Food around 2,000 BC

The Globe

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. (Patterns in Prehistory)

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 years 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. (Patterns in Prehistory)


African sorghum and cotton reached India by around 2000 BC, while bananas and yams from tropical Southeast Asia crossed the Indian Ocean to enrich agriculture in tropical Africa. (The Third Chimpanzee)

Southwest Asia

Another important domesticated animal was the pig, whose bones have been recovered from sites all over Southwest Asia. By 6,000 BC and even as late as 2,700 BC pig bones represent 20 to 30% of all mammal remains at many large sites. Sometime after about 2,400 BC pork apparently was religiously proscribed in most Mesopotamian cities, as well as in Egypt and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. (Patterns in Prehistory)

In Sumer, wheat, barley, vegetables, and dates were the major crops, while cattle raising and fishing were of almost equal importance. Cattle were raised for draft power, hides, and milk and meat. Fish was a staple, as were mutton, goat, and pork. It is interesting in view of their later status as a taboo food in much of the Midddle East that pigs were a common sight on Sumerian farms, prized for their fat and grease (although rarely if ever depicted in art, except in figures and ceramics). Adams estimates that for subsistence each person would need about one hectare of barley and wheat fields, along with at least some pastures and orchards. (Patterns in Prehistory)

In the ruins, archaeologists found several raised oval basins lined with plaster. High concentrations of tartaric acid in the plaster indicated that the basins were used in wine production, though some of the basins may have served several purposes. (84)

Cuneiform tablets from the city of Ur, dating from around 4.1 kya, suggest that yield-to-seed ratios of 30:1 were normal for irrigated fields in southern Mesopotamia, and that higher ratios (up to 50:1) were possible. (Climate Change in Prehistory)

As late as 4.9 kya pig bones represented 20 to 30% of all mammal remains in many large sites. Then, sometime after 4.4 kya, pork apparently became religiously proscribed in most Mesopotamian cities and in Egypt. The fact that the timing of this change coincides with the hotter drier climate that led to the collapse of the Akkadian Empire may explain the elimination of poor piggy. (Climate Change in Prehistory)



Indus Valley

The thousands of people who lived at Mohenjo-daro included many craftsmen, such as goldsmiths, potters, weavers, brick masons, architects, and many other specialists, and streets were lined with stores and shops. Cereals—particularly barley, but also wheat—were the basis of the economy, supplemented by dates, melons, sesame, peas, mustard, and other crops. Cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and domestic fowl were the major animal foods, and buffaloes, camels, asses, dogs, and cats, were also kept. A few elephant bones have been found. The horse apparently was rarely used until the very end of the Harappan period. (Patterns in Prehistory)

African sorghum and cotton reached India by around 2000 BC... (The Third Chimpanzee)


Another crop of considerable importance in north China was soybeans; several wild varieties were in cultivation by at least 1,600 BC. The substitution of soybeans for milk and meat in early Chinese diets explains why many Asian populations never evolved the enzymes necessary to digest milk products. (Patterns in Prehistory)

Like their counterparts in other early civilizations, ancient Chinese farmers eventually made a momentous transition: instead of the slash-and-burn agriculture practiced in the Yangshao period, shifting fields from year to year, they began in Longgshan times to cultivate the same fields each year. The costs of doing this are high: one has to use animal manure, clovers, and discarded plants to renew fertility, or else irrigation water must be led to the fields through canals to replenish soil fertility. (Patterns in Prehistory)

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. (Patterns in Prehistory)

The High Neolithic. The most important archaeological site in the whole of the Far East is at Anyang, in the northeastern comer of Honan, where the Swedish geologist J. G. Andersson (the same to whom we owe the find of Cboukoutien) discovered three superimposed strata of pottery, representing the earliest levels of the Chinese high neolithic and hieratic city state, as follows: the painted pottery of the Yangshao culture level (c. 2200-1900 BC, shown above), the black pottery of the Lungshan culture level (c. 1900-1523 BC), and the white pottery and bronze sacrificial vessels of the Shang culture level (1523-1027 BC). Pigs, cattle, and dogs were the domestic beasts of the Yangshao complex, with a considerable emphasis on the pigs, and the chief crop was a millet or primitive wheat. (Primitive Mythology)


Domestic horses and camels were in use by the mid-second millennium BC in much of this area, and with the addition of two-wheeled carts, the development of a diet based on milk products rather than meat, and the emergence of an aggressive chiefdom-like command structure, Eurasian nomads terrorized Europe and sacked China time and time again. (Patterns in Prehistory)

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). (Gods, Genes, and Consciousness)

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. (Patterns in Prehistory)

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. (Patterns in Prehistory)

In the mountains are lush valleys large basins, and high grassy plateaus (called punas). Hunters and gatherers here were succeeded after 1800 BC by farmers of potatoes, maize, quinoa, and other crops, and by herders of llamas and alpaca (domesticated New World camels). (Patterns in Prehistory)

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. (Patterns in Prehistory)

Domesticated potatoes were found in sites in Peru's Casma Valley in occupations dating around 2250 BC to 1775 BC, and there are traces of cultivation that may go back as early as about 4400 BC Andean mountain peoples developed a method of storing potatoes by freeze-drying them. (Patterns in Prehistory)

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. (Patterns in Prehistory)

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. (Patterns in Prehistory)

There is no general term, other than Andean, for the agricultural civilization that, as archaeological research has discovered, constituted the dominant life-way of the Andean highlands from about two centuries before the birth of Christ. The theme of this civilization--as myth confirms--was unity in diversity. Although there were very many tribes, languages, and customs within the Andean ecumene, there was a unifying religious view, one founded on a shared, astronomically based, cosmological vision. It is this civilization--for civilization it was, in every sense of the word--to which the word Andean refers. The Incas did not become a force in Andean life until early in the 1400s. (The Secret of the Incas)


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. (Patterns in Prehistory)

In the Abeja phase (c. 3,400-2,300 BC), MacNeish believes that the area was occupied by "central-based bands," people who lived for long periods, and perhaps most of the year, in large camps and relied heavily on cultivated plants. (Patterns in Prehistory)

…by about 4,000 years ago, maize cob size was large enough that people over large areas of the Mexican highlands could subsist mainly on maize. Grinding corn and making tortillas out of it may not seem to be a great technological leap forward from hunting-foraging, but maize, along with beans, squash, and a variety of other plants, provided the reliable and productive source of food required for people to be able to live in one place permanently. However maize was domesticated, and by whom, maize appears to have reached sufficient productivity to permit the village-farming way of life soon after about 2000 BC, and agricultural communities appeared at about this time in many different areas. (Patterns in Prehistory)

Most of the earliest farming communities were tiny hamlets villages of ten to twelve houses that were home to about fifty to sixty people, but some communities were larger. Most houses that have been excavated have yielded the same remains, mainly grinding stones, storage pits, pieces of large ceramic storage jars, bones of cottontail rabbits, carbonized maize fragments and broken pieces of ceramic charcoal braziers. In addition, ovens, middens, and graves are very common. While the proportion of plant and animal foods varied somewhat, all villages probably grew maize, beans, squash, peppers, and some other crops, and hunted deer and rabbits. (Patterns in Prehistory) 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. (Primitive Mythology)

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. Rounding out the trinity of Mesoamerican staples, carbonized squash remains at San Andres have been dated directly through atomic mass spectometry to 2465 BC, and they appear later at San Lorenzo. (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica) the beginning of the Formative period, around 2000 BC, the essential elements of a farming life were in place and settled villages supported by varying mixes of agricultural products and wild resources sprang up across Mesoamerica over the succeeding millenium. Excavations in the central Tuxtlas have revealed the ridged surfaces of Formative period gardens preserved under volcanic ash, attesting to their antiquity in the region as well as the risks of volcanic hazards for agricultural production. (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

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. (Patterns in Prehistory)

…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. (Patterns in Prehistory)

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. (Patterns in Prehistory)

The Koster site, in the Illinois River Valley, was first occupied at about 7,500 BC, and people lived at this site many times, at least until about 2,500 BC. These people became masters at mixing and matching the resources of their environments. The annual autumn nut harvests gave them a stable nutricious food base, which they complemented with a wide variety of game, fruits, plants, fish, shellfish, migratory water fowl, and other foods. (Patterns in Prehistory)