Agriculture and Domestication: First Steps Towards Civilisation

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In the previous instalment titled A World of Ice, we discussed the cold and grey world of the Ice Age. As it drew to a close, humans began taking their first steps towards building a civilisation.

12,000 Years ago, as the Ice Age was coming to an end, vegetation and wildlife once again flourished in the Northern Hemisphere. By the end of it, around 10,000 years ago, human population numbered a few millions. Domestication of some species of plants and animals began that enabled us to restrict to a rich diet of protein and carbohydrates.

Revolution

The earliest evidence of agriculture lies in the altered morphology of some wild species. The change in behaviour happened decidedly because of human intervention. Before the agricultural revolution, humans were mere hunter gatherers who foraged for food and subsisted on a great diversity of plants and animals.

By 8000 BC, the wandering foragers had settled down at various sites around the globe. The Fertile Crescent – fertile lands in the otherwise arid areas of the Nile Valley and West Asia, was one of the first sites of agriculture in the Neolithic period, starting in 8000 BC. As the wanderers settled, their population increased. This allowed the humans to work and feed for themselves on a given set of lands instead of ranging for miles to hunt and gather food. As agriculture improved, so did the settlements resulting in the building of large complex societies that led to urbanisation and eventually to civilisation.

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Production

Cereals and pulses were the main crops that were given high priority as they are easy to store and rich in protein. These were grown in sub-tropical regions from wild grasses. Beans, peas, legumes, etc. sustained these early civilisations and are still staple food in most parts of the modern world.

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Domesticated animals on a Sumerian cylinder seal, 2500 BC. 

Potatoes were farmed in the Andes and are now one of the most common food sources in the world.

Excavation sites across the Levant have yielded charred crop seeds and bones of domestic animals like sheep and goats. But it is important to note that cultivation of crops preceded pastoralism of animals by at least a thousand years. By the end of the Neolithic period, around 6000 years ago, dependence of agriculture had spread across most of the world. Irrigation and terracing techniques were invented and cultivation of fruits became a necessary practice.

Few examples of agricultural products:

  • Southwestern Asia: wheat, oats, barley, lentil, pea, garlic, etc.
  • Southern and eastern Asia: rice, soya, lentils, yams, banana, etc.
  • Tropical Africa: millet, cowpea, yams, coffee, etc
  • Mesoamerica: Maize, tomato, avocado, common bean, chilli pepper, etc.
  • Australia: None, as agriculture was introduced to the continent by European settlers in the 18th

Domestication

Animals like sheep, pigs, goats and cattle were domesticated in Western Asia. The fertile lands of the areas also sustained horses and camels which were also later domesticated. Settlements in southern and eastern Asia domesticated a few forms of cattle and pigs and chickens. The Americas saw very few animals domesticated – Turkey in North America and llama, alpaca and guinea pig in South America. Africa and Australia did not enjoy and forms of domestication or agriculture until much later.

 

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