History of Scientific Agriculture: Crop Plants


The first farming communities appeared in the Fertile Crescent above the Tigris River in what is now Iran approximately 13 000 years ago. Agriculture was also invented independently at several other locations in the world including Africa, Asia, China, India, Japan, Mesoamerica, South America and the Eastern US. Most of the early crops were annual types that were self‐pollinating and polyploid. The crops emerging in each region spread gradually across the world. Once humans began to plant and harvest, several profound changes occurred in the crop species due to conscious and unconscious selection. Some of the major changes were nonshattering of seed pods, more determinate growth, more uniform ripening, larger seed size and increased seed production. Levels of genetic diversity were also greatly reduced during the process of crop domestication when humans selected only those types that were most beneficial to them.

Key Concepts:

  • Homo sapiens did not begin agriculture until approximately 13 000 years ago, even though the modern form of humans appeared approximately 50 000 years ago.

  • The domestication of crops by humans began in what is called the ‘Fertile Crescent’ on the western edge of modern Iran, but at least 13 other locations across the world spawned agriculture.

  • The act of planting and harvesting plants dramatically altered the genetic and physiological makeup of crop species, effecting traits such as seed retention, growth patterns, uniformity of ripening and levels of seed production.

  • The earliest crops represented a broad array of plant families, but most were herbaceous annuals and self‐pollinated.

  • During the domestication process, levels of genetic variation were dramatically reduced as humans selected a narrow range of plant types.

Keywords: crop diversity; domestication syndromes; origins of agriculture; plant domestication; polyploidy

Figure 1.

Development of food production methods over time. From Ford (1985).

Figure 2.

Centres of plant domestication. Solid‐shaded areas and hatched areas indicate regions of important seed‐crop domestication and vegecultural crops, respectively. Accepted primary domestication centres are shown in black, and potentially important secondary domestication centres are shown in grey. Arrows indicate major trajectories of spread of agriculture and crops out of some centres. Areas are numbered are as follows: 1 – eastern North America, 2 – Mesoamerica, 2a – northern lowland neotropics, 3 – central mid‐altitude Andes, 3a – north and central Andes, 3b – mid‐altitude and high altitude lowland southern Amazonia, 3c – Ecuador and northwest Peru, 4 – West African sub‐Sahara, 4a – West African savanna and woodlands, 4b – West African rainforests, 5 – east Sudanic Africa, 6 – East African uplands and lowland vegeculture, 7 – Near East, 7a – eastern fertile crescent, 8a – Gujarat, India, 8b – Upper Indus, 8c – Ganges, 8d – Southern India, 9 – eastern Himalayas and Yunnan uplands, 10 – northern China, 11 – southern Hokkaido, Japan, 12 – Yangtze, China, 12a – southern China, 13 – New Guinea and Wallacea. Reproduced with permission from Purugganan and Fuller .



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Hancock, JF(Aug 2012) History of Scientific Agriculture: Crop Plants. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003099.pub2]