The History and Development of Agriculture

It’s hard to imagine a world without agriculture. This pillar of human civilization has been around for thousands of years, and it’s responsible for our ability to grow food and sustain large populations. Early agriculture was born of this necessity, as humans discovered how to cultivate plants and domesticate animals in order to produce sustenance. Over the millennia, agriculture has evolved and changed in response to new technologies and discoveries, but the basic premise has remained the same.

But how did agriculture develop in the first place, and what were some of the key innovations that allowed it to flourish? In this blog post, we’ll explore the history and development of agriculture, from its earliest origins to the modern day. We’ll also take a look at some of the challenges faced by farmers and growers over the years, and see how they’ve adapted to them. So if you’re interested in learning more about one of humanity’s most important creations, read on!

What is Agriculture?

Agriculture is the process of tilling, cultivating, and harvesting plants and animals. Agriculture was a significant step in the development of stationary human society, as it allowed for the farming of domesticated species, which resulted in food surpluses that permitted people to live in cities.

Foods – examples being cereals (grains), vegetables, fruits, oils, meat, milk, eggs and fungi – fibers, fuels, and raw materials like rubber are the major agricultural commodities classifications. The agriculture industry employs one-third of the world’s workforce.


The history and development of agriculture begins with prehistory. Humans have spent the bulk of their existence as hunter-gatherers. This means that individuals lived a nomadic lifestyle, moving with the seasons in order to follow the food supply. Pre-agricultural humans primarily foraged for food but relied heavily on wild game to supplement their diet. Wild grains such as the predecessors to rice and wheat were first harvested and eaten over 100,000 years ago.

As the glaciers retreated and plant life patterns and growth locations altered in response, it meant that being able to migrate was no longer as crucial – though undoubtedly people continued to live for thousands of years as they sought to maximize their food supply. Hunter-gatherer tribes would have known which plants were best to cultivate with each season.

Rather than going straight from nomadic to agrarian lifestyles, a semi-nomadic existence likely evolved in between, in which individuals would set up camps for long periods of time, privatizing areas with the most valuable resources. It’s also probable that they had herds of animals that they took with them wherever they went, keeping them safe to utilize for milk, flesh, fur and other goods.


Tools used in a hunter-gatherer society were likely to include spears and other weapons for hunting and protection, as well as tools to create and build fires and to cook food, and

Plants and Crops

Fungi and wild plant-based foods were important components of the Paleolithic diet, which featured similar species that are today farmed. And not only were early humans hunting wild game and large animals and looting the carcasses of dead animals, they also consumed grasshoppers, termites, and other insects.

Early Civilization

The development of agriculture enabled the human population to grow many times larger than could be sustained by hunting and gathering. Archaeologists and paleontologists have traced the origins of agriculture to around 10,000 to 11,000 BCE, most likely in the Indus Valley or a separate development in China along the Yangtze River.

Agriculture was a flourishing science and technology during these early stages. It was during this time that irrigation, among other things, was developed, and the specialized workforce and agricultural technology specialization allowed for the formation of the first cities. As a result, these inspired the world’s first written codes and laws, and led to the development of sophisticated civilizations.


The first agricultural tools were used on plants around 10,000 BCE. The Sumerians began to settle in villages along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, using a canal system off of the rivers for irrigation. In the same vein, ancient Egyptian agriculture, like that practiced today in the villages along the banks of the Nile River, was based on river flooding.

It is a few thousand years later, but still within this era, that plows were first utilized to cultivate a field. See another one of our posts if you would like to learn more about the history of the plow.

Plants and Crops

The first known cultivated plants include wheat, barley, and pea wild relatives. There are eight consensus founder crops of the Neolithic period, which began to be cultivated in the Levant around 9500 BCE. These include emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, chickpeas, and flax.

Cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs were the first animals to be domesticated at around the same time. As farming expanded and evolved over time, more and more crop types were developed. Wheat, barley, vegetables like lentils and onions, and fruits including dates, grapes, and figs were all cultivated.

China has been cultivating rice for at least 6000 BCE, along with mung, soy, and azuki beans, with evidence suggesting they already possessed strategies to manage fire and water natural disasters. Additionally, 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, North Americans were growing squash, corn, and sunflowers long before Christopher Columbus sailed across the ocean.

Early to Modern Civilization

Agricultural advances were a driving force behind the rise of civilizations, for better or worse. Agriculture probably required more effort than hunting and gathering, but it was thought to provide 10 to 100 times more calories per acre. More plentiful food might have allowed for denser populations and allowed people to stay on their land. Small villages became hamlets, which eventually grew into towns and then cities.

People were free to pursue interests other than food concerns once agriculture provided enough to eat. Soldiers, priests, administrators, artists, and intellectuals became a way of life for those who did not have to be farmers.


The systems implemented during feudalism, whether secular lords or church holdings, attempted to enhance production with the growing population, and we saw significant technological improvements in this period as a result. It was a time of significant selective crossbreeding, particularly among animal livestock, as well as systems of organization. One may observe the remnants of the agricultural system in parts of Europe today in the form of medieval ridge and furrow strip farming.

Around this time as well, there were significant advancements in what we call “marginal” farming regions – areas where crops don’t grow in large quantities. For example, floodplains were removed, woodlands converted to plains and bracken cleared for grazing, and areas with low fertility were transformed or altered in order to make efficient use of them.

However, the most important and efficient technological development was crop rotation, which is the belief that one could improve crop yields by moving farmland usage around every year to avoid soil depletion. Crop rotation is a technique to keep pests at bay while also using one piece of land for many years, ensuring that it is productive. The field would be used as farmland for one year, pasture the next, and then left fallow for three years.

Plants and Crops

Starting with the creation of trade routes after 1492, the Columbian Exchange brought to Europe New World foods such as maize, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and manioc, while Old World products including wheat, barley, rice and turnips as well as livestock (including horses, cattle, sheep and goats) arrived in the Americas.

Crops such as sugar, cotton, rice, and fruit trees (e.g. oranges) were brought to Europe during this time as well through the Middle-Eastern influence on the Iberian peninsula.

The Americas

Squash, beans, and cacao were among the plants domesticated in Meso-America – by around 3,000 BCE, the Mayo Chinchipe of the Amazon’s upper basin was cultivating cacao. Cacao and the peanut, tomato, tobacco, and pineapple were also cultivated in the Andes. Cotton was domesticated in Peru by 3,600 BCE.

The Aztecs constructed irrigation systems, terraced hillsides, fertilized their soil, and created chinampas, which were small, man-made islands. The Mayas developed extensive canal and raised field systems to farm marshland starting in 400 BCE.

The Southern hemisphere of the Americas is also where guinea pigs, alpacas, and llamas were domesticated. The domestication of turkeys most likely originated in Mexico or the American Southwest.

Agriculture was first developed in North America by the indigenous people of the East, such as sunflower, tobacco, squash, and goosefoot plants. Wild foods such as wild rice and maple sugar were collected.

The domesticated strawberry is a cross between a Chilean and a North American species, cultivated in Europe and the United States. The Three Sisters, a system of companion planting invented in North America, was developed at this time as well. Winter squash, maize, and climbing beans were the three crops cultivated.

Forest gardening and fire-stick farming were practiced by the indigenous people of the Southwest and Pacific Northwest. The natives manipulated fire on a large scale to form a low-intensity fire ecology that supported a loose rotation, or “wild” permaculture, of low-density agriculture. 

Modern Farming

The British Agricultural Revolution, which began in the 17th century and advanced irrigation, crop rotation, and fertilizers, allowed global human population to increase by orders of magnitude. Agriculture in developed countries, and to a lesser extent in developing nations, has seen large productivity increases since 1900 as human labor is replaced by machine automation, aided by synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and selective breeding.

In the 19th century, was found that nitric acid combined with ammonium chloride to form a powerful fertilizer called “ammonium nitrate,” which could be used in large amounts without becoming caustic. This allowed the production of large quantities of fertilizers on an industrial scale, which are used in modern farming to improve plant growth by adding nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, or other nutrients that are essential for plant growth.

By 2015, China’s agricultural output was the world’s largest, followed in production by the European Union, India, and the United States, with the total factor productivity of agriculture roughly 1.7 times greater in the 21st century than 70 years ago.

Sustainable Practices

Alternative concepts like the organic, sustainable, and regenerative agricultural movements have developed as a result of modern agriculture’s impact on ecology, politics, and economics, including water pollution, biofuels, genetically modified organisms, duties and subsidies for farms.

New technologies such as integrated pest management, selective breeding, and controlled-environment agriculture have been reintroduced through the growth of organic farming.

In Conclusion

The history and development of agriculture has been an important part of the human experience. While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact date when agriculture started, most scholars agree that it had its roots in about 10,000 BCE. The ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and China all developed different types of agriculture around that time, and from then until now there has been a constant evolution of tools used for farming purposes and different plants and crops grown around the world.

From prehistoric tools to modern-day GMOs, we have come a long way in terms of food production. Modern farming has evolved into a huge industry that is the backbone of our society by providing us with more than half of what we eat today.

However with this progress comes new challenges such as climate change and water scarcity – which may require us to rethink how we create our agricultural systems in the future. It could be time to consider new methods like organic farming or permaculture which will help reduce some negative effects while still producing substantial amounts of healthy foods for everyone who needs them.

We hope you have enjoyed and learned from this blog post on the history and development of agriculture. To learn more about these issues, feel free to message us below. We can hopefully help you get started with your agricultural needs by providing consulting services or even just answering some questions!