Plant Domestication

Table of Dates and Places 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 developing a full-fledged, reliable agricultural (Neolithic) economy. To successfully feed a society from a set of plants, you have to be able to control the growing seasons and continuously improve the harvest. The earliest experimentation with plant tending, called horticulture, is much older than the estimates for the domestication histories listed here, traced back into the Mesolithic and perhaps even the Upper Paleolithic of some 20,000 years ago. That is where the true origins of agriculture lie.

What is a Domesticated Plant?

The traditional definition of a domesticated plant is one that has been altered by humans from its wild nature so that it cannot grow and reproduce without human intervention. That process is by no means a one-directional movement. The domesticating humans must become domesticated themselves to tend the crops so that they reliably produce the best forms.

Today, scientists recognize that domestication can be the result of an immensely slow process, hundreds or thousands of years, during which a symbiotic relationship between the plants and humans took place. This is called co-evolution because during domestication both plants and human behaviors evolved to suit one another.

Co-Evolution

In the simplest form of co-evolution, a human harvests a given plant selectively, by picking the largest or sweetest fruits, and then saving the seeds from those best fruits to plant the next year. By deliberating tending a plant, and replanting seeds from what she interprets as the best and most successful plants, the farmer is selecting what properties survive, and which are extinguished.

But scholars have discovered that process is complicated by long-distance trade in seeds, by accidental or purposeful cross-breeding with wild forms, and by experimentation and selection over thousands of years, as both the plants and human behavior intertwine.

Plant Domestication Table

The following table contains links to articles on various domestication histories. Its contents are compiled from a variety of sources, and if you follow the links you will read the latest information about each plant and detailed descriptions of the domesticated plants will be added to as I get to them. Thanks again to Ron Hicks at Ball State University for his suggestions and information.

See the Animal Domestication table for the latest on animals.

Plant Where Domesticated Date
Fig trees Near East 9000 BCE
Emmer wheat 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