The "Discovery" of Agricluture
Catal Hoyuk visualization
A visualization of Catal Hoyuk, the first known agricultural village, the site today
located in southern Turkey near the modern village of Catal Hoyuk.
Produced by the Science Museum of Minnesota

[question to designer - is it better to have illustrations like the above - on each page, or is it distracting? and/or does it take up too much space in a quarter of the screen?]
The term "discovery" is certainly the wrong word to use because it has a connotation of rather quick and abrupt action.  This "discovery" took almost 100,000 years!  Click on Discovery to see this time period in perspective. [note to designer - this link should show up in  section "b", upper right on the screen.]

The table above shows just how long it took for humanoids to evolve into homo erectus, and then to homo sapiens and finally to homo sapiens sapiens, all during what historians and anthropologists call the Paleolithic Age.  Indeed, the vast majority of years in the history of humans were located in this very long era.  It was during the next Age, the Mesolithic, that plants and animals were domesticated in certain locations on the globe, and finally in the Neolithic Age, that agriculture was "discovered" or really "developed."

Recently historians and anthropologists have been asking important questions and making important new discoveries about agriculture, its discovery and development.  Let's look at the map from the textbook above and see what it tells us, and then what has been discovered since the map was drawn just a few years ago.  By moving the tab at the bottom, you can see the development of agriculture over 6.500 years.  By 5,000 BCE, agriculture was practiced only in the Middle East, by and large in the area of the current Iraq war, though along the Nile River, and in sections of today's southern Turkey there were agricultural villages which have been found.  Archaeologists have also found remains of agricultural villages in South and Central America.  By 2,000 BCE, it was also practiced in much of Europe, large sections of central Africa, south-west India and northern China.  Going to the end of this particular time-line map, 1500 CE, there were still many parts of the globe where agriculture was not practiced - where only hunters and gatherers lived.  And there are still groups of humans, living some of the large islands in Indonesia, and in the upper Amazon valley, who are primarily hunters and gatherers today!

David Christian has written about what he calls the "preconditions"  [note for designer - as before, this link should appear in the section "b", upper right] for the development of agriculture.  You see that he reminds us that for early humans to domesticate plants and animals, there needed to be available plants and animals in the wild which the humans could learn to "tame".  This took a great deal of time, energy, and lots of luck.  And he also reminds us that not all plants and animals were available everywhere.

Christian earlier in his book notes that the area where agriculture really began, the Middle East, was, and remains, a not very hospitable place for farming - with arid climate and frequent flooding.  Why did it start there?   [note for designer - as before, this link should appear in the section "b", upper right] Another very popular and well respected scholar of global history, Jared Diamond, has offered some ideas on this, based on hard evidence.  He wrote in his best-selling book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, begins to answer the question by summarizing the means by which we can tell WHERE [note for designer - as before, this link should appear in the section "b", upper right] it began.

Although it is always possible that new sites will be found in other areas of the world which will force a revision of this chart, click on Origins of Plant and Animal Domestication, to see what is currently known [note to designer - again, the same, this goes in "b", upper right].  You can easily see that the "Fertile Crescent" , that is Mesopotamia/Iraq had enormous advantages over the other areas up until 8,000 years BP.  The other region which began to have early domestication was the Americas.  

This domestication of plants and animals is known as the beginning of the Neolithic Period.  Modern historians have concluded that the reason for the early agriculture in the Middle East was due to the presence there of wild plants and animals that could be domesticated - not to a wonderful climate very suited to farming!  Even so, it took thousands of years for humans to accomplish these developments.  Middle Easterners had available wild goats, sheep, pigs and cattle that could be domesticated - to become animals which produced all sorts of useful meat, dairy and leather products, not to forget also animal power for farming and transportation.  

What were the advantages of agriculture over hunting and gathering?  First, it permitted the transformation of the biomass, edible by humans, of a particular area from about 0.1% to perhaps as much as 50% - they had weeds then too!  This meant that the number of humans fed by a particular area could jump enormously, and it appearently did.

Once some humans learned how to increase their food production through domestication, planting and harvesting, their numbers increased to a point where they were able to establish what we might call agricultural villages.  The earliest one that has been found so far by archeologists is located near the modern Turkish village [also an agricultural village itself!] named Catal Hoyuk; thus we call this Neolithic village also Catal Hoyuk, though of course we have no idea what it was called at the time it was inhabited by early homo sapiens sapiens!  It was discovered in the 1950s, and early excavations over the next thirty years produced a great many finds - the basic borders of this village, and many objects or pieces of objects that its inhabitants had made and used.  More recently, a team of researchers from Cambridge University in England, and Stanford University and University of California at Berkeley have been able to employ new scientific methods and tools to expand this excavation, and our knowledge of this very early village.

You should click on this link - Catal Hoyuk - [please put this linked page on "b", upper left] to access the ongoing reporting by this research team of what they are finding and how it is changing what we know about the ancient world.  Click on "New Finds" and you will see what they found this past summer season.  This page is updated and changed every year.  Along the top, click on "Project" and you'll see the history of this excavation.  Now why is this important to us today?  Why would so many serious scientists and researchers from more than one university, and why would so many donors participate in paying for this research?  There are some who do think the money and talent should be spent on something "more important."  What do you think?  For those of you who find this fascinating, as I certainly do, you might check out some of the other links on that top line - under "Research" you'll find reports that this research team has written over the years explaining what they have found and why they think it is important.

The Science Museum of Minnesota has created a web page which offers 3-D  images, videos and interactive projects which give a sense of what it might have been like to live in Catal Hoyuk at the time. You can access this 3-D site by clicking on the "Links" spot on the top line of links on the Catal Hoyuk page.   And remember the date we think this village was in full operation, and for how long it lasted as an active village - recheck the textbook, p. 5.  You will see that the textbook authors believed at the time they wrote the page that the dates were in the mid 7th millennium BCE.  Do the researchers today believe that date is correct?

Even today, there are many societies across the globe which are organized as agricultural societies - still living in agricultural villages.  And until the late 19th century CE, more than half of all Europeans and Americans were food producers, living in agricultural villages [in Europe] and on farms [in the U.S.].  So it was a very big revolution, or transition - from hunting and gathering to farming.

As the authors of the textbook intimate, though don't say in so many words, the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture was not entirely an unmixed blessing.  There were a number of consequences which produced problems, and problems which we have not entirely solved even today:
  • a tendency to population growth - which we will see in the next section did produce "civilization" but also other problems
  • human vulnerability to infectious disease, periodic population declines [even catastrophic ones], and in some areas and by some people growing immunities
  • environmental degradation of the soil which brought about ecological problems, and in some cases, complete collapse of a particular society
  • growth of class distinctions between people
Questions to think about as you finish this section:
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of agricultural society over hunters and gatherers?  Which would be more able to dominate the other?  and why?
  • Why do settled agricultural societies seem to develop social hierarchies and regulation [i.e., law] more than hunters and gatherers do?

We'll see in the next section what the next steps were in the development of human society.  Move back to the Unit 1 Home page on the left, and click on the next link.