Agricultural Hearths & Diffusion of Agriculture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Agriculture completely changed human history, but where did it come from and how did it spread? In this lesson, we'll examine these ideas and see how they've continued to this day.

The Spread of Ideas

Almost everyone in the world has the internet today. But how did they get it? Was the internet invented in every corner of the globe simultaneously? Did some global secret society force you to start using it? No, you use it because it's become part of your culture, as it has in cultures around the world.

The internet is a great example of how something can originate in one place, then spread from culture to culture until it redefines human society. This sort of change doesn't happen all too often, so the internet is now part of a rare history of innovations that changed the world. It's a history dating back thousands of years to the first innovation to completely change how humans lived: agriculture.

Agricultural Hearths

When looking at the spread of new ideas, we start with the place where that idea emerged. We call this a hearth, so an agricultural hearth would be the place where farming was first developed. Where was this?

Some proposed agricultural hearths
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Agriculture actually appeared independently in a few places around the world, which all had climatic and geologic conditions that encouraged the development of farming. The first of these, however, seems to have been a place we call the Fertile Crescent. The Fertile Crescent stretches from the Mediterranean coast of the Middle East to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Roughly 12,000 years ago,, due to a warming climate and fertile soil from annual inundations from the river, people here were able to start systematically growing plants in one place. This was easier than roaming around hunting and gathering, and so this part of the world became the first agricultural hearth.

While the Fertile Crescent was the first agricultural hearth, it wasn't the only one to develop independently. Over in China, between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, ancient people developed agriculture on their own. People in Mesoamerica and northwestern South America, particularly in the Valley of Mexico and Andes Mountains, also developed independent agricultural traditions. There is some evidence that agriculture was independently developed in central Africa, India, and Indonesia as well, but it's debated whether these were independent developments or the concept of agriculture arrived here from other places.

Diffusion of Agriculture

What we know so far is that our first agricultural hearths appeared in the Middle East, Mesoamerica, and East Asia. We call this transition the Neolithic Revolution. So, how did agriculture go from these areas to the rest of the world? For that, we have to look at the theory of the diffusion of innovations.

Agricultural scene from an Egyptian tomb
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The theory of the diffusion of innovations comes from researcher Everett M. Rogers (1934-2004), who postulated that most new innovations move through society in a similar fashion. In his model, a new idea (like agriculture) is first experimented with by a small number of innovators, then slowly adapted by other members of the population until it is ubiquitous.

So how was agriculture diffused from agricultural hearths to the rest of the world? It's pretty evident that regions that were near agricultural hearths began experimenting with agriculture pretty quickly. The innovation did not take long to spread, but there's debate about exactly how this happened.

In some cases, it seems likely that agriculture spread through demic diffusion, which basically means that the people using the innovation moved and brought it with them. In essence, it seems that in some places, like West Asia, farming communities migrated into a new region and brought their agricultural practices with them. Some scientists think this is how agriculture first entered Eastern and Southern Europe.

The other possibility is cultural diffusion. Ancient people were in constant contact with other groups with whom they traded, fought, and cooperated. Considering the vast amount of evidence to suggest that extensive trade networks existed between nomadic peoples, it's no surprise that people heard that one group suddenly had more food and didn't have to move around. That kind of news would travel fast, and the early innovators in other societies likely started experimenting with this idea on their own. In some places it worked and caught on quickly, and in others it took more time.

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