HUMANPAST.NET

Food                  1,000 BC
Africa
Southwest Asia
Egypt
Indus Valley
China
Europe
South America
Mesoamerica
North America
Other

In General

Just after 10,000 years ago, people in several widely separated areas of the world began to domesticate a few plant and animal species. At about the same time they built villages, began living in them year-round, and began to subsist mainly on plants they cultivated and animals they kept.(27)

When we look at the history of this massive change in human lifeways around the world, two curious facts emerge: first, all of the largest and most complex civilizations throughout history have been based on the cultivation of one or more of just six plant genera--wheat, barley, millet, rice, maize, and potatoes; other plants such as sorghum, rye, beans, yams, taro, and thousands more, have been critical to the survival of peoples, and domesticated animals have also been important sources of calories and power, but the six genera listed above have been the main engines of "civilizations." Second, one of the particularly striking characteristics of the "agricultural revolution" is that, not only was it rapid and widespread, but it also happened independently in different parts of the world at about the same time.  For millions of years our ancestors subsisted solely on the proceeds of hunting and gathering, yet within just a few thousand years, between about 10,000 and 3,500 yeara ago, people all over the world--without any apparent connection--began growing crops and establishing agricultural economies based on, for example, potatoes in the Andes, maize in Mexico, wheat in Southwest Asia, rice in China, and many other crops in many other places.(27)

Africa

 

Southwest Asia

 

Egypt

 

Indus Valley

 

China

 By 7,000 BC farmers at Argissa-Maghula in Greek Thesaly were subsisting on cultivated emmer wheat and barley as well as domestic cattle and pigs. The basic wheat-barley/cattle-pigs-sheep complex diffused at the rate of about a mile a year, and by the later first millenium BC, domestic wheat was in cultivation in northern China.(27)

The great mass of Shang people, however, probably lived much as their ancestors had, in villages of pit houses located along river systems, subsisting on the same kinds of crops and agricultural technology as people of previous millennia. (49)

The agricultural system seems to have been essentially the same as previously, with millet, wheat, rice, and vegetables the major crops, cattle, sheep, pigs, and poultry the main livestock, and water buffalo the only "new" domestic animal. The proportions of these crops and animals may have shifted somewhat, with wheat and rice expanding their range at the expense of millet. The mammalian faunal remains from Angang include massive quantities of boar, deer, bear, and other hunted animals, including a few elephants, rhinoceroses, leopards, and even part of a whale. Apparently intra-village trade in foodstuffs was voluminous. (49)

Europe

 Only in a farming population could contrasts between the disease-ridden masses and a healthy, non producing elite develop. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae around 1500 BC suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth (on the average, 1 instead of 6 cavities or missing teeth). (114)

South America

Maize phytoliths (the microscopic hard remains of some plant cells) have been found at a few South American sites that date to before 4,000 BC, and there is evidence in the form of phytoliths and pollen for maize in several areas of South America between 4,000 and 1,500 BC, but only at sites dated after about 900 BC are maize remains commonly found--often in coastal locations.(27)

Domesticated potatoes were found in sites in Peru's Casma Valley in occupations dating to 2250-1775 BC, and there are traces of cultivation that go back as early as about 4,400 BC. The ancient South Americans developed a method of storing potatoes by freeze drying them, and the potato is instrinsically very nutricious, and so this plant could provide the stability and reliability of production for South Americans that cereals did in many other places.(27)

In reviewing the evidence, Deborah Pearsall concluded that maize may have been introduced into South America before 5000 BC, but probably did not become an important crop until after 1500 BC. (52)

Peru's...sea coasts offer such a prolific source of food, in the form of many species of bird, shellfish, and fish--particularly schooling fish, such as anchovies. Even without farming, or with some minimal gardening, these coasts may have proffered enough reliable food to support many people--people who could live for all or much of the year in the same communities. (52)

…some of the cultivated plants--such as beans, tree fruits (e.g., guava), potatoes, and other tubers--that were available at this time and found at some sites do not preserve well in the archaeological record. Traces of maize have been found at a few sites, but it does not appear to have been important along the coast until after 1000 BC. (52)

The distribution of settlements in the Inkan valleys and the botanical remains found at these sites suggest that simple irrigation canals were being constructed from about 1800 BC to 1200 BC to grow squash, legumes, beans, sweet and white potatoes, and peanuts. The transition to inland settlement and an agricultural economy required major social and technological changes in the form of technology or irrigation, ground preparation, harvesting, and storage, as well as organized, coordinated labor groups. (52)

Only in a farming population could contrasts between the disease-ridden masses and a healthy, non producing elite develop. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae around 1500 BC suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth (on the average, 1 instead of 6 cavities or missing teeth). Among mummies from Chilean cemeteries around 1000 AD, the elite were distinguished not only by ornaments and gold hair clips, but also by a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions stemming from infectious diseases. (114)

Beginning no earlier than 600 B.C., experiments in irrigation on the broad expanse of altiplano around Lake Titicaca produced a distinctive system of raised mounds, recently discovered in satellite photos. In this system, water, let in from the lake, was kept permanently in the ditches between mounds. In dry times, crops planted on the mounds could wick up the water, and on cold nights the water would give back the heat of the day's sun, preventing frost damage to the plants. Fish were raised in the ditches, providing a source of dietary protein as well as fertilizer for the crops. It is estimated that in the years between 200 B.C. and A.D. 600, as much as three hundred square miles of land were under this form of cultivation. (167)

Mesoamerica

The ancient peoples of Mexico and Central America loved to drink chocolate. But their beverage was nothing like the modern one — it was a frothy, bitter brew of fermented, roasted and ground cacao seeds, often spiced with chile peppers, more like mole poblano than Swiss Miss. New archaeological findings by John S. Henderson of Cornell and Rosemary A. Joyce of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues push the date of the first use of cacao back to about 1100 B.C., 500 years earlier than previously known. What's more, the researchers suggest that this early beverage was something different again — a fermented beer made from cacao pulp, not seeds. (40)

Dr. Henderson and Dr. Joyce have been digging for years at Puerto Escondido, a village in the Ulúa Valley in what is now Honduras. They have found elegant pots, cups and other pieces of pottery and have developed a theory that the pottery was probably used on ceremonial occasions to serve cacao beverages. “Cacao was the social grease of Mesoamerica,” Dr. Henderson said.

The evolution of maize cob size at Tehuacan, from the smallest cob (left), which dates to about 3,500 BC to the cob on the far right, an entirely modern variety dating to about the time of Christ.(27)

(Around Veracruz) Except for a few areas, the region is thickly forested. Torrential rains fall during the summer, but the area is dry in the winter, which permits swidden, or slash-and-burn agriculture, as it is sometimes called.  Indeed the precocity of the Olmec in developing one of the first complex Mesoamerican cultures was probably tied directly to the great agricultural potential and rich floral and faunal resources of these riverine environments. (51)

A few traces of evidence about the predecessors of the Maya—or perhaps their genetic ancestors—have been found in what are termed Archaic sites, such as Coha in Belize. The hunter-foragers who lived here, probably shortly before about 1000 BC seem very similar to Archaic hunters elsewhere in the Americas, but they were supplanted by farmers who apparently lived at low population densities from about 1000 BC onwards, subsisting on slash-and-burn farming. (51)

The discovery that the Maya had intensive permanent-field agriculture with canals, reservoirs, and moats has led some to conclude that irrigation agriculture was a powerful stimulus of Maya developments. (51)

...an extremely well-conducted program of excavations in Mexico, in the once-inhabited caves of southwest Tamaulipas and the Valley of Tehuacan, has lately shown that by about 3500 BC (plus or minus a few centuries) some sort of plant domestication was being practiced by cave­dwelling hunting and fishing folk. Maize, it seems, was then first cultivated; and during the next two thousand years the signs increase of a developing horticulture, until, by circa 1500 BC, the beginning of something like a genuine neolithic stage of village farming seems to have been attained. (128)

At La Joya, avocado was particularly important, followed by oil-rich coyol palm fruits and zapote mamey, a fleshy, salmon-colored fruit with a sweet, pumpkin-like flavor. Palm fruits of a different species were exploited at San Andres. Ducks, turtles, and fish were important components of the Olmecs' diet as well. Equally significant, however, is the clear evidence from these studies that the Olmecs practiced a mixed subsistence economy that also incorporated a variety of wild resources. Beans appeared at San Lorenzo between 1450 and 1000 BC and may have been present in the La Venta area before 1750 BC. The abundance of aquatic protein sources and heavy consumption of dogs may have reduced the importance of beans in the Olmec diet, however. (159)

North America

 Analysis of the animal and plant remains from sites dated between 9,000 and 2,500 years ago reveals an extremely diverse diet. Rabbits, rats, and squirrels were trapped--probably with twined nets--and bison, antelopes, and mountain sheep were also occasionally taken. At sites near bodies of water, grebes, pelicans, herons, ducks,swans, geese, and even hawks and ravens appear to have been eaten. The number of grinding stones and digging sticks found in Desert West sites suggests that, as with most hunters and gatherers, much of the diet was supplied by plant foods. (26)

…sunflowers appear to have been domesticated in the East but from an ancestral strain that was introduced from the American West; that tobacco may have been domesticated through processes unlike any of the food plants because its main use was ritual and social; and that other plants, such as maize and beans, were introduced at a comparatively late date from the South but then underwent additional domestication and adaptation in place. (53)

The apparent presence of maize pollen in samples dated to about 2000 BC suggests that this plant may have been exploited for some millennia before it became the staple food crop, but the earliest evidence for substantial use of maize comes from Sheep Rock Shelter, Bat Cave, and several other sites and seems to cluster around 1000 BC. Domesticated varieties of beans and squash also appear in the archaeological record at about this time, but the diet was still probably based on a broad range of other plants and animals. (53)

Other

 But not until the first millennium BC did rice agriculture supplant the ancient foraging-collecting economy in Japan. (50)

The oldest evidence of rice pollen [in Japan]...comes from the well-known Itazuke site, Fukuoka, which dates to about 3200 BP. Since the plant is not a Japanese native, its presence provides definite evidence that rice cultivation began in Late or Latest Jomon in Kyushu. (124)