Subsistence Farming: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Introduction to…
  • 0:39 The Origins of Sedentary Life
  • 1:40 Subsistence Farming…
  • 3:55 Subsistence Farming Today
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

Subsistence farming--the practice of growing food for personal or communal consumption--has been a primary source of human livelihood for at least 12,000 years. This lesson reviews the origins and definitions of subsistence farming, with cross-cultural examples.

Introduction to Subsistence Farming

Have you ever wondered where many of the foods we eat today come from? People in developed countries today have access to an extraordinary variety of crops. These crops have been modified over thousands of years, which originated in different locations around the world as subsistence crops. Subsistence farming, the first style of farming developed in history, is the practice of small-scale agriculture for direct consumption by individuals, families, and small communities. Subsistence farming is still practiced in rural areas of the developing world, but most food today comes from cash crops grown for industry and profit.

Subsistence Farming and the Origins of Sedentary Life

Subsistence farming dates back at least 12,000 years, when humans began domesticating plants for growth. Following the Ice Age, favorable climatic conditions most likely helped to fuel early plant domestication. Before that time, all humans were hunter-gatherers, or foragers, for approximately 95% of our existence. Hunter-gatherers had to rely on a nomadic existence, or moving from place to place in search of food. The ability to produce a surplus of food in one location through subsistence farming, therefore, is considered the defining transition of humans leading to civilizations, or complex societies.

Famed anthropologist V. Gordon Childe coined this transition the Neolithic Revolution. Childe argued the Neolithic Revolution of subsistence farming allowed people to settle in villages, starting the process of labor specialization, social hierarchies, and everything we associate with life in the developed world.

Subsistence Farming Cultures Around the World

While many subsistence-farming villages grew into expansive civilizations built on commercial agriculture, most of the world remained in small kin-based villages who built their livelihood from subsistence farming.

Grains domesticated in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq, provided the basis of subsistence farming in the western world. In the Americas, subsistence farmers domesticated an extraordinary array of plants, including corn, beans, squash, and potatoes. In seasonal climates, like Western Europe, crop rotations were used to grow different plants according to optimal seasons, as well as to vary the stress put on the soil by farming. Nevertheless, soil eventually becomes fallow and subsistence farmers have to constantly expand into new areas, known as shifting agriculture.

It is believed large-scale clearing of land by early subsistence farmers contributed to deforestation in places like Europe, and climate records show impacts possibly made by early farmers. In other cases of subsistence farming, permanent fields were built, which relied on irrigation agriculture, or diversion of water to sustain intensive crop production. Rice paddies in Southeast Asia, for instance, can yield year-round crops via irrigation.

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