Plant Domestication

Dates and Locations of Human Farming Advances

Fig Tree
Is the Fig Tree the Earliest Domesticated Plant?. David Cayless / Getty Images

The domestication of plants is one of the first and most crucial steps in the development of a full-fledged, reliable agricultural (Neolithic) economy. To successfully feed a society using plants, the first humans had to continually work to improve their yield in quality and quantity. Plant domestication arose as an approach to growing and harvesting more effectively.

What Is a Domesticated Plant?

The traditional definition of a domesticated plant is one that has been changed from its natural state until it is no longer able to grow and reproduce without human intervention. The purpose of plant domestication is to adapt plants to make them optimal for human use/consumption.

Just as the earliest domesticated crops were groomed to meet human needs, farmers had to learn to meet the needs of their tamed plants so that they would produce high-quality, bountiful, and reliable crops. In a way, they were groomed too.

Plant domestication is a slow and tiresome process that is only successful when both parties—humans and plants—benefit from each other through a mutualistic relationship. The result of thousands of years of this symbiosis came to be known as coevolution.  

Coevolution

Coevolution describes the process of two species evolving to suit each other's needs. Plant domestication through artificial selection is one of the best examples of this. When a human tends a plant with favorable attributes, perhaps because it has the largest and sweetest fruits or most resilient husk, and saves the seeds to replant, they are essentially guaranteeing the continuation of that particular organism.

In this way, a farmer can select for the properties they desire by giving special treatment only to the best and most successful plants. Their crop, in turn, starts to take on the desirable properties the farmer selected for and disadvantageous attributes are extinguished over time.

Though plant domestication via artificial selection is not foolproof—complications include long-distance trading and uncontrolled seed dispersal, accidental cross-breeding of wild and domesticated plants, and unexpected disease wiping out genetically similar plants—it demonstrates that human and plant behavior can become intertwined. When plants do what is expected of them by humans, humans work to preserve them.

Examples of Domesticated Plants

The domestication histories of various plants show advancements in plant-taming practices. Organized by the earliest to the most recent domesticated plants, this table provides an overview of plant domestication with the plant, location, and date of domestication. Click through to learn more about each plant.

Table of Domesticated Plants
Plant Location Date
Emmer wheat Near East 9000 BCE
Fig trees Near East 9000 BCE
Foxtail Millet East Asia 9000 BCE
Flax Near East 9000 BCE
Peas Near East 9000 BCE
Einkorn wheat Near East 8500 BCE
Barley Near East 8500 BCE
Chickpea Anatolia 8500 BCE
Bottle gourd Asia 8000 BCE
Bottle gourd Central America 8000 BCE
Rice Asia 8000 BCE
Potatoes Andes Mountains 8000 BCE
Beans South America 8000 BCE
Squash Central America 8000 BCE
Maize Central America 7000 BCE
Water Chestnut Asia 7000 BCE
Perilla Asia 7000 BCE
Burdock Asia 7000 BCE
Rye Southwest Asia 6600 BCE
Broomcorn millet East Asia 6000 BCE
Bread wheat Near East 6000 BCE
Manioc/Cassava South America 6000 BCE
Chenopodium South America 5500 BCE
Date Palm Southwest Asia 5000 BCE
Avocado Central America 5000 BCE
Grapevine Southwest Asia 5000 BCE
Cotton Southwest Asia 5000 BCE
Bananas Island Southeast Asia 5000 BCE
Beans Central America 5000 BCE
Opium Poppy Europe 5000 BCE
Chili peppers South America 4000 BCE
Amaranth Central America 4000 BCE
Watermelon Near East 4000 BCE
Olives Near East 4000 BCE
Cotton Peru 4000 BCE
Apples Central Asia 3500 BCE
Pomegranate Iran 3500 BCE
Garlic Central Asia 3500 BCE
Hemp East Asia 3500 BCE
Cotton Mesoamerica 3000 BCE
Soybean East Asia 3000 BCE
Azuki Bean East Asia 3000 BCE
Coca South America 3000 BCE
Sago Palm Southeast Asia 3000 BCE
Squash North America 3000 BCE
Sunflower Central America 2600 BCE
Rice India 2500 BCE
Sweet Potato Peru 2500 BCE
Pearl millet Africa 2500 BCE
Sesame Indian subcontinent 2500 BCE
Marsh elder (Iva annua) North America 2400 BCE
Sorghum Africa 2000 BCE
Sunflower North America 2000 BCE
Bottle gourd Africa 2000 BCE
Saffron Mediterranean 1900 BCE
Chenopodium China 1900 BCE
Chenopodium North America 1800 BCE
Chocolate Mesoamerica 1600 BCE
Coconut Southeast Asia 1500 BCE
Rice Africa 1500 BCE
Tobacco South America 1000 BCE
Eggplant Asia 1st century BCE
Maguey Mesoamerica 600 CE
Edamame China 13th century CE
Vanilla Central America 14th century CE
Dates and locations of plant domestication