Ancient Farming - Concepts, Techniques, and Experimental Archaeology

Innovations and Inventions

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Core Concept: Agricultural Field Systems

Rice fields on terraced of Mu Cang Chai , Vietnam.
Son Ha / Getty Images

An agricultural "field system" is a term that refers to the suite of innovations used by prehistoric and historic farmers to improve crop success and reduce the impact of variable climates.

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Core Concept: Horticulture

Person Weeding a Garden
Person Weeding a Garden. Francesca Yorke / Getty Images

Horticulture is a process by which a plot of soil is prepared for the planting of seeds, tubers, or cuttings. It is tended to control competition from intrusive plants (weeds), and protected from predatory animals including humans.

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Horse Herd of Nomadic Kazak Herders in Xinjiang China
Horse Herd of Nomadic Kazak Herders in Xinjiang China. China Photos / 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.

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Four Seasons, Longbridge Road, New Jersey
Four Seasons, Longbridge Road, New Jersey. joiseyshowaa

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.

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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.

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Core Concept: Subsistence

Ancient Foods
Ancient Foods. John Weinstein © The Field Museum

Subsistence is the term archaeologists use to describe the way a particular society or group gets food—whether that method is gardening, full fledged farming or trade and exchange.

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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.

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Iceland Vista taken from Borgarvirki in Vestur-Húnavatnssýsla
Iceland Vista taken from Borgarvirki in Vestur-Húnavatnssýsla. Atli Harðarson

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.

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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.

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Pine Nuts and Archaeology

Pinyon pine (Pinus edulis)
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. USA. Branches of pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) showing male cones and new needle growth. North Rim of Kaibab Plateau. Scott Smith / Getty Images

Although the pinon tree was never properly domesticated, its succulent pine nuts were harvested at least as long ago as 10,000 years. As a substantial source of protein, and now a commercial product, the ancient farming technique of harvesting pinon walks the line between gathering and horticulture.

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Reconstructed Linearbandkeramic Farmhouse, Archeon
Reconstructed Linearbandkeramic Farmhouse, Archeon. Hans Splinter

A photo essay on recent research on the Linearbandkeramik and how types of farming—both planting crops and raising livestock—was brought to Europe from the Near East.

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Eastern Agricultural Complex

The Three Sisters - Maize, Beans and Squash
The Three Sisters - Maize, Beans and Squash. Abri le Roux

Most of the crops domesticated in the North American continent were created in Mexico and central America beginning with corn as long ago as 10,000 years. These crops began appearing in the northeastern North American by about 3000 years ago.

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Chickens feed at a poultry wholesale market in Chengdu of Sichuan Province, China
Chickens feed at a poultry wholesale market in Chengdu of Sichuan Province, China. China Photos / Getty Images
Dates, places and links to detailed information about the animals that we have domesticated—and who have domesticated us.

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Chickpeas at Mumbai Market, India
Chickpeas at Mumbai Market, India. Meanest Indian
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,