History of Farming: What Farming Was like 10 000 Years Ago

What makes a civilization last?

Adaptation. Farmers have always been innovators, and necessarily so. For our societies to grow and thrive, farming needs to adapt to change. In this blog series, we will give a glimpse into some of the most important creations up until today, that allows us to sustain a population of over 7.6 billion people.

The History of Farming

Let us start at the beginning. The time is 10.000 B.C.E, and we find ourselves in the so-called Fertile Crescent, stretching across today’s Middle East. Among the rich soil and marches that covered the area, one of the most important inventions that our modern society still depends on is made. It is during this Neolithic Period that humans transitioned from hunter-gatherers to becoming farmers. We began to domesticate plants.

Plant Domestication

What distinguishes ancient and modern crops?

Our modern crops would considerably stand out among the markets of ancient Persepolis, at first sight due to their size. Plant domestication first began to make harvesting easier. Taking the first wheat as an example, the ripe grains easily scatter with the wind and fall to the ground. This makes the harvest and collecting of grains a labor-intensive process. To make harvesting more manageable, we started to select wheat plants whose grains remain attached to the stem, even when ripe. 

Through this selective cultivation, our crops have grown larger and produce a steadily increasing harvest. This process of selecting plants with desirable traits allows us to raise such a significant quantity of food today. However, not only the size of the crops increased. Through the same selection process, we have produced crops with higher nutritional values than their historic wild counterparts. The wheat, corn, and rice we grow today can make up 40% of our daily calorie intake.

Irrigation Systems and The Plow

Plants need water and the right soil conditions to thrive. Once we had begun to cultivate plans, we started to optimize. Though the landscape of the Fertile Crescent has changed dramatically since the first humans settled there, the intense heat famous for the region today was already present then. To make the most of the land and growing season, around 5.000 B.C.E we began to make use of the natural flooding of floods and waterways to irrigate our crops. The most famous example of this is the Nile. With reliable annual flooding, the farmers of ancient Egypt build waterways to direct the overflowing water out to their fields. Without such an irrigation system, they would not have been able to grow and support the empire that Egypt was soon to become. 

Preparing the soil for a new harvest is a crucial step to ensure proper crop growth and a large harvest. The reason for this lies in the nutrition, and soil health that enables plants to grow. To bring new nutrient-rich soil to the surface for the new seeds to grow, the ancient Sumerians invented the plow. Though initially operated by humans, before it was attached to horses and cattle, it made the everyday fieldwork of farmers across the region much easier. 

Though the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians contributed with great inventions still used today, their once great empires are no longer around. This highlights the importance of adaptation. A rapidly changing climate has played a decisive role in the collapse of many once-great civilizations, including Egypt. The extreme droughts and changing of the previous reliable natural cycles (flooding of the Nile) made the once fertile land uninhabitable. Though the problems farmers around the world faced thousands of years ago may still be on our minds, today, we are equipped to handle them. We can adapt much faster and combat extreme weather conditions such as drought, thanks to modern technology enabling precision agriculture. 

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