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

Much of modern farming involves massive acreages managed by huge machinery. It's not always  been that way. Ancient farming methods used by farmers throughout the world varied quite a bit. Farmers all over the world developed crops and animals that suited their environments. In the process, they developed many ways to maintain soils, ward off frost and freeze cycles and protect their crops from animals. On this page you'll find core concept definitions, and articles on ancient farming techniques of the past.

Chinampa Field Scene, Xochimilco
Chinampa Field Scene, Xochimilco. Hernán García Crespo

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. More »

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 BC, 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. More »

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. More »

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. 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. More »

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. More »

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.

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. More »

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. More »

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

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. More »

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
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. More »

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

As they had done in Scandinavia, the Vikings established both summer and winter pasturages and hayfields in Iceland and Greenland. Sheep and other livestock were taken to summer pastures from May to September, but for the remainder of the year were brought to the estate boundaries of individual farms.

The shieling system is a type of animal husbandry developed in the Scandinavian countries, and part of the Viking system called landnam. Shielings were summer animal farms, established in forested areas at some distance from the residential farmsteads. More »

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

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. More »

Eastern Agricultural Complex

Chenopodium album
Chenopodium album. Andreas Rockstein

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.

Chickens, Chang Mai, Thailand
Chickens, Chang Mai, Thailand. David Wilmot
Dates, places and links to detailed information about the animals that we have domesticated—and who have domesticated us. More »
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. More »

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Ancient Farming - Concepts, Techniques, and Experimental Archaeology." ThoughtCo, May. 2, 2017, Hirst, K. Kris. (2017, May 2). Ancient Farming - Concepts, Techniques, and Experimental Archaeology. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Ancient Farming - Concepts, Techniques, and Experimental Archaeology." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 18, 2018).