From our limited perspectives on time, it is easy to forget, that humans have not always been farmers and gardeners. As we plant our fall crops, just before this year’s harvest festival, let us remember our ancient prehistorical heritage. Let us take a momentary look at those first few awkward steps from reliance on the bounty of nature and the luck of the hunt, to nurturing food-bearing crops. For over 90% of human existence on this planet we survived by picking what grew without interference in the wild, and also by the meat of the animals we could hunt by our strength and wits.
The exact beginning of plant cultivation is difficult to determine. In part, this is due to the fact that writing and thus written history, occurs thousands of years after the prevalence of hunter-gather type social groups. Yet also, it requires an act of luck on the part of modern researchers to find the remnants of plant material needed for evidence, when these fragments are tens of thousands of years old and highly perishable. Until recently, the earliest evidence of plant cultivation found by archaeobotanists/paleoethnobotanists was excavated in the area of modern day Turkey and Iraq dated to approximately 10,000 years ago. New archaeological digs in Israel suggest that human beings collected seeds and grain as early as 23,000 years ago (BBC). Another current find suggests, that Figs, were the first cultivated food around 11,400 b.c.e. Interestingly enough, the fig tree that was tended, actually relied upon being pruned and clipped because of a mutant gene which kept the plant from reproduction without external intervention (BBC). Although the Middle East is considered the “cradle of civilization,” and one of the central points for investigation, the manipulation of natural occurring fruit bearing and grain producing plants for human consumption probably started contemporaneously in multiple locations throughout the world.
Even though prehistoric man used plants to supplement his largely collected diet, true farming is thought to have started around 5,500 b.c.e. in Sumeria. The use of botanical knowledge was not in itself a new invention. Five thousand years prior to the Sumerian empire, man knew well the properties of germination and foraging. But the cultural and social changes instituted by wide scale farming irreparably changed the course of man’s place on this planet. Wide scale food production, like that found in an agriculturally intensive societies, allows for greater population density and less time spent for individuals working to hunt and forage. This means there is more time to develop specialty skills. These skills, and the ability to accumulate out-of-season stores, are believed to be the main contributing factors to the development of division in labor, a political elite, and the production of large-scale standing armies.
Grains are a staple of the human diet, but did not make the main stay until around 9,500 years ago. It was during this period that the eight “Founder Crops” became wide spread through the fertile crescent and middle east. The first grain cultivated was emmer and einkorn wheat, and then hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, chick peas and flax (Wikipedia). By 6000 b.c.e. grains had been introduced into southeastern Europe and Greece. After 4500 b.c.e. grain crops were in commonly used along with animal herding throughout the European continent. In the Americas, corn, one of the most commonly used crops of the modern world, was actually created for the purpose of ritual. Through ceremony, over 200 different varieties of corn relatives whose kernels were hard and generally inedible were mixed to acquire what we call corn today.
Artificial selection, or choosing the desirable parts of the harvest, contributed to development of virtually every fruit, nut, and vegetable we consume today. Some examples of such determination by selection are: beets grown for their leaves developed into kale. Olives, flax, sunflowers, oil palm, and rape seed were picked by the amount of oil they produced. Hemp, flax, and cotton for their level of fiber for cloth. Genetically mutant varieties of poisonous plants that were less noxious were bred to develop into almonds, potatoes, aubegines, watermelons, cabbages, and lima beans. Stimulants were made by breeding the stronger varieties of roots and plants to produce; ginseng, tea, and camphor in China, tobacco in North America, coca and mate in South America, and coffee in Ethiopia.
Approximately 4000 b.c.e the problem with domestication of fruit and nut trees, due to the inability of a similar offspring being created from seed selection, was overcome through the implementation of the propagation of cuttings. Grapes, plums, pomegranates, pears, and apples, were later grown when the grafting skills developed in China were learned and used by farmers throughout the old world. Reproductive change occurred in many plants due to selective breeding. Apricots, plums, peaches, apple, cherries, and grapes, became hermaphroditic and began to be able to pollinate themselves.
It took roughly 8,000 years for human beings to convert from predominately hunter-gathers to primarily food producers, relying upon food production instead of food hunting as their source of sustenance. So while we today, use trial and error in deciding which amendments to enrich our soil, or the proper method in planting our fall crops, realize behind our decisions are 10,000 years worth of people like you and I who watched nature as an example, and tried with the best of their ability, to duplicate what had been provided by the cosmos.