Ancient and Medieval Farming - History of Farming
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History of Farming

A field of wheat

April 2017 - People did not farm as a major way of getting food until around 12,000 BC. About that time, there was a climate change that made more food plants grow than before. Everybody got more to eat with less work than earlier hunters and gatherers and fishers. Some of these people decided to settle down in one spot and farm their food, instead of traveling around picking wild food. People invented farming in different places: in West Asia about 12,000 BC, in Africa about 10,000 BC, in South America about 8000 BC, in China about 6000 BC. From there farming spread (sometimes as a result of farmers conquering their neighbors) to Europe (about 7000 BC, reaching northern Europe about 4500 BC), to Sudan (about 4000 BC), and to Native Americans (about 1 AD).

egyptian painting: a man pushes a plow drawn by oxen while a woman walks behind him
Egyptian painting of a man plowing
while a woman scatters seeds

In West Asia, Africa and Europe, people planted first figs, and then grains: wheat, barley, millet, sorghum, oats and rye, and legumes like peas, lentils, and chickpeas. In South America, it was potatoes, corn, squash, sweet potatoes, beans, yuca root and peanuts. In China, farmers planted millet and rice and soybeans. But people didn't just plant food: they also grew cotton, flax, and hemp for clothing, and medicines like coca and coffee.

A bone sickle - the flint
teeth are missing now

Early farmers didn't use many tools to help them. They poked holes in the ground with sticks to plant seeds in, they pulled weeds by hand, and they harvested using their bare hands. Women probably did most of this work. By around 3000 BC, though, people began to build dams and dig irrigation canals to bring water to places where it didn't rain enough to grow crops. West Asian farmers started to use plows pulled by oxen, and in Africa people started to use plows pulled by donkeys, to dig up the ground for planting, and flint sickles (bone with little flint triangles set into them to make them into a kind of wedge) to cut the grain for harvesting. Men, with their strong arms, now did most of the plowing and harvesting, while women did the weeding in between. Farming had a tendency to get people into debt, and there were a lot of arguments about this debt.

stone carving of man walking behind harvesting machine
Roman carving of a harvesting machine

By the time of the Roman Empire, farmers had more efficient tools: they had iron tips on their plows, and rich estates had sharp-toothed harvesters that could cut the grain as they drove through the fields. Some poorer peasants began to use bronze or iron sickles, though many who were really poor still used the cheaper flint ones. Water mills in China, Central Asia, Europe, and North Africa saved women the hard work of grinding grain into flour, and sharp hoes made weeding easier. Big dams and irrigation meant that some of the most productive places on earth were places where it was very sunny and almost never rained - Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, and Central Asia.

Berry plow

The Middle Ages brought more new technologies to farming, especially the harrow, which turned over the dirt as you plowed. In Europe, people started to use three-crop rotation, which was a more efficient use of land. At the same time, people started to grow a lot of crops in new places: farmers started to grow sugar and cotton in West Asia, Egypt, and China, and rice in Europe.

When European traders reached North and South America in the late 1400s AD, they also brought many crops back and forth. Traders brought rice, sugar, and coffee from Eurasia and Africa to the Americas. They brought coca, chocolate, sweet potatoes, peanuts, yuca root, tomatoes, chili peppers, and potatoes from the Americas to Asia and Africa. But still most people had to work on farms in order to grow enough food for everybody to eat. Plus, people started to change their clothes more, and more people had to work growing cotton for clothing. Most of these people were very poor: in the 1800s AD, many of them were enslaved.

Finally, in the 1800s AD, the invention of the internal combustion engine made it possible to give up farm animals for gas-powered tractors and harvesters. These big, powerful machines replaced many plowmen and harvesters as well as animals. By the mid-1900s, only a tiny number of people worked on farms in the United States, and today, across the whole world, less than half the people work on farms growing food or cotton for clothing.

Learn by doing: Gardening
More about early farming

Bibliography and further reading about early farming:

Native American farming
Egyptian farming
African farming
More about the ancient economy home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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