Review Notes: Theories on the History of Agriculture

It is generally accepted that the history of agriculture began more than 10,000 years ago. But, without written records, the evolution of agriculture can only be reconstructed through deductions using logic. These deductions are based on anthropological and arhaeological evidences rather than scientific facts. Examples of these evidences are artifacts of ancient farming tools and remnants of wild grain.

It is believed that the transformation from hunting-gathering to agriculture occured gradually after a long period of time. According to Went and The Editors of Life (1963), the early development of agriculture may have involved first the management of wild grains and other useful plants by removing adjacent weeds. It is also possible later that a primitive tribe may have discovered a vigorous plant; the seeds were harvested for food, but some were deliberately sown to ensure supply for the next season.

Theories on the Origin of Agriculture

Several theories were advanced to shed light on the history of agriculture, particularly how it started. These include the oasishilly flanksfeasting model, demographic, evolutionary or intentionality, and domestication theories. These are briefly described below:

1. Oasis Theory. Proposed in 1908 by Raphael Pumpelly, an American geologist and explorer, this theory is predicated on climatic change as the basis of the start of agriculture. Due to dry spell, both humans and animals converged close to oases. It was there that animals were first domesticated (put under the management of man) and seeds were planted. However, this theory finds opposing views because climatic data do not support it.

2. Hilly Flanks Theory. This was proposed in 1948 by Robert Braidwood, an American archaeologist and anthropologist who did work in Turkey. This theory, popularized by V. G. Childe in his book “The Most Ancient Near-East” (1928), argues that the likely beginning of agriculture is an upland location with frequent rainfall so that crops can be grown without the need of supplying irrigation water.

Also called Propinquity Theory (Hirst n.d.), it postulated that agriculture started in the hilly flanks of the Tauros and Zagros mountains (Iran, Iraq, Turkey). Further, Hilly Flanks refers to the wooded lower slopes of these mountains that make up the western peripheries of the Fertile Crescent where ancient Sumer was located.

3. Feasting Model Theory. Proposed by Bryan Hayden, this theory states that agriculture was the necessary result of ostentatious displays of power. By habitually throwing feasts as a means of exerting dominance, large quantities of food had to be assembled.

4. Demographic Theories. These theories were proposed by Carl Sauer (1889-1975), an American geographer. These theories postulate that the increase in human population is hampered by the carrying capacity of the natural environment in supplying food. With further increase in population, the food that the wild naturally supplies became too insignificant.

According to (n.d.), it is presumed under the population pressure hypothesis that agriculture can provide more food per unit of land. (Click here to read land:man ratio for subsistence by natural way).

5. Evolutionary/Intentionality Theory. This theory on the history of agriculture was proposed by David Rindos and other scholars. It describes agriculture as a form of coevolutionary adaptation of humans and wild plants. It started with the mere protection of wild plants and progressed until their domestication improved.

According to (n.d.), the coevolution hypothesis proposes that the proximity of humans to wild species would result to man’s manipulation of the species’ environment causing genetic changes that favors reproduction.

6. Domestication Theory. This theory was proposed by Daniel Quinn and other scholars. It states that humans first settled in particular areas where they abandoned their nomadic ways of finding food, then they practiced animal domestication and agriculture.

However, these theories on the history of agriculture are mere proposals or personal arguments. Whichever of these theories is finally proved as a fact, if ever, is hard to tell. Just exactly where and when the history of agriculture first started is likewise impossible to establish. Again, this is due to the absence of written records of the life and history of the primitive man.

While it is generally believed that the history of agriculture has its root in the Fertile Crescent (read also Cash Crop Farming) , such is founded upon archaeological artifacts such as the plow and harvester’s sickle found in Sumer. The bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) seems to have been domesticated first in Asia about 10,000 years ago (Hirst n.d.). Furthermore, excavation at the Ohalo site in Israel that was abandoned by Stone Age fishermen and hunters about 20,000 years ago revealed remnants of cereal grains (Krause 2001).

Nonetheless, after considering Vavilov’s (1926) 8 centers and others’ centers of origin of cultivated plants, Oregon State University (n.d.) provides the following possible origins of selected major crops:

Proposed Centers of Origin of Some Crops

1. Near East (Fertile Crescent) – wheat and barley, flax, lentils, chickpea, figs, dates, grapes, olives, lettuce, onions, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, and melons; fruits and nuts.

2. Africa – Pearl millet, Guinea millet, African rice, sorghum, cowpea, Bambara groundnut, yam, oil palm, watermelon, okra.

3. China – Japanese millet, rice, buckwheat, and soybean.

4. South-east Asia-wet – and dryland rice, pigeon pea, mung bean, citrus fruits, coconut, taro, yams, banana, breadfruit, coconut, sugarcane.

5. Mesoamerica and North America – maize, squash, common bean, lima bean, peppers, amaranth, sweet potato, sunflower.

6. South America – lowlands: cassava; midaltitudes and uplands (Peru): potato, peanut, cotton, maize.

References n.d. Origins of agriculture. Retrieved February 5, 2011 from

HIRST KK. n.d. Domestication history of the bottle gourd. Retrieved September 1, 2010 from

HIRST KK. n.d. Oasis theory. Retrieved February 5, 2011 from L. 2001. Galilee’s receding waters reveal stone age camp. Retrieved February 5, 2011 from

OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY. n.d. CSS world food crops: centers of diversity, crop adaptation. Retrieved September 1, 2010 from

WENT FW, THE EDITORS OF LIFE. 1963. The Plants. NY: Time Incorporated. p. 160.

WIKIPEDIA. 2010. History of Agriculture. Retrieved September 1, 2010 from

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Ben Bareja

Ben Bareja, the owner-founder-webmaster of This website was conceptualized primarily to serve as an e-library for reference purposes on the principles and practices in crop science, including basic botany. Read more here

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