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Ancient Farming

Innovations and Inventions


Much of modern farming involves massive acreages managed by huge machinery. It's not always  been that way. Ancient farming methods used by farmers throughout the world varied quite a bit. Farmers all over the world developed crops and animals that suited their environments. In the process, they developed many ways to maintain soils, ward off frost and freeze cycles and protect their crops from animals. On this page you'll find core concept definitions, articles on ancient farming techniques of the past and bibliographies of related topics.

Ancient Farming Technique: Chinampa

The Chinampa field system is a method of raised field agriculture best suited to wetlands and the margins of lakes. Chinampas are constructed using a network of canals and narrow fields, built up and refreshed from the organic-rich canal muck.

Experimental Archaeology: Raised Fields

Raised Fields at Huatta
Clark Erickson (c) 1998)

In the Lake Titicaca region of Bolivia and Peru, chinampas were used as long ago as 1000 BC, a system which supported the great Tiwanaku civilization. Around the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, the chinampas fell out of use. In this interview, Clark Erickson describes his experimental archaeology project, in which he and his colleagues involved the local communities in the Titicaca region to recreate raised fields.

Ancient Farming Technique: Mixed Cropping

Monoculture Wheat Field, Spokane County, Washington USA
Mark Turner / Photolibrary / Getty Images

Mixed cropping, also known as inter-cropping or co-cultivation, is a type of agriculture that involves planting two or more of plants simultaneously in the same field. Unlike our monocultural systems today (illustrated in the photo), inter-cropping provides a number of benefits, including natural resistance to crop diseases, infestations and droughts.

Mixed Cropping: The Three Sisters

The Three Sisters is a type of mixed cropping system, in which maize, beans and squash were grown together in the same garden. The three seeds were planted together, with the maize acting as support for the beans, and both together acting as shade and humidity control for the squash, and the squash acting as weed suppressant. However, recent scientific research has proven that the Three Sisters were useful in quite a few ways beyond that.

Ancient Farming Technique: Slash and Burn Agriculture

Slash and Burn Techniques in the Amazon Basin of Brazil, June 2001
Marcus Lyon / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

Slash and burn agriculture—also known as swidden or shifting agriculture—is a traditional method of tending domesticated crops that involves the rotation of several plots of land in a planting cycle.

Core Concept: Agricultural Field Systems

An agricultural "field system" is a term that refers to the suite of innovations used by prehistoric and historic farmers to improve crop success and reduce the impact of variable climates.

Core Concept: Horticulture

Horticulture is a process by which a plot of soil is prepared for the planting of seeds, tubers, or cuttings. It is tended to control competition from intrusive plants (weeds), and protected from predatory animals including humans.

Core Concept: Pastoralism

Horse Herd of Nomadic Kazak Herders in Xinjiang China
China Photos / Getty Images

Pastoralism is what we call herding of animals—whether they are goats, cattle, horses, camels or llamas. Pastoralism was invented in the Near East or southern Anatolia, at the same time as agriculture.

Core Concept: Seasonality

Seasonality is a concept archaeologists use to describe what time of year a particular site was occupied, or some behavior was undertaken. It is part of ancient farming, because just like today, people in the past scheduled their behavior around the seasons of the year.

Core Concept: Sedentism

Sedentism is the process of settling down. One of the results of relying on plants and animals is that those plants and animals require tending by humans. The changes in behavior in which humans build homes and stay in the same places to tend crops or take care of animals is one of the reasons archaeologists often say that humans were domesticated at the same time as the animals and plants.

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