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When Did People Domesticate Animals and Plants?

Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

The Basics of Domestication

Domestication of plants and animals marked the beginning of the Neolithic era, also known as the Neolithic Revolution. It is hard to tell exactly when this Revolution occurred. Mostly, we can't give an exact date because no one can pinpoint the exact date that a human planted a seed with the intent to grow and harvest it, or when someone decided to gather wild goats in order to make a herd that he could watch over. As any farmer will tell you, it could have taken many failed attempts before humans were successful at growing a crop or raising a flock!

Thus, we rely on approximate periods of time to tell when the Neolithic Revolution is believed to have started. New discoveries are constantly revising our knowledge about this period, so bear in mind that most of what occurred during the Neolithic Revolution was likely occurring at different locations at about the same time.

Generally, the Neolithic era began between 13,000 and 5,000 years ago. This date depends on which region of the world you are talking about.

Domestication likely began in Africa. This probably included the domestication of sorghum, bulrush millet, rice, finger millet, groundnuts, and yams in the woodlands and savannas of Africa. However, due to vast climate changes since the Neolithic period and the modern wars that keep archaeologists from exploring sites in depth, it is unlikely that we will find a lot of evidence about this transformation in Africa.

The earliest evidence of farming that we have to date concerns the Levant region (modern-day West Bank) around 10,200 B.C. The Natufian culture pioneered the use of wild cereals, though their methods were more akin to gathering than methodical farming. Between 10,200 and 8,800 B.C., several settled communities arose in the Levant. These communities relied on hunting and gathering and lived in large, semi-subterranean houses built of stone and wood. The largest of these communities were Jericho, Ain Mallaha, and Wadi Hammeh 27. Artifacts found at these settlements include grinding stones (used to process seeds) and flint and stone tools (such as sickles).

The earliest evidence of animal domestication comes from the Near East, a region also known as the Fertile Crescent. This region stretches from modern-day Israel and the Jordan Valley to Southern Turkey and the Zagros Mountains in Iran. Archaeological evidence suggests that dogs were domesticated as early as 13,000 B.C., followed by goats and sheep around 7,000 B.C. and cattle and pigs around 6,000 B.C. Domestication of plants likely began around 8,000 B.C. and included oats, rye, barley, lentils, peas, and various fruits and nuts.

Domesticating the Dog

Two sites of early domestication are Ali Kosh in southwestern Iran and Catal Huyuk in Southern Turkey. The community of Ali Kosh began around 7,500 B.C., when the building of small, multi-room structures out of slabs of raw clay began. By 6,000 B.C., the residents were eating cultivated plants and the village had grown to include large 10' by 10' rooms with thick walls of clay-slab bricks and mortar, courtyards with domed brick ovens, and brick-lined roasting pits. After 5,500 B.C., Ali Kosh developed irrigation techniques and domesticated cattle, which tripled the population over the next 1,000 years. Evidence of trading with people from modern-day eastern Turkey is also present in obsidian chipped stones, seashells, copper, and turquoise - all items that weren't found near Ali Kosh.

Catal Huyuk is an even more elaborate site. By 5,600 B.C., the town consisted of 200 adobe houses built in the Pueblo fashion (an architectural style common in the Southwestern native cultures of the United States). The walls of the pueblos were decorated with murals of religious scenes and everyday events, and small clay statuettes of pregnant women and bearded men on bulls have been found. There is also evidence that Catal Huyuk grew lentils, wheat, barley, and peas

At about the same time, domestication was also occurring in East Asia. The earliest evidence of cereal cultivation comes from China, where the Peiligang culture cultivated millet and raised pigs, cattle, and poultry between 7,000 and 5,000 B.C. Storage pits, pots, and grinding stones are further evidence of the importance of millet in their diets.

Additional evidence comes from the highlands New Guinea, where agriculture had developed by 5,000 B.C. At a site called Kuk in the upper Wahgi Valley, evidence suggests that plants were being cultivated between 8,000 and 5,000 B.C. This evidence indicates planting, digging, and staking of plants and taro starch found on stone tools. Evidence of banana and water plant cultivation is evident by 5,000 B.C.


In 2012, researchers from the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, studied the mitochondrial DNA of chickens and determined that domesticated chickens likely originated in southeast Asia. They were likely domesticated by 5,400 years ago. This evidence implies that trade and migration routes between prehistoric peoples were likely more complex than previously thought, as chickens spread across the world and became a staple of many different cultures.


By 5,000 B.C., rice cultivation had also begun. Some evidence suggests that rice cultivation might have started as early as 11,000 B.C. At sites in the middle and lower Yangzi River Valley, phytoliths (silicon microfossils of plant cell structures) from rice have been found that date to 11,000 or 12,000 B.C. At Kuahuqiao in the lower Yangzi, a few bone spades dated to between 6,000 and 5,400 B.C. were present, but their design indicates that they were probably not used for intensive agriculture. However, this evidence merely points to humans consuming rice, not specifically cultivating it.

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At the site of Hemudu in the lower Yangzi River Valley of China, bone scapula were used as spades or hoes and are thought to have been used in rice cultivation. The oldest known paddy fields also come from this region, dated to 4,000 B.C. Additional evidence comes from a genetic study of rice seeds. The modern variety of rice known as O. sativa appeared around 4,500 B.C. at Chengtoushan in the Middle Yangtze and 4,000 B.C. in the Lower Yangtze.

Rice cultivation then spread into other regions of East Asia. Evidence of rice cultivation in Central China dates to between 3,000 and 2,500 B.C. and in Taiwan and Vietnam around 2,500 B.C. However, sites in India indicate the earliest rice consumption beginning between 7,000 and 5,000 B.C., which further supports anthropological theories that describe domestication as occurring spontaneously in different regions of the world around the same time (rather than originating in one area of the world and spreading out through trade and migration).

Stone quern and roller, Peiligang culture, 6100 B.C. to 5000 B.C., unearthed at Peiligang, Xinzheng, Henan Province, 1978.

Stone quern and roller, Peiligang culture, 6100 B.C. to 5000 B.C., unearthed at Peiligang, Xinzheng, Henan Province, 1978.

Painted Pottery Basin, Yangshao Culture (c. 5000-3000 BC), Unearthed at Miaodigou, Shaanxian, Henan Province, 1956

Painted Pottery Basin, Yangshao Culture (c. 5000-3000 BC), Unearthed at Miaodigou, Shaanxian, Henan Province, 1956

Domestication in the Americas began after 7,500 B.C. One of the earliest sites is Guila Naquitz, located in the Valley of Oaxaca in Mesoamerica. Discovered by Kent Flannery in the 1960s, this site has evidence of occupation between 8,900 and 6,700 B.C. - the perfect time period for domestication. Small groups of humans lived here seasonally, hunting deer and small animals while collecting various plant foods. At some point, the remains of domesticated plants - notably bottle gourds and squashes - appeared.

The domestication of bottle gourds and squashes in Mesoamerica was quickly followed by the cultivation of tomatoes, cotton, and a variety of beans. By 5,000 B.C., maize cultivation had begun near Tehuacan in modern-day Mexico. The oldest maize cobs are tiny, about one inch long, with half-dozen rows of seeds. Maize was almost completely dependent on humans to reproduce since the tough husks did not open on their own. Eventually, maize cultivation was combined with beans and squash. There were several advantages to cultivating these crops in the same field: maize takes nitrogen from the soil, which is replenished by beans; maize stalks also provide beans stalks with a place to twine and squash a place to grow. Together, these three crops also provide all the essential amino acids that humans need to obtain from their food, likely contributing to the population booms of Mesoamerica.

Mesoamerican cultivation then spread into North America, bringing maize, beans, and squash to the region. By 2,000 B.C., native peoples in modern-day Kentucky, Tennessee, and Illinois had begun cultivating sunflowers, sump weed, and goose foot.

Unlike other regions of the world, however, the Americas did not domesticate many animals. Dogs and turkeys were domesticated before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. The only area where domesticated animals became a significant part of daily life was the Central Andes, where llamas and alpacas were domesticated around 5,000 B.C. for their meat, wool, and value in transporting people and goods.

The Results of Domestication

The Results of Domestication

Domestication occurred for several reasons. These reasons, however, are still being debated by prehistoric scholars and are subject to constant revision. As new technologies arise and new areas are studied, evidence continues to provide new reasons why humans chose to domesticate plants and animals rather than remain hunter-gatherers.

First, drastic climate changes at the beginning of the Neolithic lessened the availability of wild resources. This provided an incentive for cultivating grains. Some scholars - such as Robert Braidwood - criticize this theory, as climate changes had occurred in earlier periods where domestication did not occur. Others have amended this theory, claiming that climate change likely played a role, but not a large one. Rather, the rise of annual species led to a shortage of certain nutrients for food collectors. Thus, humans looked for ways to obtain more of a desired or useful species throughout the year, cause domestication.

Second, some scholars believe that by the Neolithic period, humans had evolved enough to learn a great deal about their environment. With the beginnings of culture, humans had developed the means to undertake the complex tasks of farming and herding.

Third, other scholars - such as Mark Cohen - provide evidence of growing population pressure at the beginning of the Neolithic. Humans had spread to most areas of the world by this point, so the option of moving to uninhabited areas had diminished. As human populations increased, the pressure to survive caused humans to look for alternative ways to provide for themselves without moving.

Over the next few centuries, domestication of plants and animals would drastically change the lives of humans around the world. Domestication accelerated population growth, mainly because the labor needed to maintain crops and herds caused humans to value having a greater number of children (as opposed to hunter-gatherers, who were more burdened by having to carry young children with them). It also led to a decline in human health, as evidenced by bones and teeth comparisons from before and after domestication. The reliance on agriculture reduced the variety of foods consumed by humans, which resulted in less adequate nutrition and increased the risk of famine due to crop failure. Finally, domestication allowed humans to become more sedentary, leading to a rise in the elaboration of material possessions. As population increased, not everyone was needed to grow crops or watch animals; thus, some could dedicate their skills to making crafts, building houses, and artistry.

Gobekli Tepe: Cities before Agriculture?

We have now reached an amazing point in human history: plants and animals have been domesticated. We are able to grow our own food as we need it, rather than constantly traveling to find food and resources. We are able, finally, to find places to call "home." Now, human history increases to incredible speeds.

It is now approximately 3500 BC, and we have reached a critical juncture in human history. Following domestication, our history becomes multi-branched. The first Americans have already reached the shores of America and are developing the Pre-Columbian civilizations. Across the Atlantic and Pacific, the first civilizations cities are beginning in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Britain, and the Mediterranean. And at still undiscovered sites around the world, other civilizations are rising and falling, adapting to a changing planet as they search for the strategies that will ensure their survival.

Questions & Answers

Question: How did the cultivation of crops and the domestication of animals most likely start?

Answer: As the article states, "Mostly, we can't give an exact date because no one can pinpoint the exact date that a human planted a seed with the intent to grow and harvest it, or when someone decided to gather wild goats in order to make a herd that he could watch over. As any farmer will tell you, it could have taken many failed attempts before humans were successful at growing a crop or raising a flock!"

It is almost impossible to tell how cultivation/domestication started. We can only really pinpoint when and where it started. However, an example I have often heard is dogs. It is highly likely that dogs are descendants of wolves or foxes (there is some debate on which) that followed human groups and, over time, came to look to humans for food and safety.

Question: How was life before the domestication of plants and animals?

Answer: Likely more based on hunter-gatherer lifestyles where people followed the herds in seasonal cycles, complimenting their diets with plants and seafood when available. It may have varied by region, though there is not enough evidence to know for sure.

© 2013 Tiffany Isselhardt


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