical areas, corn is among humanity’s most durable crops. Corn originated in southern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula. By 2000 b.c.e., Mexicans had developed a large number of varieties of corn, a grain that is today a world staple. In the United States, it is fed to livestock, but in many other places it is human food. Another world staple, the potato, was domesticated in the Andes Mountains of South America. Though the mountains lie at a tropical latitude, the elevation of the mountains creates a cool microclimate, and so the potato is a staple in temperate climates. Other contributions to world cuisine are beans and peanuts (both legumes), peppers, tomatoes, and squash. One should note that the Old World had a few species of beans, but American beans were and are far more numerous. One who buys a can of beans at the grocery store is almost certainly buying an American indigene. Native Americans referred to corn, beans, and squash as the “three sisters” because they understood that these three crops could provide a nourishing diet. The Americas were less endowed with livestock, though the people of the Andes domesticated the llama, alpaca, and guinea pig.
The great agricultural writers of Rome—Cato the Elder, Columella, and Varro—all claimed that slaves worked the large estates. This view has come under criticism in recent years, leaving it difficult to determine how widespread agricultural slavery was in antiquity. American scholars have been particularly reluctant to retract the slave argument, their views colored by the extent of slavery in the antebellum south. For the moment, no consensus seems to exist.
Greece planted winter wheat in autumn, harvesting it in spring. The crop was a good choice in a climate where winters were mild. Greece may have pioneered the use of the crop fallow system, in which a piece of land was planted only every other year. This system, by effectively halving farmland, must have hampered production. The Greeks also planted barley, peas, lentils, apples, pears, figs, pomegranates, and the ubiquitous olive. They raised cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens.
This system was remarkably diverse. The Greeks had a primitive plow that was more than adequate for their thin soils; a heavy plow would not have worked. Farmers were the chief recruits of the military, which must have been detrimental to their farms. The elites owned large estates. Athens used hired labor, but Sparta favored the use of prisoners of war to labor on large estates in conditions that approximated slavery. The Spartans considered their farmworkers to be somewhere between slaves and free men. One Greek orator declared, “God has set all men free; nature has made no man a slave.” Europeans would not extend this view to Africans. To be fair, the Greek philosopher Plato acknowledged the existence of slavery, though he did not explicitly tie it to agriculture. Plato’s pupil Aristotle had no qualms about slavery, envisioning slaves as the ideal form of labor.
Rome was proud of its agrarian roots. The best people were farm owners. The wealthy Piso family (Julius Caesar’s wife was a Piso) took its name from the pea, as testimony to the claim that the Pisos descended from proud pea farmers. According to the Roman historian Livy, when Rome faced a crisis and needed a general, the people called Cincinnatus from his field, which he had been plowing. Farmers grew grains, peas, lentils, olives for oil, and grapes for wine. They raised cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. Cato, Columella, and Varro all noted the importance of growing legumes in rotation, just as the Chinese had. Again, the debate over slavery in Roman agriculture has not been settled.
During the Republic, the peasant army conquered Italy and Sicily, North Africa, Egypt, Greece, the Levant, Turkey, Spain, and France, spreading the plow wherever they went. Sicily and Egypt emerged as Rome’s granary, making it possible for the city to swell to 1 million inhabitants by the time of Jesus. Rome was doubtless the largest city in the West and a rival to any of China’s great cities. In Rome arose the practice of grazing livestock at an elevation in summer and in the lowlands in winter. Serfdom may have originated during the late empire, when Emperors Diocletian and Constantine tied people and their descendants to their occupation. A family of farm laborers would always farm. After Constantine legalized Christianity, the Church began to acquire land and, according to one scholar, used slaves to farm it. During the late empire, Rome depended increasingly on North Africa in addition to Egypt and Sicily for grain. Egypt also produced large quantities of wine. By the 5th century c.e., the Church had bought extensive landholdings in Egypt, so that Egyptian agriculture became less wedded to Rome, which was in decline. Yet small farmers remained in many areas in Late Antiquity. Many people did not own land but worked as tenants or sharecroppers.
As in Greece and Rome, China experienced a period in which land was concentrated in the hands of a few, making the majority laborers on large estates. The stress on farmers was extreme. Between 200 b.c.e. and 1911, China recorded 1,800 famines, often from drought or insects. The central government saw its role as a promoter of agriculture and directed the building of irrigation canals and dikes. Like Rome, China took pride in its agrarian roots, believing that farmers were the best and most virtuous of all people, a sentiment that U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson would echo centuries later. China considered trade far inferior to farming and counseled its peasants not to leave the countryside for life in a city or town. During the Han dynasty (206–20 c.e.), the population shifted south, coinciding with the growing importance of rice. The Chinese pioneered the use of plows with iron shares and may have been the first to use oxen to pull the plow. The north was sparsely populated and would be akin to the west in U.S. history. People who wanted a new life went to the northern frontier to farm without interference from large landlords. The Han, having arisen from the peasantry, held agriculture in special regard. In many ways, ancient China represented a conflict between the farmworker and the rapacious landlord.
The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages witnessed a decline in cities and towns, particularly in northern Europe. Nearly everyone farmed. During the Middle Ages, serfdom reached its apogee. A warming trend in the early Middle Ages heightened farm productivity. During this period, it was possible to grow grapes even in England. China was able to grow citrus fruits farther north. The Byzantine Empire encouraged farming in Egypt, the Levant, Turkey, and Greece, where grain, olives, and livestock remained important. The Orthodox Church and the state held half the arable land.
Small-scale production characterized medieval agriculture. Nearly gone were the specialty markets for olive oil and wine, though one must not forget that many monasteries were renowned for their wine. During the Middle Ages arose a partial transition from grain to livestock. The Middle Ages were not as static as some people suppose. Farmers developed the moldboard plow. The horse replaced the ox to pull the plow. The three-field system put more land in production. In this system, farmers planted a winter crop one year, planted a spring crop the next, and fallowed land the third year.
As the Arabs conquered Egypt, North Africa, and Spain, they brought Asian crops with them. The Arabs introduced sugarcane, sorghum, durum wheat, rice, oranges, lemons, bananas, the plantain, coconut, eggplant, artichoke, spinach, and watermelon to the Mediterranean Basin. The Arabs departed from the long-standing tradition of fallowing land. Instead, all land was cropped, a practice that boosted aggregate production. The Chinese perfected the process of double and even triple cropping of rice in the same year.
The Early Modern Era
The early modern era witnessed the decline of serfdom in western Europe, while slavery recrudesced in the Americas. The Little Ice Age of early modernity hindered agricultural development. The 16th century was a period of crop failures due to the cold. The weather doomed the orange groves in Jiangxi Province in the 17th century. Cold weather caused famine in Russia between 1601 and 1604. During the Little Ice Age, European farmers grew oats and rye because they tolerated cold, though wheat is also cold tolerant. By the late 18th century, serfdom had declined in China. In Japan, the family was the unit of production. Japan expected each farm family to be self-sufficient. Japanese families traditionally divided land among their children, making smallholdings the rule. In the 18th century, Russian agriculture degenerated into serfdom.
The Columbian Exchange And The Rise Of The Plantation System
Among the momentous developments in history was the Italian Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas in 1492, though Columbus was never quite sure that he had discovered a new world. The Europeans and Africans who followed Columbus introduced a large number of crops and livestock in the Americas, among them wheat, barley, oats, rye, peas, lentils, chickpeas, sugarcane, coffee, tea, citrus fruits, grapes, cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats, transforming American agriculture. The Americas likewise gave the Old World corn, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, peanuts, peppers, cacao, and rubber. Although the exchange may appear to be uneven, one can scarcely overstate the importance of corn and potatoes to the Old World. Corn quickly became a staple in Europe, Asia, and Africa. The potato was the staple of northern Europe. The Irish came to subsist on it as their chief source of calories.
At the same time, a labor shortage arose in the Americas. Diseases nearly extirpated the Amerindians, and the whites were not eager to toil on someone else’s land. In 1493, Columbus introduced sugarcane to the Caribbean, which became, along with coffee, the plantation crop. Somehow, Europeans had to find people to work these estates. African slaves filled the void, with horrendous consequences. Underfed and overworked, many succumbed to early death. This form of slavery had a new and ugly feature: racism. Thanks to the plantation complex, whites viewed blacks as inferior in every way. The legacy of this thinking is beyond the scope of this entry; it is enough to say that racism harms blacks even today.
Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, and the Netherlands all profited from the slave trade. The plantation economy took various guises, with sugarcane and coffee in the Caribbean and tropical America, spreading as far north as Louisiana and, later, south Florida. By far, Brazil was the center of agricultural slavery. By 1580, Brazil supported more than 100 sugar estates. By the mid-17th century, Britain and France established agricultural slavery in the Caribbean. So intensive was this system that the blacks far outnumbered the whites. By 1780, Saint Domingue (now Haiti) had nearly 500,000 slaves. Cotton sank roots in the deep south. Rice, almost surely of African origin, took hold in South Carolina and tobacco in Maryland and Virginia.
The 19th Century
By the 19th century, poverty threatened to devour the peasantry. While the German economist Karl Marx and the British economist Friedrich Engels concentrated on the plight of factory workers, the peasants could scarcely keep a roof over their heads. Later, the communists Vladimir Lenin in Russia, Mao Zedong in China, and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam severely critiqued the poverty of small farmers. Governments made tepid gestures to farmers. Russia freed the serfs in 1861. Four years later, at the conclusion of a civil war fought over slavery, the United States abolished slavery, though one must remember that the southern whites continued to oppress black farmers.
At the same time that governments struggled to better the lives of the agricultural underclass, mechanization took hold, particularly in the United States. In the 1840s, the inventor Cyrus McCormick patented a horse-drawn reaper. By the 1890s, horse-drawn threshers were busy on the Great Plains. In the early 20th century, the tractor revolutionized agriculture. With mechanization came science. In the 1840s, the German chemist Justus von Liebig emphasized the importance of nitrogenous fertilizers. In Britain, Germany, and the United States, governments spent money on agricultural science. The land grant complex was a great achievement in the United States, where Congress founded the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the land grant colleges, and the agricultural experiment stations.
In the Midwest, corn and soybean, a latecomer of the Columbian exchange, transformed agriculture, making this region the source of feed. Cincinnati and, later, Chicago emerged as the slaughterhouses of America. To the west, the Great Plains became one of the world’s leading producers of wheat. Although bread wheat was important, Minnesota and North Dakota began experimenting with durum wheat, a variety suitable for making pasta. California specialized in fruits and vegetables, and its wines were the best in the United States. The amateur botanist Luther Burbank developed more than 800 new plant varieties, the most celebrated being the Russet Burbank potato. He became so renowned that the inventor Thomas Edison and the automaker Henry Ford made a pilgrimage to his estate.
Belgium established rubber plantations in the Congo, brutally abusing the farmworkers. The Belgians sometimes raped the women and killed the men. The Polish British novelist Joseph Conrad captured these horrors in his book Heart of Darkness. Communism arose in Russia and Asia to uplift poor farmers, though the results were inhumane. Peanuts and cacao were widely planted in Africa, as was corn. Germany forced Tanzanian farmers to grow cotton. The British ensconced palm oil in the Congo and the Solomon Islands. The Netherlands forced Indonesia to grow sugarcane, indigo, and coffee. The extent to which coffee was grown on the Indonesian island of Java made its name a byword for coffee. Growing poppy in India, Britain hooked the Chinese on opium. In Latin America, bananas became an important cash crop.
The 20th And 21st Centuries
Since the 1940s, the United States has been the world’s leading agricultural exporter. The Green Revolution from about 1940 to 2000 made it possible to avert a Malthusian crisis, if only in the short term. Led by the U.S. agronomist and plant pathologist Norman Borlaug, the Green Revolution boosted yields in Asia and Latin America. Gains in Africa accrued only after 1980. India and Mexico were the foci of the Green Revolution in its early years. Borlaug and his colleagues, learning from the Japanese experience, bred semi-dwarf varieties of rice and wheat that produced high yields and whose short stalks did not lodge. These crops, however, rely heavily on fertilizers, making one wonder how sustainable this system is.
Perhaps nothing so much as biotechnology has shaped the present and will shape the future of agriculture. The multinational firm Monsanto has pioneered research in biotechnology, with the goal of developing crops that resist insects, diseases, and weeds. An early success was Bt corn. A bacterium inserted into corn cells created a plant that European corn borers, a serious pest, cannot damage. Monsanto’s recent work has focused on its herbicide Roundup. Because Roundup kills plants indiscriminately, it can be used on crops only with caution. Monsanto surmounted this problem by bioengineering crops that do not die when sprayed with Roundup. Farmers can grow Roundupresistant corn, soybean, and sugar beets. Yet Roundup has hastened the evolution of resistant weeds, so that farmers again face the old problem of weed competition.
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