Ancient and Medieval Farming - History of Farming
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History of Farming

A field of wheat

People did not farm at all until around 10,000 BC, or about 12,000 years ago. About that time, there was a climate change that made Europe, Africa, and Asia hotter and drier. People had to crowd into the places where there was still enough water. They probably began farming because the area where they lived got too crowded. There got to be so many people there that they couldn't all get enough food just by hunting and gathering and fishing. Wild plants that you can eat don't grow close enough together. There are too many inedible plants in between. If you plant your own seeds, you can make there be more wheat and fewer weeds, so there is enough food for more people (though there tends to be less variety in the food, and so the food these people have to eat is boring and less healthy than what hunter-gatherers eat, and it is a lot more work than gathering).

irrigating cotton
Irrigating a cotton field in China, c. 1750 AD
from Columbia University

There are four main things you have to do in order to farm. First, you have to get the seeds in the ground. In most parts of Europe, northern Africa, and West Asia, people plant their seeds in the fall, around October.

Sowing Seeds

You can plant seed by seed, digging little holes with a sharp stick, but usually people used a plow. Mostly men did the plowing, because you have to have very strong arms, and women often walked behind the men, planting the seeds. The main kinds of plants that people planted were grains: wheat, barley, millet, oats and rye, and legumes like peas, lentils, and chickpeas. People also planted fruit trees and olive trees, and grapevines. Most people also had a small vegetable garden, for onions, turnips, cucumbers, garlic, spinach, lettuce, cabbage, and herbs like rosemary, oregano, thyme and mint.
(Click here for more about cooking and food).

Berry plow

Second, you have to weed the fields: you have to kill as many of the weeds as possible, so the plants you want will have room to grow. Usually women did most of the weeding, using a hoe. Sometimes you have to water them as well. Mostly this was done with irrigation canals and ditches. In people's vegetable gardens, people often carried their water by hand from a stream or a well.


Third, you have to harvest the fields. In most of the Mediterranean people harvest grain around June. You have to cut down or pull up the plants. It is usually men who cut (reap) the grain, with sickles. Women rake and stack the grain. In the Stone Age, sickles were made of wood or bone, with little stone teeth set into them, to make them into a kind of wedge.

A bone sickle - the stone teeth are missing now

In the Bronze Age, some fancy sickles were made of bronze, but still most people used stone sickles. After about 1000 BC, iron sickles began to be used in a lot of places, but you still find some people using the cheaper home-made stone sickles for another thousand years or more. People usually pull up legumes whole, plants and all, and dry them that way. But vegetables have to be picked by hand.


After the grain was reaped, it had to be threshed. You have to somehow separate the wheat (the part you eat) from the chaff (the part you can't eat). Usually people spread all their wheat out on a clean hard surface (the threshing floor) on a windy day and used wooden pitchforks to throw it up into the air, so that the wind would blow away the lighter chaff and the heavier grain would fall back down to the threshing floor. You had to do it over and over until the grain was all threshed.

Finally, the fourth thing you have to do is to store the grain safely until you want to eat it. This turned out to be very hard, and people tried a lot of different ways before they found a good way to store grain. They finally stored the grain in clay pots - this may be what made people invent pottery.

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
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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