Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
The First Farmers: Older Than You Think

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A Brief Timeline of the History of Agriculture

By John Koster

How long have people been farming? Most people think agriculture started about 7,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of what is now Iraq and really took hold in Egypt a few thousand years later. But Hal Roach, in “One Million B.C.,” had Loana of the Shell People (Carol Landis) teaching the crude Rock People, headed by Lon Chaney Jr. and Victor Mature, just which fruits and vegetables were edible.

There’s some distance between 1 million B.C. and the time when the Mediterranean Sea first burst into the Black Sea and scattered the farmers who lived along its shore all over the Middle East, western Asia and eastern and northern Europe.

Several thousand years passed between the days when cavemen became gatherers as well as hunters and when huge farming projects followed the irrigation in Mesopotamia around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and when the Nile inundated Africa. The exact process is subject to interpretation due to a lack of written history, but farming on a large scale is a lot older than the Pyramids (built around 3,200 B.C.). See the timeline in the sidebar for reference.

Farming along the Danube

Vere Gordon Childe, born in Australia, was a predestined scholar. Too nearsighted and sickly for World War I, Childe, who studied at Oxford, became fascinated with Charles Darwin and Karl Marx – causing a split from his Anglican clergyman father. Oddly enough, Childe also fixated on Indo-Europeans, or “Aryans,” the physically mythical people who exploded out of Central Asia into Europe and Northern India before people began to write, but left their spoken language behind as the ancestor of everything from Sanskrit to Gaelic, with the Germanic languages, including rudimentary English, in between.

Originally a philologist and language historian, Childe verged into prehistoric archaeology and discovered some of the first farmers in the world while exploring, of all places, the Danube River. Escorted in 1926 by an unemployed White Russian general who also served as his chauffeur, Childe probed the region known as the Iron Gates – the series of Danube gorges and rapids that separate Rumania from Serbia – and dug up some graves of the Vinca people, who had lived along the Danube long before written language. Vinca grave goods suggested that they were substantial traders: They sent their loved ones into the Next World with gold, copper, Mediterranean seashells and other goods not found anywhere near the Iron Gates.

A sentimental Marxist even more than a Darwinian, Childe said that the early evidence of organized food production to pay for these expensive trade goods had grown out of applied human intelligence and cooperation, probably mandatory when periodic droughts dried up the easy life of primitive hunter-gatherers and made cooperation, shared labor and advanced planning necessary. He called the development of agriculture “… a revolution whereby man ceased to be purely a parasite and … became a creator emancipated from the whims of his environment.”

Although a Darwinian and an expert on Aryan languages, Childe was not a Nazi-style supporter of Aryan racial or cultural supremacy. He was committed to a belief that the Vinca culture dated from the Bronze Age (3,500 to 1,000 B.C.) and that farming had been introduced from Asia or the Middle East. Nazi ideology, which flourished during Childe’s active lifetime, held that all progress had originated with the Aryan people who later peopled western Europe and northern India; while Semitic people, including Hebrews and Arabs, and the Mongolian peoples – Chinese, Japanese, proto-Indians in the Western Hemisphere – were merely copyists.

Childe’s lifetime was punctuated and his Asian drift theory was punctured by radiocarbon dating. Coordinated with dendrochronology – dating sites by the width of tree rings – the Vinca farms of the Iron Gates on the Danube, in what was Germanic tribal territory since before Roman times, appeared to be a staggering 12,000 years old – thousands of years older than Mesopotamia or Egypt. Childe, having unwittingly advanced the Nazi-style Aryan theory, retired from his position at the University of London in 1956, having been denounced by George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and 1984, as a dubious expert contaminated by Marxism. His death a year later while rock climbing in Australia has variously been described as accident or suicide. He turns up as an allusion in the latest “Indiana Jones” film.

Early Plant Breeding

Other experts, however, realized that much of what Childe had found was useful: The Danube Iron Gates farmers had actually begun selective crop breeding, if only by accident. David Harris of the University of London believes that gatherers began selectively breeding wheat about 12,500 B.C. when they started to cut the edible grasses with flint-edged sickles and take the grain-bearing grasses home. Sickle shock was harsher than the dispersion of seeds when wild animals brushed past the stalks of grain, and left only the strongest kernels of wheat or barley on the stalk. When the strongest kernels fell from the stalks nearest the Neolithic campsites and sprouted and took root, they produced wheat with stronger, heartier kernels – and more nutrients for humans. Harris believes that only a few human generations (maybe 50 growing seasons) could have turned Neolithic gatherers into the first real farmers as they saw that the wheat around their campsites was a reliable source of protein and carbohydrates, and they started to plant some of the seeds – through active labor or perhaps through incomplete digestion, which also provided organic fertilizer.

Once the protein-rich grain crops had developed – perhaps at the Iron Gates, perhaps farther south – the revolution in agriculture began. One of the earliest sites was Jericho, mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Settlers there had been farming for thousands of years before the days of Moses and Joshua, supported by a stream of water and by agricultural techniques far older that the Pyramids. At Jericho, during an extended drought known as the Younger Dryas period, people began to save and plant seed, and probably to weed and water their fields by manual labor. The settlers also began a rather brutal form of animal husbandry: Archaeological evidence shows that they drove herds of gazelles down ravines and into nets, where the hunters culled out and slaughtered the adolescent males while freeing the adult males and all females to make more gazelles. All this happened about 11,000 years ago, and the gazelle triage was shortly reduced by the domestication of goats.

The teeth in prehistoric skulls suggest that these people ate meat whenever possible, but evidence shows that the farmers around Jericho also raised lentils and peas, which, combined with whole grains, made for a nutritionally complete diet, as they do today in rural and vegetarian parts of India. Villages turned into towns with watchtowers, two-storey houses, and storehouses for all that grain. Jericho 10,000 years ago, like the Iron Gates communities farther north, flourished on reliable food production as a source of trade. Obsidian – volcanic glass used in chipping Stone Age tools for sickles and skinning knives – and sea shells from the faraway Mediterranean turn up in graves and ruins, indicating a high level of commercial and artistic activity, which, in turn, eventually led to writing to keep records.

One of the big surprises of archaeology was the discovery of Catal Hüyük in what is now Turkey, a site unknown to modern archeologists until after the middle of the 20th century but flourishing around 7,500 B.C., before the Fertile Crescent became a big player in agriculture. Archaeologists discovered a town so densely packed that the houses didn’t have front or back doors and had to be entered from apertures in the roofs, with wooden ladders or stairs. Again, trade goods indicate that the early progress in farming had turned Catal Hüyük into a trade nexus where agricultural products were bartered for obsidian, used not only for tools but for ornamental beads. The pretty seashells from the Mediterranean were also abundant, and the people of Catal Hüyük also imported wood for constructing roof beams; their own natural resources were limited to fertile mud and reeds for baskets to store the grain and beans. The Catal Hüyük diet included not only cultivated grain and wild and domestic meat but vegetables, including lentils and peas, capers; fruits, including grapes and crabapples; and wild pistachios and walnuts gathered from woodlands.

Culture Follows Grain

Wherever agriculture flourished – at the Iron Gates along the Danube, at Jericho in the Middle East, at Catal Hüyük in Anatolia – the steady production of grain and legume crops provided a basis for human culture in the form of permanent architecture, social organization, and eventually for the development of alphabets and literacy. Vere Gordon Childe might have been pleased to note that Aryans and Semites apparently developed organized farming at about the same time, and perhaps even independently.

Farming before 8,000 B.C. is no longer limited to the Fertile Crescent – agriculture with at least some forethought existed along the Danube, and all around the Black Sea, which was a huge freshwater lake until the collapse of the Dardanelles Berm and the salt-water flood about 5,500 B.C. – Noah’s Flood, as remembered in the Old Testament and in the legendary literature of Mesopotamia and of ancient Greece. Subsequently, organized farming developed in parts of China and northwest India before 4,000 B.C., in most of China, northwestern India and the northwestern quadrant of South America before 3,000 B.C., and in Japan and Korean and both coastal sections of Africa and in southern India and Indonesia before 1,500 B.C. The fact that non-white Asians and Africans had farmed before Greek and Roman times would have relieved Childe. The fact that the “Aryan” Gallic and Germanic people had farmed before 3,000 B.C. – the Germans appear to have pioneered cabbage – would have delighted him. Wherever farming began, it clearly led to a major advance in human culture, still in progress today.

About the author: John Koster is the author of Custer Survivor and grew up on a truck farm in northern New Jersey.

A Brief Timeline of the History of Agriculture

Dates are approximate and conjectural.

12,500 B.C. – Melt-down from the last Ice Age
11,000 to 9,500 B.C. – First grain farming said to have started by accident.

10,000 B.C. – Vinca farms appear on the Danube
8,000 B.C. – Extensive agriculture around Jericho said to have started.

7,500 B.C. – Catal Hüyük (bigger than Jericho but not quite as early), in what is now Turkey, flourished.
5,500 B.C. – Black Sea inundation. This became "Noah's Flood" in many cultures. The flood was real, but not global. Most people probably escaped alive.
4,000 B.C. – Indo-Europeans – "Aryans" – moved into Germany, Scandinavia and Britain. They added new crops but did not "invent" farming. Farming in India and China began about this time also, probably independently.