Ancient Farming - Concepts, Techniques, and Experimental Archaeology

Innovations and Inventions

Urban Maize Garden in Berlin. Germany
Bauerngarten Havelmathen (Farm Garden Havelmathen) urban garden in Spandau district on August 4, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. Carsten Koall / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Ancient farming techniques have all but been replaced by modern mechanized farming in many places around the world. But a growing sustainable agricultural movement, coupled with concerns about the impact of global warming, has led to a resurgence of interest in the processes and struggles of the original inventors and innovators of farming, some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. 

Original farmers developed crops and animals that grew and thrived in different environments. In the process, they developed adaptations to maintain soils, ward off frost and freeze cycles, and protect their crops from animals.

Chinampa Wetland Farming

Chinampa Field Scene, Xochimilco
Chinampa Field Scene, Xochimilco.

The Chinampa field system is a method of raised field agriculture best suited to wetlands and the margins of lakes. Chinampas are constructed using a network of canals and narrow fields, built up and refreshed from the organic-rich canal muck.

Raised Fields Agriculture

Cha'llapampa Village and Agricultural Terraces on Lake Titicaca.
Cha'llapampa Village and Agricultural Terraces on Lake Titicaca. John Elk / Getty Images

In the Lake Titicaca region of Bolivia and Peru, chinampas were used as long ago as 1000 BCE, a system which supported the great Tiwanaku civilization. Around the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, the chinampas fell out of use. In this interview, ​Clark Erickson describes his experimental archaeology project, in which he and his colleagues involved the local communities in the Titicaca region to recreate raised fields.

Mixed Cropping

Monoculture Wheat Field, Spokane County, Washington USA
While monocultural fields are lovely and easy to tend, like this wheat field in Washington state, they are susceptible to crop diseases, infestations and droughts without the use of applied chemicals. Mark Turner / Photolibrary / Getty Images

Mixed cropping, also known as inter-cropping or co-cultivation, is a type of agriculture that involves planting two or more of plants simultaneously in the same field. Unlike our monocultural systems today (illustrated in the photo), inter-cropping provides a number of benefits, including natural resistance to crop diseases, infestations and droughts.

The Three Sisters

Three Sisters Garden
Pre-history garden of the Shawnee Indians that grew corn, beans and squash that were known as the Three Sisters. Sun Watch Village, Dayton Ohio. Nativestock.com/Marilyn Angel Wynn / Getty Images

The Three Sisters is a type of mixed cropping system, in which maize, beans and squash were grown together in the same garden. The three seeds were planted together, with the maize acting as support for the beans, and both together acting as shade and humidity control for the squash, and the squash acting as weed suppressant. However, recent scientific research has proven that the Three Sisters were useful in quite a few ways beyond that.

Ancient Farming Technique: Slash and Burn Agriculture

Slash and Burn Techniques in the Amazon Basin of Brazil, June 2001
Slash and Burn Techniques in the Amazon Basin of Brazil, June 2001. Marcus Lyon / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

Slash and burn agriculture—also known as swidden or shifting agriculture—is a traditional method of tending domesticated crops that involves the rotation of several plots of land in a planting cycle. 

Swidden has its detractors, but when used with appropriate timing, it can be a sustainable method of allowing fallow periods to regenerate the soils.

Viking Age Landnám

Thjodveldisbaerinn-Traditional Farmstead, Thjorsardalur, Iceland
Thjodveldisbaerinn is a reconstructed traditional viking-era farmhouse in the Thjorsardalur valley, Iceland. Arctic-Images / Getty Images

We can learn a lot from the mistakes of the past as well. When the Vikings established farms in the 9th and 10th centuries in Iceland and Greenland, they used the same practices they had used at home in Scandinavia. The direct transplant of inappropriate farming methods is widely considered responsible for the environmental degradation of Iceland and, to a lesser degree, Greenland.

Norse farmers practicing landnám (an Old Norse word roughly translated as "land take") brought large numbers of grazing livestock, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and horses. As they had done in Scandinavia, the Norse moved their livestock to summer pastures from May to September, and to individual farms in the winters. They removed stands of trees to create the pastures, and cut peat and drained bogs to irrigate their fields.

The Progress of Environmental Damage

Unfortunately, unlike the soils in Norway and Sweden, the soils in Iceland and Greenland are derived from volcanic eruptions. They are silt-sized and comparatively low in clay, and include a high organic content, and are far more susceptible to erosion. By removing peat bogs, the Norse reduced the number of local plant species that were adapted to the local soils, and the Scandinavian plant species they introduced competed with and squeezed out other plants as well.

Extensive manuring in the first couple of years after settlement helped improve the thin soils, but after that, and even though the number and variety of livestock declined over the centuries, the environmental degradation grew worse.

The situation was exacerbated by the onset of the Medieval Little Ice Age between about 1100–1300 CE, when temperatures dropped significantly, impacting the ability of the land, animals, and people to survive, and, eventually, the colonies on Greenland failed.

Measured Damage

Recent assessments of the environmental damage in Iceland indicate that at least 40 percent of the topsoil has been removed since the 9th century. A whopping 73 percent of Iceland has been affected by soil erosion, and 16.2 percent of that is classified as severe or very severe. In the Faroe Islands, 90 of the 400 documented plant species are Viking-era imports.

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Core Concept: Horticulture

Person Weeding a Garden
Person Weeding a Garden. Francesca Yorke / Getty Images

Horticulture is the formal name for the ancient practice of tending crops in a garden. The gardener prepares the plot of soil for planting seeds, tubers, or cuttings; tends it to control the weeds ; and protects it from animal and human predators. Garden crops are harvested, processed, and usually stored in specialized containers or structures. Some produce, often a significant portion, may be consumed during the growing season, but an important element in horticulture is the ability to store food for future consumption, trade or ceremonies.

Maintaining a garden, a more or less permanent location, forces the gardener to stay in its vicinity. Garden produce has value, so a group of humans must cooperate to the extent that they can protect themselves and their produce from those who would steal it. Many of the earliest horticulturalists also lived in fortified communities.

Archaeological evidence for horticultural practices includes storage pits, tools such as hoes and sickles, plant residues on those tools, and changes in the plant biology leading to domestication.

Core Concept: Pastoralism

Goatherd In Turkey
A shepherd boy and his goatherd in Hasankeyf, in southeastern Turkey, 2004. (Photo by Scott Wallace/Getty Images). Scott Wallace / Getty Images

Pastoralism is what we call herding of animals—whether they are goats, cattle, horses, camels or llamas. Pastoralism was invented in the Near East or southern Anatolia, at the same time as agriculture.

Core Concept: Seasonality

Four Seasons Tree Montage
The Four Seasons. Peter Adams / Getty Images

Seasonality is a concept archaeologists use to describe what time of year a particular site was occupied, or some behavior was undertaken. It is part of ancient farming, because just like today, people in the past scheduled their behavior around the seasons of the year.

Core Concept: Sedentism

Heuneburg Hillfort - Reconstructed Living Iron Age Village
Heuneburg Hillfort - Reconstructed Living Iron Age Village.

Sedentism is the process of settling down. One of the results of relying on plants and animals is that those plants and animals require tending by humans. The changes in behavior in which humans build homes and stay in the same places to tend crops or take care of animals is one of the reasons archaeologists often say that humans were domesticated at the same time as the animals and plants.

Core Concept: Subsistence

A G/wi Hunter Hunting Springhares
A lone G/wi hunter prepares to snare some Springhares (Pedetes capensis). The hares are a major source of protein for the G/wi. The G/wis use a long hooked rod to catch the Springhares in their burrow. Peter Johnson/Corbis/VCG / Getty Images

Subsistence refers to the suite of modern behaviors that humans use to obtain food for themselves, such as hunting animals or birds, fishing, gathering or tending plants, and full-fledged agriculture.

The landmarks of the evolution of human subsistence include the control of fire sometime in the Lower to Middle Paleolithic (100,000-200,000 years ago), the hunting of game with stone projectiles in the Middle Paleolithic (ca. 150,000-40,000 years ago), and food storage and a broadening diet by the Upper Paleolithic (ca 40,000-10,000 years ago).

Agriculture was invented in different places in our world at different times between 10,000-5,000 years ago. Scientists study historic and prehistoric subsistence and diet by using a wide range of artifacts and measurements, including

  • Types of stone tools that were used to process food, such as grinding stones and scrapers
  • Remains of storage or cache pits that include small pieces of bone or vegetal matter
  • Middens, garbage refuse deposits that include bones or plant matter.
  • Microscopic plant residues clinging to the edges or faces of stone tools such as pollen, phytoliths, and starches
  • Stable isotope analysis of animal and human bones

Dairy Farming

Milking a Cow, Tomb of Methethi, Saqqara, ca. 2731-2350 BC
Milking a cow, wall painting from the tomb of Methethi, Saqqara, Ancient Egypt, Old Kingdom, c2371-2350 BC. Methethi (Metjetji) was a royal noble who held the office of Director of Tenants of the Palace during the reign of the Pharaoh Unas (5th Dynasty). Ann Ronan Pictures - Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Dairy farming is the next step forward after animal domestication: people keep cattle, goats, sheep, horses and camels for the milk and milk products they can provide. Once known as part of the Secondary Products Revolution, archaeologists are coming to accept that dairy farming was a very early form of agricultural innovation.

Midden - The Treasure Trove of Garbage

Shell Midden at Elands Bay (South Africa)
Shell Midden at Elands Bay (South Africa).

A midden is, basically, a garbage dump: archaeologists love middens, because they often hold information about diets and the plants and animals that fed the people who used them that is not available in any other way.

Eastern Agricultural Complex

Chenopodium album
Chenopodium album.

The Eastern Agricultural Complex refers to the range of plants that were selectively tended by Native Americans in eastern North American and the American midwest such as sumpweed (Iva annua), goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri), sunflower (Helianthus annuus), little barley (Hordeum pusillum), erect knotweed (Polygonum erectum) and maygrass ( Phalaris caroliniana).​

Evidence for the collection of some of these plants goes back to about 5,000-6,000 years ago; their genetic modification resulting from selective collecting first appears about 4,000 years ago.

Corn or maize (Zea mays) and beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) were both domesticated in Mexico, corn perhaps as long ago as 10,000 years. Eventually, these crops also turned up in garden plots in the northeastern United States, perhaps 3,000 years before the present.

Animal Domestication

Chickens, Chang Mai, Thailand
Chickens, Chang Mai, Thailand.

Dates, places and links to detailed information about the animals that we have domesticated—and who have domesticated us.

Plant Domestication

Chickpeas
Chickpeas. Getty Images / Francesco Perre / EyeEm

A table of dates, places and links to detailed information about many of the plants that we humans have adapted and have come to rely on.