History of Agriculture: Was Farming an Accident?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is the history of agriculture? How did it originate? Was the origin of farming an intentional decision on the part of our ancestors?

The history of agriculture includes the domestication of wheat about 10,000 years ago. It was at this time that early Sapiens shifted from a nomadic life to a farming life.

We’ll cover the origin of agriculture and its early history.

The History of Agriculture

About 10,000 years ago, between 9500 and 8500 BC, Sapiens started shifting from forager lifestyles to a life revolving around agriculture. This was the origin of agriculture. It was so successful for our species that we went from 5-8 million foragers in 10,000 BC to 250 million farmers by the first century AD.

In the history of agriculture, this gradual movement started independently in the Middle East, China, and Central America, areas that had plants and animals, like wheat and sheep, that were easy to domesticate. The movement had a monumental impact on not only the way we live today but on our diet. 90% of the calories in the modern diet comes from plants domesticated by our ancestors, like wheat, rice, and potatoes.

Downsides of Farming

The move toward farming isn’t necessarily common sense. For example, agriculture was much harder than foraging and hunting for food, and left farmers more vulnerable to disease and hunger. Farmers also had a less nutritious diet than foragers due to its lack of variety. 

Agriculture also led to promotion of disease. All the extra food they grew resulted in a population boom. More people meant closer living quarters, leading to disease epidemics. Child mortality soared. 

Most of the agricultural surplus went to the elite, and they probably did live better lives than their ancestors. But the Agricultural Revolution didn’t translate to a better life for most individuals.

We won the game of evolution, which judges our success based on how many of us there are on the planet, but we lost individually. In other words, the Agricultural Revolution allowed more people to survive, but the conditions under which each individual lived were worse.

Wheat and the Origin of Agriculture

Wheat is one of the most successful plants ever, but its success happened gradually and was probably not planned consciously by Sapiens. Still, it plays an integral role in the history of agriculture.

We like to think we’re the masters of our land, and everything that grows on it, but humans didn’t domesticate wheat. Wheat domesticated humans.

Wheat was fragile, so Sapiens had to protect it from worms, blight, rabbits, and locusts. Sapiens guarded it from other animals by building fences and physically standing there, watching over it. Wheat needed a lot of water, so Sapiens dug canals and dragged buckets of water back and forth from rivers and water sources.

Humans hadn’t evolved for this work. It killed their backs, knees, necks, and feet. Further, there’s evidence of new injuries like slipped discs, hernias, and arthritis.

Further, if people had a plot of land, they also had to protect that land from neighbors. Unlike foragers, when farmers didn’t get along with others in their band, it wasn’t easy to pick up and move. Farmers stayed and fought. Therefore, wheat didn’t offer a more peaceful way of life. Some studies indicate that 15% of deaths at the time were the result of human violence.

There was one benefit, however: life lived in one place, in a home and with fences, did provide more protection from wild animals and the elements.

The History of Agriculture: Was Farming Progress?

The move from foraging to agriculture wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice. Rather, it was a gradual process of small, seemingly insignificant changes that added up to a monumental revolution.

18,000 years ago, the last ice age retreated, increasing rainfall. This was great for wheat and other grains, which started to spread. Because there was more wheat, people started eating more of it, taking it back to their campsites to grind and cook. On the way to the campsite, some of the small grains were sprinkled along the path, helping the spread of wheat.

Humans burned the forests to create clearings that attracted animals. This also cleared the area of large trees and bushes that would have competed with the wheat for sunlight and water. Where wheat prospered, nomads would settle for a few weeks, enjoying the plenty. A few weeks turned into a few more, and over generations, these areas became permanent settlements.

People started storing grain for later and invented stone scythes, pestles, and mortars. Because they saw that wheat grew better when it was buried deep in the soil rather than sprinkled on top, humans began to hoe and plow the fields. Weeding, watering, and fertilizing followed. With all this time spent on tending the wheat, there was less time to hunt and gather. Sapiens had become farmers. This is the origin and history of agriculture.

History of Agriculture: Was Farming an Accident?

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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