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.

PlantWhere DomesticatedDate
Fig treesNear East9000 BCE
Emmer wheatNear East9000 BCE
Foxtail MilletEast Asia9000 BCE
FlaxNear East9000 BCE
PeasNear East9000 BCE
Einkorn wheatNear East8500 BCE
BarleyNear East8500 BCE
ChickpeaAnatolia8500 BCE
Bottle gourdAsia8000 BCE
Bottle gourdCentral America8000 BCE
RiceAsia8000 BCE
PotatoesAndes Mountains8000 BCE
BeansSouth America8000 BCE
SquashCentral America8000 BCE
MaizeCentral America7000 BCE
Water ChestnutAsia7000 BCE
PerillaAsia7000 BCE
BurdockAsia7000 BCE
RyeSouthwest Asia6600 BCE
Broomcorn milletEast Asia6000 BCE
Bread wheatNear East6000 BCE
Manioc/CassavaSouth America6000 BCE
ChenopodiumSouth America5500 BCE
Date PalmSouthwest Asia5000 BCE
AvocadoCentral America5000 BCE
GrapevineSouthwest Asia5000 BCE
CottonSouthwest Asia5000 BCE
BananasIsland Southeast Asia5000 BCE
BeansCentral America5000 BCE
Opium PoppyEurope5000 BCE
Chili peppersSouth America4000 BCE
AmaranthCentral America4000 BCE
WatermelonNear East4000 BCE
OlivesNear East4000 BCE
CottonPeru4000 BCE
ApplesCentral Asia3500 BCE
PomegranateIran3500 BCE
GarlicCentral Asia3500 BCE
HempEast Asia3500 BCE
CottonMesoamerica3000 BCE
SoybeanEast Asia3000 BCE
Azuki BeanEast Asia3000 BCE
CocaSouth America3000 BCE
Sago PalmSoutheast Asia3000 BCE
Squash North America3000 BCE
SunflowerCentral America2600 BCE
RiceIndia2500 BCE
Sweet PotatoPeru2500 BCE
Pearl milletAfrica2500 BCE
SesameIndian subcontinent2500 BCE
Marsh elder (Iva annua)North America2400 BCE
SorghumAfrica2000 BCE
SunflowerNorth America2000 BCE
Bottle gourdAfrica2000 BCE
SaffronMediterranean1900 BCE
ChenopodiumChina1900 BCE
ChenopodiumNorth America1800 BCE
ChocolateMesoamerica1600 BCE
CoconutSoutheast Asia1500 BCE
RiceAfrica1500 BCE
TobaccoSouth America1000 BCE
EggplantAsia1st century BCE
MagueyMesoamerica600 CE
EdamameChina13th century CE
VanillaCentral America14th century CE