Why European Agriculture Developed Faster Than South America’s (Part 4)

Jagmeet Khabra

Need to catch up on the rest? Click here: PART 1 PART 2 PART 3.

Europe’s Advantages

Even though the Fertile Crescent had many advantages over the Andes in South America, it is important to compare it to other Mediterranean zones, as well. For one, Western Eurasia has by far the world’s largest zone of Mediterranean climate. As a result, it has a high diversity of wild plant and animal species, much higher than any other Mediterranean zone. The combination of two factors: the high diversity of species and the high percentage of annuals means that western Eurasia’s Mediterranean zone also had, by far, the highest diversity of animals. Additionally, the Fertile Crescent contained a high percentage of flora that are hermaphroditic selfers – plants that usually pollinate themselves but can occasionally cross-pollinate as well. This trait proved to be very convenient for farmers because it meant that a high percentage of the wild flora had a reproductive biology. The climate of the Fertile Crescent was equally diverse, as it contained a wide range of altitudes and topographies within a short distance. Its lowest elevation was the lowest on Earth and the highest was an 18,000 foot mountain range. These diverse environments led to a high variety of wild plants which are the ancestors of popular crops. While the Fertile Crescent had many more advantages over the other Mediterranean zones, these were the key factors that defined this region’s importance to Europe.

The Fertile Crescent was also home to large numbers of the most important species of plants and animals that were available for domestication. There were plentiful cereals and other grasses such as emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, barley foxtail millet, broomcorn millet, and rice corn. For pulses, it had peas, lentils, chick peas, soybeans, adzuki beans, mung beans, common beans, tepary beans, scarlet runner beans, and lima beans. For fibres, the Fertile Crescent had flax, which is great for producing linens. All of these plants were very useful and also very easily domesticated.  For one, emmer wheat was domesticated in the Fertile Crescent region 10,000 years ago. Archaeologists have found remains of domesticated emmer in several pre-pottery Neolithic sites in the Fertile Crescent region. Emmer and Einkorn are both diploid species, meaning that they are organisms which use chromosomes from both a mother and a father. The cultivated forms of these wheat species usually contain much larger seeds that their wild form, and when ripe, the seeds and grains remain in a protective husk for easy harvest.  Finally, these grains grow naturally and they are also tasty and nourishing. Thus, it makes sense that human beings wanted to and were able to domesticate these grains.

The cereal crops provided a large of the Fertile Crescent’s food supply. Cereal crops have the virtues of being fast growing, high in carbohydrates, and yielding up to a ton of edible food per hectare cultivated. Even today, cereals account for over half of all calories consumed by humans, and include five of the 12 leading crops in the world: wheat, corn, rice, barley and sorghum. Three of these crops (wheat, rice and barley) originated in the Fertile Crescent.  While many cereal crops are low in protein, ancient people made up for this lack using pulses, which are often 25 percent protein. Together, the combination of cereal and pulses form the foundation for a balanced diet – both 10,000 years ago and today.

Two of the major crops that put the Fertile Crescent at a huge advantage were peas and wheat. Because peas grow in a pod, it is easy to harvest and grow them. There would be dispersal mutation of the peas that stayed in the pods. Its best attribute, however, is that the pea is a cold weather crop. This was very beneficial to ancient people because peas were one of the few crops that they could grow in both early spring and late fall, which provided increased food reserves to sustain the humans in that region throughout the cold winters.

Wheat was one of the very first crops to be domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. Those that did not readily germinate were not selected for replanting. However, wheat required little change in order to be domesticated. In addition to being a low-maintenance crop, wheat was also important for nutrition and calories – which early farmers needed a lot of because their work required a great deal of energy.  Both peas and wheat were hugely influential in the development of civilisation in the Fertile Crescent, which would eventually lead to the formation of European empires.

Europeans also had more domesticated animals available to them than South Americans did. Even though the Americas were home to over a thousand species of native wild animals, only a tiny fraction of them held the traits that allowed early humans to successfully domesticate them. Europe ended up with more domesticated animals due to the fact that it shares a border with Asia. The combined landmass of Europe and Asia had many more species of wild animals than the Americas. The water buffalo and the cow, for example, were essential to increasing efficiency in all aspects of human life from food production to military conquest.

Early humans were able to access animal power to help in crop production, which greatly increased the yield. Increased food supply, therefore, left humans with the time to develop tools such as the plough, which they could attach to large animals like the ox, and later, the horse. The earliest appearance of the plough was during the fifth century. However, it was unable to go through heavy soil substances so, it was very limited in northern Europe.  Eventually, farmers modified the design, replacing the runner with a wheel that increased the weight of the plough. Food production increased as a result of the heavier plough, which in turn, resulted in a significant population growth. The plough does require a great deal of human strength to guide it while it is pulled. Because of this, women could not participate in this part of agricultural production because they were weaker than men. Therefore, women shifted their focus to the home. Without the responsibility of farm labour, women’s fertility rates started to increase. Women also were able to spend more time teaching their children, leading to a more intelligent population. Therefore, inventions like the plough changed the entire gender dynamic around farming, as women spent more time raising their children while men remained outside farming. This division led to major improvements in the standard of living because only half of the population had to deal with the responsibility of feeding the family. While domesticated plants and animals had a major impact on human development, the invention of the wheel and the plough also played a vital role in modernizing society.

Emerging independently in just a few places around the world, writing comprehensively transformed early agricultural societies. Writing originated because early humans needed to record accounts, and this rapidly exploded into a means of informing, recording and expressing records of the crops.  Scholars believe the first writing system appeared about 5,000 years ago, in the region of the Fertile Crescent called Sumer. The Sumerians developed an elaborate system of symbols known as cuneiform and permanently recorded official accounts on clay tablets.


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