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This article is one of a series addressing globalization. Human history is discussed as four phases of progressively increasing social organisation (Natura, Agraria, Industria, Informatia) based on the form of energy used to drive social activity. Later articles give a brief account of the major world civilizations arising out of highly developed social organisation.See also Aboriginals and the Neolithic Revolution


‘. . . people were indeed much the same everywhere. Global warming gave everyone new choices, among working less, working the same amount and eating more, or having more babies, even if that meant working harder. The new climate regime also gave them the option of living in larger groups and moving around less. Everywhere in the world, those people who chose to stay put, breed more, and work harder squeezed out those who made different choices. Nature just made the whole process start earlier in the West.’

Morris p. 119

Modern civilizations can be traced back to five or six geographic centres of animal and plant domestication that developed independently, and at different times, after the last Ice Age. This occurred in the ‘lucky latitudes’ which extending from China to the Mediterranean in the Old world, and Peru to Mexico in the New World – a zone where both animal and plant resources were rich, varied, with some amenable to domestication . . . the most probable regions for such an event to occur.

We call this period of history the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution when these centres were established in the Near East of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India (the fertile river valleys of the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates and Indus rivers) and the Far East (China’s Yellow and Yangtze river valleys). Also in the New World (Mexico and Peru), New Guinea, and Sub-Saharan Africa (Eastern Highlands, Sahel, West Africa).

Chinese agriculture and settled communities arose about 2,000 years after those of the Near East and the valleys of the Indus with the major plant domesticates being wheat, barley, and peas, and the animals being goats, sheep, cattle, and pigs. The Yangtze and Yellow rivers of East Asia had different domesticates, these being millet, rice, pigs, and water buffalo. In Mesoamericait was squash, peanuts, potatoes, maize, llama, and alpaca; in New Guinea bananas and taro. Australia had no such potential beasts of burden and or other obvious potential domesticates.

The domestication of animals and plants and the growth of communities in these agricultural centres is discussed in the article on the origins of agriculture.

It would take about 5000 years for farming practices to pass from the Near East across Europe to eventually reaching the Atlantic coast in the northwest in about 4000 BCE. It would take even longer to move eastward from centres in the Far East, arriving in the Philippines in about 1,500 BCE.

This article on Agraria refers to a long-term phase of human Big History period of agriculture biological, social, environmental, and economic implications of this momentous transition in human existence. It lasted about 11,500 years, from about 10,000 BCE to about 1550 CE as small communities grew into Bronze Age cities. But it was a period when most people in the world lived in rural communities working the land, leading a settled existence devoted to subsistence food production based on domesticated plants and animals.


The nomadic hunter-gatherers of Natura were always on the move and could not carry many children or goods. Efficiency demanded that the travelling group rarely exceeded 20 to 40 people. These small mobile extended families led simple, uncomplicated, and efficient lives, seeking out seasonal supplies of food.

Plant and animal domestication became possible when communities settled in one place. With stored grain, readily available meat, and permanent housing, families now accumulated material possessions, and they could support more children. As population sizes increased more social organization was required. Hierarchical social structures were adopted with a division of labour that facilitated the rapid development of both material and symbolic culture that we associate with the word ‘civilization’. Strong social hierarchies were built around political, wealth, and gender difference while systems of law were now needed to address questions about property and ownership.

Developments in material culture included: temples; palaces and administration centres; domestic housing; centres of learning; workshops for manufacture, pottery, and metalwork; burial sites; public meeting places; markets; streets, and the kind of monumental architecture that has continued up to the present day as the familiar surroundings of everyday urban living. It also included major infrastructure such as hydraulic engineering systems bringing water to citizens.

Physical structures were integrated with the symbolic culture of social administration, manufacture, medicine, the law, religion, commerce, and trade. Writing had emerged c. 3300 BCE in today’s southern Iraq as cuneiform, leading to a Phoenician alphabet subsequently modified by the Greeks and Romans which launched an information and knowledge revolution the recording events of history, business transactions, medicines, and the law, including science (such as mathematics), and the development of art. This was now a form of cumulative collective learning that, unlike the spoken traditions, could be more easily studied and developed. However, literacy in classical Athens and first century BCE Republican Rome was available to about the educated 10% male elite. This percentage would not increase until the early second millennium in Western Europe and urban China, only rising above 50% in the age of fossil fuels.

By about 3000-5000 years ago, early city-like complexes existed in Mesopotamia (e.g. Uruk, Ur), Egypt (Memphis, Thebes), the Indus (Harappa, Mohenjo-daro) and lower Yangtze (Liangzhu culture) and middle and lower Yellow River (Longshan culture). The expenditure of human energy for agriculture, transport, and trade was now being conserved by the introduction of the wheel and the domestication of more docile animals suited for ploughing the fields and drawing carts, most notably the horse, now widely used for human transport and communication between urban centres, but also in warfare employing chariots. Internal violence, which was detrimental to the collective, was now discouraged by the city-state which now engaged in warfare with rival cities and states.

The growth of populations combined with the development of their material and symbolic technologies led to efficiencies of scale as cities improved food production techniques, traded over wider geographic areas, gathered armies and navies, building seagoing ships that could venture out of river valleys and into the oceans.

Slow human biological evolution during the period of Natura had taken place over around 300,000 years, but with the onset of Agraria it entered a new phase of rapid cultural evolution powered by the surplus energy of agriculture and the social organization needed to generate new material and symbolic technologies.

With the collapse of Egypt and Mesopotamia the former geographic paradigm of irrigated crops grown along the Banks of trading river valleys began to change. In the later years of Agraria, the scale of social organization permitted the construction of ocean-going ships operating between coastal trading hubs.  These galleons accessed new long-distance maritime trade routes, and a new phase of human existence began.

Humanity had transitioned from nature to culture, moving out of natural environments dominated by wild plants and animals, into man-made rural (but becoming increasingly urbanized) cultural landscapes dominated by cultivated plants and domesticated animals. The diet had shifted from one of wild greens, seed, fruit, and root vegetables supplemented by the meat of hunted animals, to one of mostly cereals, often converted into bread, supplemented by the meat of domesticated animals.

Cultivated plants

While the countryside around rural communities (depending on the population size) now consisted of fields and agricultural crops, there was also the introduction of plants to urban space.

The civic spaces that displayed cultivated plants included the: burial precincts; social forums; markets; areas for farming, market gardens, and vineyards; domestic parks and gardens; and administrative precincts such as palaces. There is now a clear distinction between nature and culture, wild and cultivated, in both language and physical space. Ecological impact is mostly concentrated in the region immediately adjacent to the community.

Environment of evolutionary adaptation

The adoption of a settled, rather than nomadic, way of life resulted in a transition from life in wild nature to, eventually, life in cities. The larger the community the more food that was needed and the more arable land near dwellings would be made over to crops. A critical distinction would now be made between nature and culture, between wild plants and cultivated plants. Ownership and control of land and objects now becomes important and indicated by boundary fences and walls that define community spaces that have persisted throughout history, places for: domesticated animals, vineyards, orchards, vegetables, medicinal plants; domestic dwellings and gardens – private space for cultivating plants; a public forum and/or market; a place for relaxation/entertainment; administration; religious ceremony; burial and ancestors; public thoroughfares.

All these spaces could contain cultivated plants and all had arisen as a consequence of the adoption of agriculture. It was the energy released by cultivated crops that made civilization possible.

Coevolution is reciprocal interaction. Human plant selection, say for greater yield, need hardly have been intentional, as productive plants would have had most appeal. Humans, by tilling, irrigation, weeding, and fertilizing, provide an amenable environment for the selected plants and in so doing modifying their own behaviour towards domesticated animals and commercial crops by embracing the range of activities and mutual interdependence we now call agriculture.
Settled communities would soon deplete local wild food resources – the animals and plants that once formed the basic diet. With ample food energy from agricultural sources population numbers increased but with a greater reliance on their cultivated sources: the more carefully crops were managed, the more attention they required in future – as agriculture increased in scale, and demanded more time. Those who worked hardest would tend to benefit the most, thus encouraging a work ethic.

The environment of human evolutionary selection (those environmental factors most strongly influencing human survival and reproduction) was now less about the forces of nature and more about urban and rural fortunes and social interaction: more a consequence of culture than nature.

Wild plants
Greens, seed, fruit, tubers
Cultivated plants
Mostly cereals, often processed to form bread

Social change was no doubt gradual as some communities may have settled initially for just part of the year, others were nomadic pastoralists, herders who lived, not so much by hunting and foraging, but by shepherding their livestock to whatever pasture was available. These modes of existence could exist side by side as indeed occurred between hunter-gatherer Aborigines of Australia and the Pacific islander farmers of the Torres Strait to the north. Sharp distinctions between agriculture, herding, farming and horticulture are hard to draw and we can imagine many kinds of transitional social organization.

It would seem that the advantages of scale (food storage, armies, navies, complex technology) arising from urban societies posed a severe threat to the nomadic and pastoral lifestyles. Though disease was more common in urban societies, passed on from animal domesticates as zoonoses, developed immunities meant that deadly pathogens were easily passed on to outsiders.

Scholars are still divided in their assessment of the consequences of this major social transition.

The social consequences of the agricultural revolution would have been dramatically on display when the first European settlers set foot in Australia. On that day clothed and uniformed Europeans from an industrial society on the other side of the Earth stood side by side with self-sufficient naked nomadic hunter-gatherers. In just a few generations of European occupation Australia was thrown from a self-sufficiency subsistence Stone Age economy into a global system of free trade and industrial agriculture.

Social organization

The transition from Natura to Agraria was accompanied by an increase in the complexity of social organization. For nomadic peoples possessions, even children, were a burden to travel as conservation of energy paramount. In contrast, settled communities could develop increasingly elaborate material cultures.

The objects of material culture that accumulated in agrarian settlements were the physical elaboration of social functions set in dedicated spaces: politics and administration, food production, trade, education, relaxation, entertainment, burial, worship, housing.
So, increase in social organization entailed the placement of the structures of material culture within functionally dedicated social spaces as part of the social structural and functional differentiation and diversification that emerged with the establishment of villages, towns and eventually, in the Bronze Age, cities.

So, simple social functions were accompanied by the physical objects of material culture (structures) amenable to increasing elaboration. increasingly elaborate materialsn ow delineated more clearly by social spaces containing dedicated physical structures as indicated in the table below.

The sophistication of material culture was a signal of the degree of technological sophistication to citizens and visitors alike.

Societal structure

Neolithic societies could store food for long periods, grains being ideal for this purpose. In nomadic hunter-gather society children were a burden to mobility. Women were only able to carry one child at a time, new children being possible only when the young could walk. With the food supply secure sedentary life made more rapid population growth possible and family size increased. Temporary dwellings became villages and towns and then about 6,000 years ago (about 5,000 years after the first settlements) came the first cities. Without the need to carry necessary possessions from place to place personal possessions like pottery, armoury, and buildings could be accumulated, more elaborate systems of trade devised, and new commodities manufactured and sought from elsewhere. The benefits of scale could be exploited. Armies could be amassed.

Group size

Settled communities ranged from villages of about 100 people to tens of thousands in the Bronze Age cities. Lack of mobility meant that large families could now be supported.


The social energy needed for building and food production was provided by the muscle power of a working class (often slaves) fed on the concentrated energy of stored cereal grains and the meat of domesticated animals also used for transport and pulling ploughs (and also fed on cereal grains and plants). Average per capita energy use was now about 6000 to 8000 kcal per day, and an upper level consumption of around 30,000 kcal/cap/day.

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

The Agricultural Revolution was more gradual and diverse in character than once thought – not so much a response to resource shortage and overpopulation, more an extended period of experimentation as ‘proto-farming’ arising in many different and often changing climates and ecological circumstances, a variety if different plants, and often bearing only incidentally resembling todays horticulture and agriculture. Motivations for such practices were probably equally diverse. While temperate Europe began the domestication of cereals in the Fertile Crescent, rainforests in places like Borneo and New Guinea were being carefully managed to obtain maximum benefit from its foods, medicines, fibres, and structural materials. Aboriginal Australians were practicing ‘firestick farming’ tens of millennia ago. New Guinea highlanders were growing bananas, yams and taro on fertile swampy mounds over 7,000 years ago. Small gardens were developed in tropical forests and forms of shifting agriculture and forest burning practiced. In Asia, notably the rice cultivation in China, but also in Africa, the Middle East, Brazil and South America several thousand years of cultivation occurred before we see genetic evidence of domestication. In South America gourds, squash, and avocado grown in plots on riverbanks and alluvial flats in 9,000 BCE.[10]

After the last Ice Age and across limited latitudes and regions the presence of fertile soils, domesticable plants and animals, and suitable bioclimatic conditions, the circumstances were amenable for the uptake of agriculture. At the global scale independent, though similar, patterns of social organization and material culture emerged in different parts of the planet making the distinction between ‘West’ and ‘East’ meaningful. The ‘West’ included interconnected civilizations derived ultimately from the Mesopotamian core. By 4500 BCE this encompassed most of Europe, extending over the last 500 years to include the Neo-Europes created by European colonial expansion. The ‘East’ then becomes those civilizations descending from the core of plant domestication in China that began around 7500 BCE. To these may be added traditions emerging from Africa, South Asia, New Guinea, and the New World.

The settled communities of Agraria could support larger families, increasing in both population number and the land surface that they occupied. New cities, sometimes with tens of thousands of citizens, were surrounded by a zone of urban civilization, beyond which was a trading hinterland, then wild nature.

This development of Agraria resulted in a new physical and psycho-linguistic distinctions: a general distinction between nature and culture and more specific distinction between wild and cultivated plants. We see the emergence of functional physical spaces (often bounded) now discernable as gardens, parks and fields and the urban spaces we still recognize today. Domestic, or urban, gardens were a development of Bronze Age trade, diplomacy, and military conquest in the third to second millennium BCE in the cities of Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Aegean.


Agrarian space

The transition from hunter-gatherer to city-dweller, from Natura to Agraria, introduced humanity to novel environments and ways of thinking – to a new set of physical boundaries and mental categories, and probably the most dramatic transformation in human history. City dwellers of Bronze Age Egypt and Mesopotamia lived behind walls that both separated and protected them from what lay beyond. Within the walls was essentially a human creation, what lay outside was a wild environment. The distinction between nature and culture had been literally set in stone. Though nature was accessible beyond city walls and the immediate rural surroundings the plants of urban environments were deliberately introduced and managed: they were ‘cultivated’.

Up to the present day, plant cultivation in urban and rural surroundings has become increasingly the way that people now engage with nature and the natural seasonal biological rhythm of growth, maturation, reproduction, senescence, death, decay, and renewal. Plant cultivation was assumed a mark of civilization, an improvement over former ways of living, and an indication of human progress.

Even in the earliest cities we can recognize at least six functional human spaces designed to address social needs – all potentially containing cultivated plants and all with counterparts today. Collectively they are a physical representation of urban social values:

• space for domesticated food plants and animals – including grazing land or pasture, fields for (mostly) cereal crops; also orchards, vegetable plots, market gardens, and vineyards
•  domestic housing with associated cultivated plants: as medicines, condiments, food, ornament
• communal space: a city square or forum for discussion, often with space for trade (market), recreation, relaxation, and entertainment
• an administrative centre, usually the ruler’s palace and its grounds
• religious space for temples and monuments associated with ancestors and the dead
• connecting space for the passage of people and goods

New physical enclosures needed not only new words to denote them, they also created new distinctions that were absent from the Palaeolithic mind. There was now a difference between human or man-made space, and natural or wild space. Though boundaries were rarely absolute, there was now a difference between objects of nature, and objects of culture. Distinctions could now be drawn between natural & man-made, wild & cultivated, urban (town)/rural (country)/wild (nature). There were also more nuanced contrasts involving cultivated plants could now be made that were not possible before the advent of urban environments, differences between public/private, formal/informal, sacred/secular, work/pleasure, utility/luxury, and so on.

As cities grew, so too did the corresponding agricultural space needed to feed them. This created a new trichotomy, urban/rural/wild, in which enclosure, a feature of urban space would, through history, become increasingly associated with rural and, eventually, wild spaces.

There was a further, more general, development that concerned the long-term relationship between plants and humans. Hunter-gatherers were a part of nature, they lived within it, like any other organism of nature. Their source of life-sustaining energy was wild plants at the base of the food chain. Man-made urban environments were powered by man-made (domesticated/cultivated) plants. A giant step had been taken out of nature, and into culture: from biological evolution to cultural evolution. Today we are totally dependent on ‘man-made’ plants (cultivars). Attracted by the settled lifestyles made possible by plant domestication humans, it appears, were domesticated by plants.

Global food security through history

Is it resources and material economic conditions that cement societies, or myth and shared ideology?

We could say, as a consequence of human dependency on domesticated plants, that the plants ‘domesticated humans’ by forcing them to settle down, provide water, security of fences and boundaries, and space (wheat has flourished more than any other plant occupying 2.2 million of land).

Cities are not simply a set of social and economic relationships, they are part of their surrounding ecosystem, these were mostly local ecosystems in the past but for much of the world today they have become part of a vast global trade network and ecosystem.

The Neolithic Revolution had plants at its core. Plant selection gathered pace on a path that has lead to our current total dependence on ‘man-made’ foods (cultivars). At the same time the use of domesticated animals and their products, like milk lead to the development of lactose tolerance in a process of human-animal-plant co-evolution in which the environment of evolutionary adaptation has become increasingly cultural and decreasingly natural, some people interpreting this as a process of separation from nature as humans increasingly began to live in walled cities. Hunter-gatherers were intimately involved every day with plants in the environment around them, being familiar with the different kinds, where they grew, their seasonal variation and medicinal and other useful properties. Plants were generally ‘womens work’ while men did the hunting. Everyone was involved in the collection and preparation of food. With today’s division of labour in the West only about 5% of the population is directly involved with the land, more than half the world’s population lives in cities, and few people know where the food they eat originated.

Small roaming bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers placed little and distributed demand on natural resources. With population concentrated in urban space demand on nearby resources could, without trade, threaten survival. This marked the beginning of distance trading of commodities that has in recent times resulted in a global division of labour, commodities, and environmental impact. Whether this is a matter for any concern is debatable, but insofar as urbanisation enabled rapid population growth it also initiated the huge food and resource demands that we place on the land today and our awareness of the limits communities can place on local environments.

It is both ironic and sobering to recognise that it was global warming that triggered the onset of farming in the rich alluvial river valleys of Eurasia but that farming itself now has a vital part to play in the management of a modern post-industrial phase of global warming. It is also ironic that in another sense the more efficient we are and the harder we work the more self-destructive we become: this is as true for the hunter-gatherer who over-hunts his prey as it is of modern resource-hungry societies. Our only practical choice nowadays is to grasp firmly the advantages of civilisation while recognising and carefully managing its disadvantages. In hard physical terms the plough has had far more impact than the printing press.[7]

Food production across the world can be divided into three phases – perhaps we could call these three Agricultural Revolutions.

First, the Neolithic Revolution origin of settled communities living with domesticated animals and plants that arose independently in about five major centres across the world between about 12000 BP and 4000 BP when the world population probably ranged from around 1 to 10 million second.

Second, the use of the concentrated energy of fossil fuels with modern machinery and chemicals as industrial agriculture in the age of Industria brought the world population from 350 million in 1500 to about 1 billion in 1800 then, as industrialization spread out of Europe across the world, up to 2 billion in 1930.

Third, food was then needed to support the surging world population during the Great acceleration when the world population exploded from 2 billion in 1930 to 7 billion in 2015. This began as the Green Revolution of the 1950s and ‘60s which combined modern machinery with large farms and the bioengineering of high-yielding cereals like dwarf wheat and rice that needed a high input of agrochemicals (fertilizers, weedicides, pesticides), and irrigation water. This lifted much of the developing world out of poverty but there was an environmental cost.

The Green Revolution was built, in part, on the genetics that had matured in the 1930s and it was extended, post 1980, by the genetically-engineered crops made possible by the deciphering of the genetic code in the 1950s.


In the course of human history, plant cultivation arose and diversified into four major forms that we refer to today as agriculture, forestry, commercial horticulture, and gardening. This transition accompanied the increase in social complexity.

As new modes of human interaction with plants emerged, so too did the mental categories that we used to denote them.

It is now possible to circumscribe, under the convenient term Agraria, the mode of human existence that arose out of the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution.

This was the single most transformative event in human history with momentous long-term social, economic and environmental consequences.

It was at this time that there emerges a physical and mental distinction between nature and culture. Humans were moving out of their environment of evolutionary adaptation into environments that were increasingly of their own making. From this time on, changes in human circumstances would be mainly a consequence of rapid cultural change rather than slow biological change. Settled populations could now explore the possibilities of new forms of social organization and what could be achieved by a quantum leap in social scale.

The Sun’s energy that powered this growth in human population and social complexification had been converted by plant photosynthesis into either the food energy contained (mostly) in storable cereal seeds and the plant food eaten by domesticated animals and passed on to humans in the form of animal protein.

Sedentary lifestyles and long-term food storage facilitated the increase in population numbers and leisure time made the following new developments in social organization possible: a hierarchical social structure; division of labour facilitating new technology; armies and warfare; long-distance trade and diplomacy; ocean-going ships; elaborate written records used primarily the system of law and commercial transactions but also cultural history of various kinds; monumental architecture, art, and engineering; currencies of commercial exchange.

By the Bronze Age (in the West c. 3300-1200 BCE) mostly walled cities consisted of bounded physical spaces serving functions that have persisted until today: land for domesticated animals and plants including market gardens, vegetable plots, orchards and vineyards; domestic housing with associated private gardens; a city square that served as a forum and/or market; parks and other areas for relaxation, recreation, and entertainment; an administration centre such as a king’s palace and its grounds; religious space for temples, monuments and places to remember ancestors and the dead; connecting space for the passage of people and goods.

Associated with the emergence of novel physical features came new cultural mental distinctions – not only that between nature and culture but between wild and cultivated, city and countryside, public and private. Systems of property and ownership became much more elaborate.

The number of people living in cities is increasing, more than half the world population around 2007 and probably rising to two-thirds by 2030 (United Nations 2007). The human journey from early cities like Uruk in Mesopotamia around 4500 BCE to the modern megalopolis has taken about 6500 years.

The role of plants in the Neolithic Revolution

As a source of life-energy

The energy of the Sun stored in plant tissues during photosynthesis is the single source of energy that ultimately powers all living organisms.

The significance of the Agricultural Revolution is that humans discovered, by storing cereal grains, a way of preserving life-sustaining concentrated plant energy. Nomadic life-styles limited the number of children possible within small tribal communities: settled communities with adequate food allowed the human population to increase rapidly.

Further major advances in social organization energy

Cultivated plants


Though limited plant cultivation probably dates back into pre-history, it was during the Neolithic Revolution that it first occurs on a large scale as the cultivation of crops.


It was during the phase of city-building facilitated by agriculture that the category ‘garden‘ comes to us as an enclosed (sometimes sacred) and cherished artificial space dedicated to the cultivation of plants. Classics professor and garden historian Katherine von Stackelberg (2013, p. 120) suggests that it was in the Bronze Age interaction of trade, diplonmacy and military conquest that occurred between Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Aegean during the third to second millennia BCE that:

‘ . . . gardens emerge as distinctly meaningful spaces.’

These ancient civilizations all had cities with imposing royal gardens and artistically inspired religious precincts. Here we see, in the West, the first large-scale parks and gardens associated with royal palaces, temples, and tombs.

Plant hunting

Pharoah Hatshepsut (1508-1458 BCE) is famous for her expeditions to the land of Punt (Ethiopia or Somalia on the horn of Africa) bringing back living plants in her fleet of ships, their roots preserved in baskets ready for planting. This probably set a precedent for plant trophy hunting that has continued until the present day.

Botany, botanists & botanic gardens

For a more extended account see botanic gardens.

From a library of tablets assembled from all over Mesopotamia, written in cuneiform and curated by King Ashurbanipal II (668-627 BCE) in his royal palace at Nineveh (the tablets now stored in the British Museum) it is clear that medicinal herbs were grown in special gardens, the plants being carefully listed on clay tablets as a materia medica or herbal complete with synonymy and described by botanical historian Alan Morton as ‘the earliest truly botanical work at present known’ (presumably because it deals with taxonomic and nomenclatural issues) (Morton 1981, p. 9). The king’s knowledgeable physicians at Nineveh worked with about 250 different medicinal plants. Records in the library trace the Mesopotamian herbal back to at least the second half of the third millennium BCE (Wallis Budge 2011).

Plant knowledge was incorporated into a vast reference library. As in Egypt there is the specialised study of medicinal plants administered by a class of physicians – ancient academics who pre-date the apothecaries and professors of early modern medicinal gardens by at least 3500 years.

Key points

  • Reasons for the advent of agriculture are not entirely clear although it occurred in geographic regions and latitudes where climatic conditions were conducive to agriculture, such as fertile river valleys, and where there were plants and animals amenable to domestication. Once the step was taken it would have been difficult to return to a nomadic existence owing to the advantages of scale accrued by urban societies (technology, division of labour, hierarchical government with central organization)
  • Agricultural surplus meant a secure food supply and, as children were no longer a hindrance to mobility, the likelihood of population increase followed
  • Assuming agriculture arose in areas possessing both climate and species amenable to domestication then it is not surprising that areas in more fertile and climatically favourable regions would take up the domesticates and prosper, the prime example being the spread of agriculture from the Near east into Egypt, north-west Europe Europe, Africa, and India
  • Only a very limited number of species have been domesticated indicating that the limiting factor is species themselves not human ingenuity. Only meagre additions have been made in recent millennia. Of the 14 big domestic animals the sole addition in the last millennium has been the reindeer. Among plants domesticated in modern times include blueberries, macadamia nuts, pecans, and strawberries, of little consequence compared to the ancient cereals.[11]
  • Settled communities of people with food security improved day-to-day efficiency through a specialised division of labour
  • Though agriculture restricted local movement, cultivated plants had become part of the material culture that could be moved across the landscape and established at distant locations
  • Settled communities developed monumental architecture, systems of governance and law, science and art, long-distance trade and the ability to pass on information through writing
  • Cities on the one hand provided a degree of social security through centralised government, shared values, and the opportunity for technological, scientific and artistic advancement but also the formation of rigid social hierarchy and marked inequality involving routine hard work either in the fields or building construction, also the potential for local environmental degradation through the demand on local resources
  • Demand was placed on the resources of the surrounding country, long-distance trade often including timber and metals
  • Societies were mostly patriarchal with rulers associated with a priestly class and sometimes claiming divine status
  • Life in cities marked the start of a progressive separation of man from nature and ever deepening division of nature and culture as we see the co-evolution of humanity with domesticated plants and animals
  • Malthusian principles and simple biological growth suggest that increasing the supply of food (energy) to a population simply results in population explosion accentuated by urban living which permits shorter birth intervals since the children do not need carrying as in nomadic societies while plants and animals can be produced in much higher density in gardens, fields, orchards, vinyards, and pastures than in in the wild. More food means more people unless population is managed in some way
  • Agraria marked the transition from food energy obtained from wild plants to food energy from domesticated plants


Palaeolithic man had tools, religion and art but the lifestyle of the hunter-gatherer favoured small groups when large groups could harness the benefits of scale. Agriculture arose independently after the last Ice Age in regions where there were amenable climatic conditions and access to domesticable animals and plants. Crops that could be stored were a source of energy that allowed populations to grow and settled families did not need to carry children. Settled communities produced task specialization and more sophisticated technology, division of labour, hierarchical social structures, scribes to write and maintain commercial and other records, local and external markets. The spaces where people lived and worked were now created by humans who had now moved out of nature.

c.11,000 BP – Earliest evidence of agriculture in the Near East.
c.10,000 BP – Earliest evidence of agriculture in East Asia.
c.6,000 BP – Earliest evidence of agriculture in the Americas and West Africa.
c.5,200 BP – First states in Mesopotamia.
c.5,000 BP – First states in Egypt, first hieroglyphs.
c.4,500 BP – First states in N. India/Pakistan.
c.4,000 BP – First states in N. China.
c.3000 BCE – Silk production begins in China.
c.2,500 BP – First states in Mesoamerica & West Africa.
c.2000 BCE – There is regional trade all along what would become the Silk Roads.
c. 1500-1600 CE – More books published in Europe in a single century than in the previous 800 years.
c.1,500 BP – Chinese invent clay tablet printing.
c. 600 BP – Invention of the printing press.
c. 200 BP – Industrialization of printing and book production.
c. 20 BP – The internet revolution and the continuing digitization of knowledge.
500 BCE – 300 BCE – Persian empire in Mesopotamia extends trades east and west.
334 BCE – 323 BCE – Conquests of Alexander the Great link southwest, south, and southeast Asia with the Mediterranean.
c.200 BCE – First contact between China and the Greco-Bactrian descendents of Alexander the Great’s army.
138 BCE – Han Emperor Wu the Great sends his emissary Zhang Qian to the west, initiating commerce
129 BCE – Parthians conquer Mesopotamia. The Silk Road to China is now controlled by the Parthians.
27 BCE – 14 CE – Reign of Augustus Caesar in Rome, Chinese silk is very popular.
542 CE – The bubonic plague, “Plague of Justinian”. thought to have been brought through the Silk Road, devastates the Byzantine Empire and wider Europe.

Media gallery

The Agricultural Revolution

CrashCourse – 2012 – 11:10

Ancient Egyptian Cultivation

Harui – 2018 – 7:45

The Birth of Civilisation – The First Farmers – 20,000 BCE to 8000 BCE

The Histocrat – 2020 – 58:05

The Big History of Civilizations | Origins of Agriculture

The Great Courses Plus – 2016 – 30:50

Astonishing Revelations at ‘Oldest Temple on Earth’ – Gobekli Tepe

Pete Kelly – 2020 – 16:36

Gobekli Tepe And The People Who Built It: A Conversation With Archaeologist Jens Notroff

Stefan Milo – 2020 – 58:41

Number in world
Edible and widely traded
In today's human diet
Proportion that are cereals today
Major cereals
Grasses with large grains
Cerealsin regional agriculture
15 (90% human diet)
60% (wheat, rice, corn, potatoes)
56 : SW Asia Mediterr. 32, E Asia 6, C America 5, Sahara 4, N America 4, Australia 2, S America 2, W Europe 1
Near East - wheat, barley; East Asia - rice; C & S America - maize; Africa - Sorghum

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . revised 10 October 2020


Top illustration:

            Four phases of human history
            Image Courtesy Rob Cross – June 2019

Bottom illustration:

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