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The migrations of farmers July 12th, 2020 by

Last week I wrote about the migrations of our hunter-gatherer ancestors out of Africa. By 10,000 years ago people had colonized Eurasia, the Americas, Africa, Australia and the large islands near Southeast Asia without developing agriculture. What happens next is described in the second half of Peter Bellwood’s First Migrants.

Complementary studies by archaeologists and plant geneticists give a good picture of early agriculture in various parts of the world. Food plants such as wheat, barley, chickpeas, peas and lentils, were cultivated rather than gathered from the wild around 9,500 years ago, starting in the Fertile Crescent. People also kept cattle, sheep and goats.

Crop plants varied by region, as agriculture began to spread, depending on which food plants occurred naturally.

Center of origin Some key species domesticated
Fertile Crescent
(Middle East)
Wheat, barley, chickpeas, peas, lentils, cattle, sheep, goats
China (Yellow &
Yangtze River Basins)
Rice, broomcorn millet, foxtail millet, soy, pigs
New Guinea Highlands Taro, bananas, sugar cane
Sub-Saharan Africa
(north of the rainforest)
Pearl millet, African rice, sorghum, yams
Andes Potatoes, sweetpotatoes, other roots and tubers, llamas, alpacas
Southern Mexico Maize, beans
Eastern USA Sunflowers, other crops (now mostly lost)

Bellwood argues that ancient farmers spread their languages and their crops together, across large regions. As farming produced more food per hectare of land than hunting and gathering, populations of agrarian peoples grew, and within a few centuries began to expand into the lands of their hunter-gatherer neighbors. Over thousands of years, farming peoples colonized much of the world, before states or grand civilizations appeared. Along the way farmers absorbed at least some of the native peoples they met. When a language is spread over a large area, it can eventually break up into several different languages. Each generation makes small changes in their speech, which accumulate over the centuries, evolving into different languages.

Starting in the Fertile Crescent, speakers of Indo-European languages took their wheat, barley, peas, sheep, goats and cattle to cover most of Europe, Persia and eventually Northern India.

As many as six language families began in what is now China and spread from there to most of East Asia.   Most spectacularly, one of these language families, Austronesian, was spread by farmers who took boats from the Asian mainland to Taiwan, then to the Philippines, and on to the Bismarck Archipelago. In the islands of Southeast Asia, the Austronesians abandoned rice cultivation in favor of the fruits and roots domesticated in New Guinea. Armed with double-hulled canoes and a deep knowledge of navigation, the Austronesian speakers then went on the settle the Oceanic Islands from Polynesia in the east to Madagascar in the west, bringing bananas to Africa fifteen centuries ago.

On the other hand, some crops have spread from one neighboring group of people to the next, without the mass movement of people and languages. Maize, for one, was domesticated in southern Mexico, and spread north, into the southwestern US by 2100 BC, as the seed of this high-yielding crop was spread from one group to the next. Yet in many cases, ancient farmers did migrate across large areas, taking their native languages, and their familiar crops with them.

Further reading

Bellwood, Peter 2013 First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Merrill, W. L., Hard, R. J., Mabry, J. B., Fritz, G. J., Adams, K. R., Roney, J. R., & MacWilliams, A. C. 2009 The diffusion of maize to the southwestern United States and its impact. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.106(50), 21019-21026.

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