Articles, Blog

Why Was Agriculture So Important? | Big History Project

August 9, 2019

Imagine you woke up one morning and there were
no grocery stores, no restaurants, no supermarkets. No problem. You’d probably go out
and forage for your food like a traditional forager. Could you do it? Well, the truth is,
in today’s world, with seven billion humans
to feed, foraging couldn’t come near
to providing enough food. Farming, like what you see
around me in this rice paddy near Cheongju in South Korea,
is absolutely essential to the survival
of the modern world. But what is farming anyway? To understand farming, it may help to go back
to the world of foragers. Remember, foragers travel
around their environments selecting the plants,
the animals and the other
raw materials they need and using them without
processing them too much. Farmers are very different. They select a small
range of species, they tend to them
very, very carefully as in this paddy field, and they keep them
in protected environments. Now, we humans are not
the only species that do this. For example, honeypot ants
herd aphids. They protect them,
they feed them, they help them reproduce, and in return,
they get nutritious honeydew. When species get dependent
like this in the natural world, over time they tend to change
very, very rapidly indeed. For example, the ants,
after a time, get so dependent on the aphids
that if all the aphids died, the ants would starve to death. And the aphids get so dependent
that they cannot reproduce without the honeypot ants. Biologists refer
to such relations between species, such relations
of close dependency, as symbiosis. But when humans are involved
in such relations, we tend to call it farming
or agriculture. When humans started farming,
the species they tended to began to change
quite dramatically. This was because humans selected the most nutritious wheat
grains, or rice grains, or corn grains, or the most docile
and fattest animals. And the result was that
within a few generations, new domesticated
species began to appear and they were created
not by natural selection, but by artificial selection. You can see the difference very, very clearly
if you compare a modern corn cob, which is fat
and nutritious and tasty, with its ancestor, teosinte, which is a rather
pathetic-looking, weedy plant. Or if you compare
a modern sheep, domesticated sheep, which tends
to be fat and docile and frankly not too smart, with its ancestor,
a mountain goat, a very intelligent,
athletic creature. Humans change too, but they tended not
to change genetically so much as technologically,
socially and culturally. They learned to clear trees,
to build paddy fields like this, to divert rivers, to protect
their crops and animals from pests
such as rats or wolves. And the result of all of this
was that humans found that they could produce
more of what they wanted from a given area,
from a small area, than they had before
and that meant that humans could now live
in sedentary villages rather than being nomadic. But to get a real sense of
what’s going on with farming, we need to think about it
from a big history perspective. Remember, all the energy
that supports the biosphere, or most of it,
comes from sunlight through photosynthesis. So what farmers
were really doing was diverting
more of that energy into species that they could use
and away from other species. The result was
a sort of huge energy grab by one species, our own. No wonder, with farming,
human populations began to grow so rapidly. So where and when did farming
and agriculture begin? At the moment, it looks as if
farming really began about 11,000 years ago in the highlands
east of the Mediterranean that we know
as the Fertile Crescent. And here they grew wheat. It may also have grown…
appeared at about the same time in the Nile Valley,
slightly further south. Then from about 8,000 years ago, we have evidence
of rice growing in China and at about the same time, we have evidence
of the growing of taro and yams in the highlands
of Papua New Guinea, though it took
several thousand years for agriculture
to really flourish here. Then, from about 5,000
to 4,000 years ago, agriculture pops up in several
different parts of the world. In West Africa, farmers start growing
sorghum and millet. And farming also appears
in the Americas right across the Atlantic, in Mesoamerica, where they’re growing
maize and squash, and also in the Andes, where potatoes were
a very important crop. From these core regions, agriculture then spreads
to neighboring regions, but there’s a real puzzle here because none of the core regions
seem to have been connected. So what was really going on? So why, after almost
200,000 years of living as foragers, did humans in
so many parts of the world that had no connection
between each other begin to behave
in such similar ways in such a brief period of time? Well, there seem
to be two main reasons. One factor is overpopulation,
the other is climate change. And these factors operated in many different
parts of the world. Let’s take overpopulation first. During the Paleolithic era,
if populations grew too much, you could generally
solve the problem by migrating into a new region. But after the settlement
of the Americas from about 15,000 years ago, there were no large
areas left to migrate into. So from now on,
if populations began to grow, you had to try to get more
resources from a given area. In other words, you had to farm. Now, that’s the first factor. The second, climate change,
is subtler. Most of the Paleolithic era
was dominated by the Ice Ages. And during the Ice Ages, for the most part,
climates were so cold and so unpredictable that farming was more
or less impossible. Then, from about
18,000 years ago, global climates began to change. They began to get warmer. Glaciers began to retreat,
sea levels began to rise, and in area after area,
you began to get warmer and wetter climates. There was a brief period between
13,000 and 12,000 years ago when climates were cold again, but then from about
12,000 years ago, climates became
warmer and wetter, and we entered
the interglacial period that we’re still
living in today. Now, as a result
of global climate change, humans and animals and plants
everywhere in the world had to start changing
their behaviors. In some areas such as
the Fertile Crescent east of the Mediterranean,
as climates changed, resources became more abundant. There were more plants
and more animals. And in these regions, these particularly
favored regions, some foragers began
to settle down because they found they
could live in one place for most of the year
without traveling around. And they began to form villages. They became sedentary. In the Fertile Crescent, archeologists refer
to the people who settled in these villages
as Natufians, and they’ve excavated
many of their villages. But as they settled down,
their behaviors changed and, in particular,
populations began to grow. We’re not sure why,
but one reason may be that if you’re a villager, you don’t have to carry
children around so there’s less
pressure to reduce the number of children. In any case, populations grew
and that posed a problem. Within a few generations,
they found they didn’t have enough resources
to feed everyone in what had once seemed
an area of abundance. So what are they to do? Well, perhaps they could
go back to foraging. The problem was
they’d probably forgotten many of the old
techniques of foraging, and, besides, neighbors probably
occupied those lands now. So what can they do? Well, they can start
tending their crops and animals more carefully. They can start providing the plants they like
with extra water. They can start
clearing away weeds. They can start penning particular animals
in enclosures. In fact,
they can start farming. Now, something like what
happened to the Natufians seems to have happened
in many other areas. In the case of the Natufians,
we have lots of evidence about this expansion of
villages and population growth. But something like this
happened in many areas and everywhere,
the same two factors seemed to have been involved. First, global climate change,
which made agriculture possible, and secondly, overpopulation,
which made it necessary. Agriculture is
our seventh major threshold of increasing complexity. As we’ve seen,
these are pivotal events that allow the creation of new,
more complex things with new emergent properties. Agriculture is not just a matter
of tastier fruit or fatter cows. Agriculture unlocked forces
much more powerful than that and they would transform
human history. How and why?


  • Reply Drogo Baggins May 20, 2014 at 2:56 am

    I don't understand why these wonderful videos don't get lot's of views quickly.

  • Reply Henrique Rocha July 19, 2015 at 9:52 pm

    Great video!

  • Reply Andrew Hodson September 3, 2015 at 12:50 am

    Thank you. Looking for a good Culture Hearth Video and I finally found one.

  • Reply Nate October 26, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    UR MUM

  • Reply notice me October 26, 2015 at 9:14 pm


  • Reply notice me October 26, 2015 at 9:16 pm


  • Reply notice me October 26, 2015 at 9:19 pm

    +SMPC Gaming your mom

  • Reply Elifius William March 16, 2016 at 6:27 pm

    interesting video but the idea of the Americas were overpopulated 12000 years ago is utter nonsense

  • Reply olivierschannel August 14, 2016 at 3:21 pm


  • Reply Malebitsa Timbuktu November 22, 2016 at 10:46 am

    "Advancements happen when we question our most basic beliefs." There are people who still can't image artificial selection let alone natural selection today despite all the evidence scientists come up with

  • Reply v Veeranjaneyulu August 17, 2017 at 8:23 am

    any new news in agriculture

  • Reply Spikez October 29, 2017 at 11:04 pm

    Who came from ms keith class

  • Reply Lao Wenglam March 7, 2018 at 4:27 pm

    well my professor drawn me here and i love these videos

  • Reply nickability March 30, 2018 at 4:19 pm

    Who's here from Shmaefsky's class?

  • Reply 진장갈 April 23, 2018 at 5:46 am

    South Korea!!!

  • Reply mike rudasingwa June 8, 2018 at 12:12 pm

    interesting video. we need to transform what were doing in agriculture in order to adapt with climate change

  • Leave a Reply