The move from nomadic tribalism to the establishment of sedentary communities coincided with a food revolution tied to agricultural exploitation.
At some point during the Neolithic Period (c 8000-6500 BC), previously nomadic peoples began to form permanent communities, often in fertile regions that featured river valleys as in the case of Egypt and the Ancient Near East. Some of the earliest known cities like Jericho and Catalhuyuk grew as inhabitants expanded agriculture during a period referred to as the Agricultural Revolution. Significantly, this food revolution occurred throughout the world within newly emerging civilizations and affected peripheral communities as a result of trade.
The Potato and the Peruvians
Anthropologist Jack Weatherford credits the Peruvians with the establishment of high potato yields during the Agricultural Revolution, reflecting hundreds of potato varieties that eventually spread beyond the Andres. “Agriculture was a sacred activity for the Incas, who worshiped the life-giving Pachamama, the earth mother, and Inti, the sun, who together made the plants grow.” The Peruvians also cultivated other tubers and root crops as well as corn. The first important “New World” commodity sent to Spain by Columbus was the sweet potato.
Kaj Birket-Smith comments on the Maori Indians of New Zealand, whose staple crop cultivation included a sweet potato traced to the Peruvians. Although some scholars attribute this diffusion to Spanish influences during the sixteen century, Birket-Smith argues that the presence of the sweet potato may have predated the Spanish. Peoples in India, South China, and Indonesia also cultivated various tubers and, significantly, the yam.
Egypt and the Ancient Near East
The ancient civilizations of the Middle East may have been most successful in terms of exploiting agriculture while in the process of growing civilizations that would result in some of the first empires. Daniel Snell, commenting on this contribution, states that “the productivity of Mesopotamian agriculture appears to have been extremely high, compared to premodern European standards.”
Both Egyptian civilization and those that arose in the “land between the two rivers,” the Euphrates and the Tigris, relied upon wheat and barley. According to the Greek writer Hecetaeus, Egypt was the “gift of the Nile.” Referring to the early coastal civilization in southern Turkey, Michael Grant writes that the harvests of grains were cultivated “with an elaborateness that had not been seen before…” Barley was even used to produce beer, which was also true in Ancient Egypt. Archaeologists have found beer recipes in Egyptian tombs of the early Old Kingdom period. Grant equates the pursuit of agriculture with “men’s love of home…and sense of property.”
The creation of early urban centers, either resulting from the Agricultural Revolution or contributing to its exploitation, dramatically altered populations. Sedentary communities began to establish defined political and religious hierarchies. Infant mortality rates declined and people lived longer. Additionally, religious systems directly connected to either agricultural success or indirectly to the accompanying notions of fertility in the broadest sense began the process of personalizing deity. Osiris of Egypt had taught the people to cultivate wheat and barley.
The Universal Food Revolution
Ancient civilizations in China and India, clustered around the great river systems of those countries, emerged and evolved during this same period, capitalizing on rice cultivation as well as taro and tubers. As in Egypt and Mesopotamia, the great rivers provided food, transportation, and fertile land to exploit agricultural endeavors.
In every case, these early civilizations led to sophisticated societies that ultimately prevailed as imperial powers. The Agricultural Revolution allowed for diversification that affected every aspect of ancient civilizations, enabling an evolution of prosperity and power.