Food around 5,000 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

The first major period of occupation at 'Ain Ghazal began at about 7,200 BC and it was pobably occupied  most or all of the time until about 5,000 BC. Covering approximately 30 acres, 'Ain Ghazal is about three times larger than Jericho, but it is unclear how much of the site was occupied at any one time. It probably had at one point at least several hundred inhabitants, who ate wheat, barley, lentils, sheep, and goats, and lived in mudbrick buildings of various sizes and shapes. (Patterns in Prehistory)

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)

Besides mounds, the most obvious archaeological features of Southwest Asia are irrigation canals. Seven millennia of irrigation agriculture have resulted in a landscape criss-crossed With canals, and it is not unusual to find abandoned irrigation canals several thousand years old with banks still two or three meters high. There is some evidence that by 5000 BC rice, barley, buckwheat, and millet were being intensively exploited in some areas of Japan. (50)

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)

…the Sumerians would go on to build Earth's first great cities there and create the first irrigated agricultural plots from drained marshlands. Sumerian scribes tell us of their trees and orchards, well-watered meadows, bountiful fields, fertile soil--a land of milk and honey. (The Genesis Race)

The Sumerians were also responsible for the first appearance of the ox-drawn plow, mentioned in the ancient -'First Farmer's Almanac."(The Genesis Race)

With bread wheat, six-row barley, and flax among the plant remains at the Samarran communities of Tell es-Sawwan and Choga Mami, it is not surprising to find the first certain evidence of irrigation canals at the latter site. (Plato Prehistorian)

…knowing that the gods created man to die they endeavoured to enjoy life to the fullest extent. To eat one's fill, to make every day a day of pleasure, to dance and sing by day and by night, to wash the head and body and to wear clean apparel were the aim of most people. And the doctrines of the priests encouraged men to enjoy life to the full, for their descriptions of the Underworld were terrifying indeed. (Babylonian Life and History)

Household furniture was of a simple character and consisted chiefly of a bed, or couch, on which a man slept, or sat, or reclined at meals, stools, a small flat table at which to eat, the vessels necessary for cooking, which were made of clay or metal, bowls, water pots and jars in clay, a corn-grinder...(Babylonian Life and History)

The fertility of the soil enabled the Babylonian generally to eat his fill, but he lived for the most part on a vegetable diet. His usual drink was water from one of the rivers or large canals, and on special occasions or days of festival he drank palm wine. In humble houses the family sat round the bowl or tray that held the food, and each person helped himself with his fingers, which were usually washed before the meal began. By way of grace the master or mistress mentioned the name of Ishtar or Shamash…(Babylonian Life and History)


People in Egypt appear to have been in the process of domesticating cattle and other plant and animal species just as the Pleistocene was ending and the deserts were beginning to close around the Nile, about 10,000 years ago (perhaps earlier). But only about 7,500 years ago did some of the become full-time farmers and make the transition to village life and an economy based mainly on the foods that eventually were to serve as the staples of pharaonic Egypt—emmer, wheat, barley, sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. Sometime after about 10,000 years ago, Egyptians appear to have been domesticating several varieties of local grasses, and they also apparently were in the process-of domesticating cattle, and then later some other animals, such as the mongoose (icheumon), gazelle, oryx, addax, ibex, and hyena--none of which ever became completely domesticated or extensively used as farm or food animals. (Patterns in Prehistory)

Sometime between 6000 and 5000 BC, domesticated wheat, barley, sheep, goats, and cattle were introduced from outside Egypt and became the basis for the evolution of Egyptian civilization. Whether these domesticates were introduced for the first time in this millennium or were just successfully farmed for the first time is unknown, as are their ultimate origins. The most likely source of the domesticated wheat, barley sheep, and goats that formed the staples of the Egyptian diet is Syro-Palestine and other areas of So9uthwest Asia, where they had already been in agricultural use for 2,000 years. (Patterns in Prehistory)

It was, however, the sudden decline of the Isnan's technological skills that really began to capture my imagination, for around 10,500 BC the grinding-stones and sickle blades used in the production of cereals suddenly disappear without trace, only to be replaced by much cruder stone implements of the sort used by the other, less advanced cultures of the Nile valley. Agriculture then totally disappears from Egypt until it is finally reintroduced, possibly from Palestine, around 5500 BC, some five thousand years after the Isnan lost their advanced capabilities. Even stranger is the fact that, after 10,500 BC, agriculture appears nowhere else in the Old World for at least another thousand years. (From the Ashes of Angels)

Indus Valley

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 the Indus Valley by at least 5,000 BC (and probably much earlier). (Patterns in Prehistory)

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)

Soon after about 5500 BC, however, the people of Mehrgarh had begun to specialize mainly on sheep, goat, and cattle…(Patterns in Prehistory)

Like their neighbors in Southwest Asia, they complemented wheat and barley with many other crops, including peas, lentils, and other legumes, which people all over the world discovered could provide the vegetable proteins so often needed in the uncertain circumstances of primitive agriculture. (Patterns in Prehistory)

An epoch of spectacular geological turmoil occurred at the end of the last Ice Age, with the most dramatic effects registered in a series of cataclysmic floods that took place at intervals between roughly 15,000 and 7000 years ago. Is it an accident that this same 8000-year period has been pinpointed by archaeologists as the very one in which our supposedly primitive forefathers made the transition (in different places at somewhat different times) from their age-old hunter-gatherer lifestyle to settled agriculture? Or could there be more to 'the food-producing revolution' than meets the eye? After all, most scientists already recognize a causative connection between the end of the Ice Age and the supposed beginning of farming - indeed an unproven hypothesis that rapid climate changes forced hunter-gatherers to invent agriculture presently serves as pretty much the sum of conventional wisdom on this subject. But there is another possibility. Nobody seems to have noticed that in the general vicinity of each of the places in the world where the food-producing revolution is supposed to have begun between 15,000 and 7000 years ago there is also a large area of land that was submerged by the post-glacial floods between 15,000 and 7000 years ago: We have seen that this is true for India, one of the world's ancient agricultural 'hearths', which lost more than a million square kilometres in the south and the west and, most conspicuously in the north-west, at the end of the Ice Age. (Underworld)


…during the past decade many sites have been found that appear to have been the earliest Chinese farming communities. These villages date to between about 6500 and 5000 BC…(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)

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)

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)

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

South America

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)


In the El Riego phase (c. 7,000-5,000 BC), people appear to have lived much the same nomadic life in bands, but the groups may have been somewhat bigger, and there is evidence that they were exploiting wild squash, chiles, avocados, and other plants that were later domesticated. (Patterns in Prehistory)

Corn, Zea mays, is one of the two principal food crops to have originated in the Americas. Archaeological and geological excavations, supported by radiocarbon dating of ears of corn found in caves, indicate that a type of primitive corn was used as a food in Mexico at least 7,000 years ago and later spread north and south in the Americas. However, no wild forms of corn have been found. Unlike wheat, corn is a highly specialized plant and is largely unsuited for efficient, natural reproduction. Although the ear has been specially bred for producing high seed yields, the plant has no mechanism for broadcasting its seeds without human intervention. Native Americans gradually transformed whatever the original wild plant was into the plant called maize, a cultigen, or product of artificial culture--a human-made plant! (The Genesis Race)

New research suggests that Mexico’s history of corn cultivation may stretch as far back as 5200 BC, about 1,200 years earlier than scientists previously thought. The findings, presented last week at the 2008 annual meeting of the American Society of Plant Biologists by Washington State University’s John G. Jones, shed new light on the history of one of the world’s most important crops and one of the pillars of Mexican cultural development. Studying the domestication of corn presents some unique challenges, particularly in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco’s wet climate, which speeds the decomposition of evidence. In the absense of preserved seeds, scientists focused on diminutive pollen, whose hard casing is virtually indestructible, and on detailed examination of starches and phytoliths, fossilized microscopic silica bodies formed in living plants. The phytolith stage of the study also was able to confirm that the plant material dating back more than 7,000 years ago found near San Andres, Tabasco was indeed domesticated maize and not a form of its ancestor, a wild grass known as teosinte. The domestication of corn hinges on a single diminutive gene: teosinte glume architecture 1 (tga1). Teosinte has kernels encased in hardened fruitcases. While the components of the fruitcase are present in the maize, their development is disrupted so that the kernels are exposed on the ear, making the grain suitable for human consumption. Tga1 is believed to be responsible for this key step in maize evolution. Aside from pointing to a longer history of the crop with mankind, the team’s findings also suggest that corn was domesticated in several distinct places, for different reasons – while coastal farmers in Tabasco cultivated maize around 5200 BC, distinct other varieties were already being grown in nearby Belize. (77)

Pollen cores indicate cultivation of a wild ancestor of maize (probably teosinte) at 5100 BC, and pollen of domesticated maize appears by about 5000 BC, growing in importance thereafter. Thus cultivation of domestic maize appears to have been widespread among the Olmec and to be of considerable antiquity, although its importance relative to other foods remains to be assessed. Unfortunately tubers rarely survive in the archaeological record, and to date the direct evidence for their ancient consumption in Olman rests on a single domesticated manioc pollen grain from San Andres in deposits dated about 4600 BC. (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

Pollen from deep sediment cores at San Andres, about 7 km northeast of La Venta, indicate human occupation of the Tabasco coast by about 5100 BC. They evidently supplemented their diet with cultivated crops, because pollen from these early levels includes that of a wild ancestor of maize and domesticated maize pollen appears about 100 years later. The inhabitants of the levee at San Andres took oysters, clams, gar, and manatee from the brackish estuary, kept domesticated dogs, and added wild squash and domesticated cotton and sunflowers to their suite of cultivated plants. (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)

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)


There is some evidence that by 5000 BC rice, barley, buckwheat, and millet were being intensively exploited in some areas of Japan. (Patterns in Prehistory)