The Invention of Farming

An Ancient Wild Barley Sample (photo courtesy TISARP and NPR)

An Ancient Wild Barley Sample (photo courtesy TISARP and NPR)

Archeologists recently discovered the ruins of a 12,000-year-old farmstead in the rugged mountains of Western Iran.  This site—situated in the long-vanished Fertile Crescent, the cradle of civilization–is one of the earliest documented farmsteads in the world.

These ancient farmers grew wheat, barley, lentils, and peas.  They domesticated these plants by collecting wild seeds and then planting them in a concentrated space.  The seeds were perfectly preserved at the archeological dig along with a few stone tools, a sickle, and a mortar and pestle for grinding grains.

For historical context about this time period, 12,000 years ago, the dinosaurs were gone, but the progenitors of Native American Indians were still crossing the frozen land bridge from Asia into North America.  As they worked their way south, these first Americans still hunted wooly mammoths with their fire-hardened spears.

Meanwhile, in the remote mountains of the Fertile Crescent, the first farmers developed practical and sophisticated agricultural techniques.  They selected the plants that were easiest to cultivate in their soil and climate.  They used wood ash as a soil amendment, homemade compost, and native leaves as mulch.  These techniques, the most ancient of heritage methods, are just as effective today for backyard gardeners.

An Ancient Farmstead in the Zagros Mtns of Iran (photo courtesy TISRP/Univ of Tugengen/NPR)

An Ancient Farmstead in the Zagros Mtns of Iran (photo courtesy TISRP/Univ of Tugengen/NPR)

But how did those first farmers figure it out?  How did they put it all together?  It may have been as simple as a husband and wife at this farmstead discussing it over a dinner of freshly-picked wild grains.  They figured it would be easier to relocate the wild plants to their own garden, rather than roaming for miles every day hoping to forage something to eat.  This simple innovation is how farming was invented.

Around the same time, in the nearby mountains of Iraq, the very first sheep were being domesticated.  Hunters caught living wild lambs, and instead of butchering and eating them right away, they bred them into tame flocks.  By domesticating wild seeds and wild animals, and raising them in permanent locations, these first-ever farmers changed the world.

In this ancient farmstead, archaeologists also found clay pots and bowls decorated with artistic renderings.  The first farmer grew food in abundance, which freed up someone else’s time to make pottery, to store this new surplus.  And that freed up time for the first artists to decorate these clay pots, and to paint dramatic images of animals on the walls of their caves.

But that first farmer, standing in the first field ever planted, was simply doing his best, her best, to cultivate their own little patch of land, to grow enough food to feed their family—doing their best to survive in this great wide-open world.  And farmers are still doing the same thing today.

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