Food around 4,000 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)



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)

As with agriculture, the invention of pottery seems to have occurred independently in many areas of Southwest Asia, where clay had been used for centuries for figurines and storage pits. The multiple origins and rapid spread of pottery after about 6500 B.C. no doubt reflect the increasing importance of containers in these agricultural economies--probably for carrying water, and for storing, cooking, and serving food.

Preliminary excavations indicate that from 6000 to 5000 B.C. Tell as-Sawwan was home to a few hundred people, most of whom were engaged in simple irrigation farming of wheat, barley, and linseed. (Patterns in Prehistory)

“When the royal scepter was coming down from heaven, the august crown and the royal throne being already down from heaven he [the king] regularly performed to perfection…laid the brick of those cities in pure spots. These cities, which had been named by names, and had been allotted half-bushel baskets, dredged the canals, which were blocked with purplish wind-borne clay, and they carried water. Their cleaning of the smaller canals established abundant growth.” These descriptions and instructions come from what has been referred to as the “First Farmer’s Almanac”: Keep a sharp eye on the opening of dikes, ditches and mounds [so that] when you flood the field the water will not rise too high in it.” With strict attention to detail the instructions go on: “Let the pickax wielder eradicate the ox hooves for you [after weeding and] smooth them out…[These are] the instructions of Ninurta, the son of Enlil.”(The Genesis Race)

Paleopathologists studying ancient skeletons from Greece and Turkey found a striking parallel. The average height of hunter-gatherers in that region toward the end of the Ice Age was a generous five feet ten inches for men, five feet six inches for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, reaching by 4000 BC a low value of only five feet three for men, five feet one for women. By classical times, heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the heights of their healthy hunter-gatherer ancestors. (The Third Chimpanzee)


But by 4000 BC agriculture had spread over much of Egypt, including the southern areas that had taken a few tentative steps toward agriculture in the late Pleistocene. Some people still depended on fish and wild plants for much of their food, while others were already heavily dependent on the wheat-barley, sheep-goat-cattle-pig combination that underlies so much of Middle Eastern cultural evolution.

Elsewhere in southern Egypt, excavations by Fekri Hassan at Naqada suggest that by the middle of fourth millennium BC this site was a large town that already was fully dependent on agriculture. (Patterns in Prehistory)

The chief Egyptian sites of the basal stratum are on the left bank of the Nile, at Merimde, in the Delta region, and at Fayum, somewhat farther south, as well as on the right bank, about two hundred miles up the river, at Tasa. The assemblages differ slightly among themselves but in their culture level are about equivalent, the characteristic features being a rough black pottery; excellent basketry; spindle whorls for the fashioning of linen; palettes for cosmetics; burial in a contracted posture (at Tasa) or as in sleep, facing east (Merimde) ; bone, ivory, and (at Fayum) ostrich-shell beads; boar's-tusk and tiny stone-ax (celt) amulets (at Merimde); wheat stored in silos; and a barnyard stock of swine, cattle, sheep, and goats. C-14 dates for Fayum range c. 444O-c. 4100 BC. (Primitive Mythology)

Indus Valley

The ancestors of the people who built the Indus civilizations spent thousands of years as small-time farmers and herders in the highlands above the Indus; most of the plain was perhaps only lightly occupied during these centuries. Domesticated wheat and the remains of domesticated sheep and goats have been found in levels dating to about 7000 BC in several sites in Afghanistan and Baluchistan, and the evidence suggests that thereafter the agricultural and pastoral ways of life spread gradually, from west to east, throughout highland areas where rainfall and streams provided sufficient water. (Patterns in Prehistory)

Rice may have well have been cultivated on the Ganges Plain by 4500 BC; indeed all over South Asia at this time people made inten sive use of many cereals, altho ugh most of these never became staples like wheat and rice. In a sense, it is as if all of these farming traditions coalesced on the Indus flood plain. (Patterns in Prehistory)

...this is what the discoveries at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro have now placed beyond question. They exhibit the Indus peoples of the fourth and third millennia BC, in possession of a highly developed culture in which no vestige of Indo-Aryan influence is to be found. Their society is organised in cities; their wealth derived mainly from agriculture and trade, which appears to have extended far and wide in all directions. They cultivate wheat and barley as well as the date palm. They have domesticated the humped zebu, buffalo, and short-horned bull, besides the sheep, pig, dog, elephant, and camel; but the cat and probably the horse are unknown to them. For the crushing of grain they have the muller and saddle-quem but not the circular grindstone. (The God-Kings & the Titans)


By about 4,000 BC scores of villages existed in north China, most of them subsisting on millet and a few other domesticates and a consideerable amount of hunted and gathered food. (Patterns in Prehistory)

Yangshao villages seem to have been abandoned and reoccupied periodically--probably because these people practiced slash-and-burn farming, wearing out the soil in the area around their community, then relocating the village, and eventually returning to the abandoned areas when the fertility was renewed by re-growth of vegetation. Around the houses were many deep pits, presumably for storing millet and other commodities. No doubt most villagers were full-time agriculturalists, but some engaged in silkworm cultivation, pottery manufacture, jade carving, and leather and textile production. (Patterns in Prehistory)


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, reaching Bulgaria about 5,500 BC, southern Italy about 5,000 BC, and Britain and Scandinavia between 4,000 and 3,000 BC. (Patterns in Prehistory)

Domesticated wheat, barley, sheep, goats, grapes, olives, and other crops were established all over the Mediterranean by 5000 BC, and by 3000 B.C. great volumes of commodities were flowing throughout the eastern Mediterranean world. (Patterns in Prehistory)

Paleopathologists studying ancient skeletons from Greece and Turkey found a striking parallel. The average height of hunter-gatherers in that region toward the end of the Ice Age was a generous five feet ten inches for men, five feet six inches for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, reaching by 4000 BC a low value of only five feet three for men, five feet one for women. By classical times, heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the heights of their healthy hunter-gatherer ancestors. (The Third Chimpanzee)

Domestication requires not just capturing individual wild animals and taming them, but getting them to breed in captivity and modifying them through selective breeding so as to be more useful to us. Since the domestication of horses around 4000 BC and reindeer a few thousand years later, no large European mammal has been added to our repertoire of successful domesticates. Thus, our few modern species of domestic mammals were quickly winnowed from hundreds of others that had been tried and abandoned. (The Third Chimpanzee)

The spread of farming across Europe during the early to mid­Holocene. (Climate Change in Prehistory)

The alacrity with which people switched to a diet of domesticated plants with the arrival of agriculture in northern Europe is striking. For example, in Britain there is evidence of a rapid and complete shift from marine- to terrestrial­based diet among both coastal and inland dwellers at the onset of the Neolithic around 6 kya. This suggests a sudden adoption of agriculture and animal husbandry rather than a gradual move to the new way of life. It implies that the new farming lifestyle must have been sufficiently attractive to persuade even coastal communities to abandon their successful fishing practices. (Climate Change in Prehistory)

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)


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)

Scholars used to believe that maize domestication evolved out of the hunting-foraging groups who lived in this area between 10,000 and 5,000 BC. But more recent evidence and dates raise the possibility that domestication and agriculture first appeared shortly before 3,500 BC and evolved out of hunter-foragers who had become much less mobile than their ancestors, moving only a few times a year, if at all, and concentrating their efforts on the wild ancestors of plants they eventually domesticated. (Patterns in Prehistory)

In the Coxcatlan phase (5,000-3,500 BC) the size of the groups that made repeated and probably seasonal visits to Tehuacan seems to have grown significantly, and they exploited more plants and did less hunting. (Patterns in Prehistory)

Wild bean remains recovered in caves in Tamaulipas date to 7,000 to 5,500 BC, and in Oaxaca from 8,700 6,700 BC, but the earliest known domesticated beans beans did not make their appearance in these areas unitl between 4,000 and 3,000 BC. (Patterns in Prehistory)

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)

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)

…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)

Perhaps the earliest domesticates found in the North American woodlands are gourds and squash. Charred squash rinds from west central Illinois have been dated to 5000 and 4000 BC, and some from Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky have been dated to at least 2500 BC. (Patterns in Prehistory)