Why did man start farming?

The age of agriculture

13,000 years ago, when the Ice Age ended, the cultivation of wild plants gave rise to agriculture. The reasons for this are still a mystery: hunters and gatherers were often better fed than farmers and had to invest less time in getting food. However, once established, agriculture can feed far more people. Probably because of this, it established itself in large parts of the world over the course of time and became the basis of life for mankind.

Over the millennia created by promoting featuresuseful to man from wild plants today's cultivated plants. Here, the changes are shown using the example of Teosinte and the maize that emerged from it. Corn was first grown in the highlands of Mexico (more). Illustration by Nicolle Rager Fuller, courtesy of the National Science Foundation (USA).

For most of our history we modern humans lived (Homo sapiens) as a hunter; as fishermen, hunters and gatherers of animals and plants that grew without human intervention. When the 200,000 years of Homo sapiens an hour, we lived like this for over fifty-six minutes; and during this time spread from East Africa through Europe and Asia to Australia and North America. Wildlife hunters must have excellent knowledge of animal behavior and the useful properties of plants; to survive - they could hardly have missed the way plants reproduced. In the regions where our ancestors settled down due to abundant food in favorable climatic times, they may have sown important plants occasionally and watered them in dry times. The cultivation of wild plants, the cultivation, is considered by archaeologists as a preliminary stage of horticulture, agriculture and agriculture.

More than 13,000 years ago, however, our ancestors began to change their way of life - at first gradually and only in individual regions they began to practice "real" agriculture - that is, not only to cultivate wild plants, but also to domesticate them (and shortly afterwards too the first animals). This development should profoundly change the everyday life of most people - not only do today's mankind for the most part live from plants that our ancestors domesticated over the course of this time - wheat, rice, corn, potatoes, millet and barley - but also the origin of cities and states would be unthinkable without agriculture. That is why its emergence is also called the "agricultural revolution". But what drove people to make this change is still a mystery: after all, hunter-gatherers had a much better life than the early farmers (006). They had to work significantly less, were better fed, suffered less disease and lived longer. The author Tom Standage (008) reports on a San Bushman who answered an anthropologist's question about agriculture: "Why should we plant when there are so many Mongongo nuts in the world?" (Mongongo nuts make up about half of the San's diet.) Something must have led people to save valuable grains for later sowing instead of eating them right away.

As about the previous period in the history of the Homo sapiens there are also no written records about the development of agriculture. Our knowledge therefore consists largely of guesswork that we derive from the findings of archaeologists. We can talk about the reasons - as we can about the spiritual world of the early homo sapiens - just speculate. The many hypotheses can be divided into two broad groups: Some believe that agriculture out of necessity originated when, with the warmer climate after the end of the ice ages, the large herds of herbivores ceased to exist. Agriculture is more labor-intensive, but it allows more people to be fed on a given area. Others, however, believe that our ancestors were in a kind Luxury trap have run: a growing population has led to the effort of hunting and gathering increased, and under these conditions agriculture seemed more attractive - and when the consequences of dependence on a few plants became apparent, so many people were alive that it was no longer possible to turn back was possible. Or maybe there weren't any material ones, but rather religious or social reasons behind the invention of agriculture. The hunters and gatherers built huge cult facilities like on Gobekli Tepethat indicate a highly developed religion - and for which food had to be reliably available. Is it a coincidence that einkorn, an ancestor of wheat, has its origin only thirty kilometers away? Since agriculture arose independently of one another in several places and at different times (012), different factors could have played a role in different areas.

The invention of agriculture and animal husbandry ...

... out of necessity

When the ice ages slowly came to an end 15,000 years ago, the earth changed. Forests also grew again outside the tropics; in Europe, for example, birch and pine trees spread. This made the large herds of herbivores rare; modified stone tools - the small "microliths" - and remains in the rubbish heaps show that the people here now lived more from small animals such as birds, fish and mussels. But forests did not develop everywhere on earth: between the temperate climatic zones and the tropics, park-like tree landscapes emerged, beneath which there was plenty of grassland. An example of this is the Levant east of the Mediterranean: Here, with regular winter rains, loose oak-pistachio forests emerged, under and between which the wild forms of rye and wheat, as well as legumes from North Africa, settled. Gazelles found plenty of pasture here. Authors such as David Montgomery (014) even speculate that the biblical description of the Garden of Eden could go back to traditions from this time.

However, there was plenty of food; the population increased and settled down. But when the cold phase of the Younger Dryas began 13,000 years ago, the good times were over for the time being: the forests retreated into the mountains, the wild grasses and legumes became rarer. In this situation, people - according to the proponents of the "out of necessity" hypothesis - could have helped nature through increased sowing. The evaluation of leftover food from the settlement (120 kilometers east of today's Aleppo [Syria]) Abu Hureyra suggests that people were growing grasses related to rye and wheat there as early as 13,000 years ago. Since they must have noticed that the plants germinated best where the ground had been cleared of disruptive growth, they probably prepared the areas accordingly - the hoe was invented 12,000 to 11,000 years ago. Pollen analyzes from Abu Hureyra show an increasing proportion of arable wild herbs susceptible to drought - another indication of arable farming.

Abu Hureyra is in the "fertile crescent", the region where agriculture originated in the Middle East. This was not the only one: In China, too, evidence of the cultivation of wild rice at the time of the Young Dryas was found on the Yangzi. When the climate improved again at the end of the cold phase and the winter rains returned, it ended The cultivation was not renewed, but new plants were added: barley, chickpeas and broad beans were also grown in the Levant 11,500 years ago.The villages of Natufien grew in size (020) and flourished.

(What the transition from growing wild plants to "real" agriculture could have looked like is here.)

... as a "luxury trap"

The supporters of this hypothesis (022) also assume the ideal growth conditions for the grasses after the end of the ice ages. This has led to people becoming settled - and settling has led to an increase in the population. The wives of nomadic hunters had a child at most every three to four years - more children would have been just too much of a hindrance on the hikes. Sedentary women could have a child every year - and they could make themselves useful in collecting grain. The increase in the population made it more and more difficult to feed them through fishing, hunting and gathering, especially since the catchment area cannot be enlarged at will - be it for reasons of distance from the settlements, or because neighboring areas were already populated. So the residents began to scatter grains and tend the plants - which made more work, but increased the yield.

If agriculture emerged out of necessity, there is no need to ask why. But once man has maneuvered himself into this situation, the question arises why he did not simply stop farming again when he discovered that life with it was not better, but more difficult. The answer is probably: he never noticed. Hundreds of years passed from the first cultivation of wild plants to the emergence of "real" agriculture, so the changes from one generation to the next were so tiny that no one noticed them. And even if someone had noticed at some point: Once the population had risen, there was no turning back anyway - hunters and gatherers may have lived better, but they couldn't feed so many people.

... for social or religious reasons

Social or religious reasons for the development of agriculture are naturally even more speculative than material ones: you can count calories, estimate demographic data and combine the two into models, but we know nothing about the thinking of earlier people until written records began. But in northern Mesopotamia, in what is now southeastern Anatolia, in 1995 on the hill Gobekli Tepe discovered the oldest known cult complex in the world; and according to all indications it was built by hunters and gatherers - and not by farmers. In the complex there were over 200 huge columns, up to six meters high and weighing up to 20 tons, decorated with reliefs. Enormous amounts of food were required to feed the people who built such a facility. Can it be a coincidence that the einkorn, an ancestor of wheat, comes from the nearby Karacadağ volcano? Or did the cultivation begin to support the builders of the temple? We do not know it. The feeding of a large number of workers could also explain animal husbandry: With animals in the gate, one was less dependent on the luck of the hunt. And there was definitely meat: the excavations revealed mountains of animal bones.

When it comes to grain, you don't just have to think of bread, you can also think of beer: the biologist Josef Reichholf has taken up the thesis in a book that grain could originally have been cultivated for the production of beer. The production of bread would therefore be a later modification of the brewing process - the dough was baked and not further moistened after the start of the fermentation process, as is the case for the production of beer. Beer could also have fed workers; or have been part of a festive meal with a few grilled sheep and goats from the gate: the desire to impress one's community could also be behind the development of agriculture.

How cultivated plants and livestock came about


When people started growing wild plants, they unwittingly began to modify them. Plants of one species are not completely identical either. In the case of grasses, for example, there are plants in which the grains are a little larger than in others, and others in which the ripe grains stayed on the plant a little longer. This was important for people: ripe grains could be stored, while unripe grains easily mold; However, ripe grains usually fell quickly to the ground (where they could germinate at the next opportunity). So people looked for ripe grains and automatically collected more grains from those plants that stayed on the plant longer - simply because they didn't have to laboriously pick them up from the ground. When humans then also sowed the collected grains, they became a selective force (more on selection, a driving force of evolution here): What was disadvantageous for the plant in the wild - its seeds became slower, with so-called "break-proof varieties" not even scattered at all - now became an advantage: man collected such plants and ensured their reproduction. It started something the biologists did disruptive (separating) selection Name: For the wild plants it was still an advantage to scatter their grains quickly, in the case of man-made plants it was better if the grains remained on the plant for a long time. For them, human interests - easy sowing, easy harvest and higher yield - replaced natural selection. This is how they emerged over the centuries and millennia Cropsthat can no longer survive alone in the wild, but depend on human care.

That was certainly not an easy process: Even if the first cultivated plants are often self-pollinators (the female parts of the flower are pollinated by pollen from the same plant), cultivated plants were also repeatedly pollinated by wild plants, and these backcrosses easily ruined successful breeding. But history shows that domestication still succeeded. A particularly drastic example of the changes it led to is the maize that was first grown in America: In the wild precursor, teosinte, the grains are surrounded by hard shells (husks) that help them survive in the digestive tract of animals. The early American farmers encouraged those mutants in which the husks were stunted and those in which the plants were not branched and had only a few, but larger ears with more grains (see also the illustration above). These plants, too, could only reproduce if the grains were separated from the cob by hand and sown.

The cultivation of such recognizable changed plant species and the animal husbandry that begins at about the same time (more on this in the next chapter) are considered the beginning of “Real” agriculture. The transition was fluid, which is why there are also different views as to when "real" agriculture began. In the Middle East, according to some authors, this stage was 11,500 years ago, according to others 10,500 years ago at the latest reached. In the opinion of most archaeologists, this makes the region the first on earth to be farmed. (Other archaeologists consider Africa to be the origin of agriculture - there, drier times in the Sahara are said to have been the climatic trigger; more on the different regions of origin of agriculture can be found on the next page.)

Farm animals

Of course, even when people grew plants, they continued to hunt. In the Middle East region of origin of agriculture, among other things, came the Wild sheep and the Bezoar goat before, the wild ancestors of sheep and goats. Most researchers believe that taming began with young animals - perhaps because their mothers were killed and their helpless young captured. Humans easily develop an emotional relationship with young mammals, even today's primitive peoples often take in young animals. They got used to people and lost their shyness. They are also useful: they attract wild relatives who can be hunted more easily. Animals kept were also a practical food store: if droughts or pests destroyed the crops in the fields, the animals could be eaten if necessary. But they had to be locked in fenced gates to protect the gardens and fields from them. Keeping and taming wild animals is the first step towards domestication: animals become pets when they reproduce in captivity. First and foremost, enough animals must be kept for this. When female animals have young, they also give milk that can also be used by humans for their children. And again - as in the case of plants - the selection of the parents can promote properties that are less dangerous for humans or offer particular benefits. In the course of time the animals became more docile and less aggressive; The first farm animals emerged from the wild forms. The domestication of Sheep and goats began in the Levant almost 10,000 years ago.

By keeping sheep and goats, humans were also able to make more intensive use of plants that were not directly suitable for human consumption: Domesticated sheep and goats, like their wild ancestors, also harbor microorganisms in their rumen that can break down cellulose. Goats in particular also eat thorny scrub. The microorganisms build up proteins and fatty acids and are the actual food for sheep and goats (and their keepers). But sheep and goats can also devour an area - with the keeping of animals the pastoralism and the rival cultures of sedentary farmers and wandering herdsmen came into being. In the course of time, steppes of dry grass emerged independent pastoral societies - about 6,000 years ago in the steppes of today's southeastern Russia and Kazakhstan.

Sheep and goats followed 9,000 years ago pig and that 8,500 years ago Beef. Pigs were domesticated in the Middle East and China; the pigs were believed to have been fed beechnuts and acorns in the woods, and were supposed to help man transform woodlands. As well as Bovine and later) Horses domesticated, humans opened up an important new source of energy: When tilling the fields, he no longer had to rely solely on his own muscle power, but could use oxen and horses. Cattle and horses also improved the arable soil with their dung. The use of domestic animals on this scale was limited to the interconnected land mass of Europe, Africa and Asia; There were no tame wild animals suitable as draft and plow animals in America and Australia. This fact should have a decisive influence on world history.

The spread of agriculture

Whatever drove the emergence of agriculture: many people continued to prefer the hunter-gatherer existence for a long time (and in some regions of the world to this day), even if enough food could be found without cultivation. But where agriculture began it led (albeit at the cost of the greater expense) to one Increase in food production - and this to growing population. Therefore, when agriculture began, it was maintained, as was the case in the Levant after the end of the younger Dryas - otherwise the population could no longer be fed. Not only the domesticated plants and animals had become dependent on humans, but humans as well on them.

The population always grew as fast as the food base allowed in good years. In bad years, people went hungry - and started looking for more areas that were suitable for cultivation. When there were conflicts between arable farmers and hunters and gatherers, the former were usually far outnumbered. In the long run, agriculture expanded and the hunter-gatherer cultures were displaced. These have sometimes resisted, sometimes the groups mixed up and took over (at least partially) the cultivation techniques of the newcomers (or developed some themselves). These population flows can be proven today with genetic, archaeological and linguistic analyzes, each of which sheds light on different aspects.

languages mostly spread with the speakers, so that the current distribution of language families that arose in the areas of origin of agriculture indicates the migration of people. The Indo-European languages, for example, go back to the fertile crescent and the subsequent expansion of the agriculture that arose there. (Later historical events could not erase this picture, since only long-term colonization processes permanently change the language of a region; ancient or medieval empires did not manage this - it was only after the 15th century that the colonization of the “new world” ensured an expansion of the English and Spanish Language.) Archaeological finds demonstrate, when these migrations took place, for example on the basis of the spread of similar types of pottery; genetic analysis show how the respective population groups have mixed. Scientists can now understand a story in the course of which agriculture conquered most of the usable land surface. The history of this expansion is presented on the page The triumphant advance of agriculture.

Agriculture - a revolution?

In Mesopotamia and other large river valleys it should first be shown that agriculture dramatically changed human life: this is where the first great cultures in world history emerged. The invention of agriculture was such a turning point in the way mankind lived that it was also known as "Neolithic Revolution“Was designated. The term was invented in 1936 by the Australian-British archaeologist V.G. Childe based on the "Industrial Revolution". It is controversial today as the changes were neither a quick turnaround nor targeted. Many researchers still stick to the term because the Effects were absolutely revolutionary. This applies not only to the way of life, but also to people themselves (see the following chapter) and to the environment: in the course of time - and in connection with many other inventions that further increased the productivity of agriculture - the population increased by at least 100 times as much (before the invention of agriculture there were four to eight million people on earth, in 1760 - before the start of the Industrial Revolution - around 800 million), and that means that the share of humans in the energy and material flows of the Earth's ecosystem also increased at least a hundredfold. The change in the environment took on completely new dimensions through mankind through agriculture.

Agriculture domesticated humans

The more important the role of gardens and fields for feeding people became, the more they "promoted" them Sedentariness: Cultivated plants were withdrawn from natural selection, they now had to be protected from competitors, the "weeds". And not only from "weeds", but also from animals that were attracted by the rich food supply. Gardens and fields had to be looked after, people stayed close to the fields. So the farmers had to give up the wandering way of life of the hunter-gatherers; whoever was not yet settled had to become one.

The cultivation and animal breeding also required new ones cultural and social rules: One had to consciously not eat part of the food, but store it as seeds; Some animals that are ready for slaughter are not slaughtered, but continue to be fed as breeding animals. You had to make sure that all refrained from collecting or hunting farmed animals on arable land. Tasks had to be distributed and carried out. In addition, sedentary farmers and shepherds could (and had to, when we think of tools for tillage or vessels for storing crops) amass much more property than nomadic hunter-gatherers: rules had to be found on how that property was to be distributed when the owner died or when groups that had grown too large split up. The French archaeologist Jacques Cauvin even suspects that the emergence of early religions is related to the emergence of such rules (040).

But agriculture also has people biologically modified: the changed food supply has proven to be a selective factor in human evolution. For example, our genes for amylase have multiplied and people from grazing cultures have developed lactose tolerance. Amylase is a protein that breaks down starch; the duplicated genes mean a higher amylase concentration in the cells and thus a better usability of grain. Lactose tolerance means that among peoples who, like many European, Indian and African peoples, have a past with pasture farming, adults also use lactose Recycle lactose can. In other peoples, such as the Chinese and Japanese, only small children can do this - the enzyme required for this is switched off, as in most mammals, after weaning from their mother's milk. In adults without lactose tolerance, fresh milk causes nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting; Lactose intolerance is now considered a disease among grazing peoples.

The close coexistence with animals also facilitated the transmission of animal diseases to humans; the higher population density its spread. This could not hinder the triumphant advance of agriculture.

The age of work began with agriculture

The effects of agriculture on the self-image of the human being are profound: The free-roaming hunter who was nourished by a living cosmos became a human being who had to work for his nourishment “in the sweat of his brow”; a person who had to worry about his plants from sowing to harvest (but for whom the land on which his plants grew became a “home”, which he bitterly defended); a person who was increasingly involved in community projects such as irrigation; a person who now had the opportunity to amass possessions and riches. Also a person who no longer had to take his children with him to follow migrating herds of animals; but who needed many children to till his fields and to provide his armies with soldiers - soldiers he needed to defend his riches and to conquer new ones. If we believe today that the lives of farmers and townspeople are fundamentally different - the difference between the lives of hunters and gatherers and that of farmers is still there much greater.

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The origins of agriculture

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Overview "The Age of Agriculture"

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