Ancient Farmers

Mrs. Cro-Magnon just got home with a basket of berries and tubers; she’s been foraging all day and has just enough food to feed her growing family.  The family has been waiting, with rumbling stomachs, inside their cold, uncomfortable cave for her return.  Mr. Cro-Magnon has been out hunting all day with his handmade spear; he’s weary and his feet are sore.  He’s managed to bring down a wooly mammoth but still has to drag it home and get it ready for consumption by skinning it, cutting it up, and preserving it.  This could take days and require the help of the entire family.  Besides all that, his spearhead broke off inside the wooly mammoth and now he has to fashion another one. Just a day in the life of ancient farmers.

Cro-Magnon people survived and thrived on hunting and gathering techniques; it was a tough hand-to-mouth existence.  Cro-Magnon man and woman were constantly on the hunt for sustainable edibles to keep them alive.  It must have been an exhausting and somewhat discouraging existence.  When they weren’t gathering wild plant foods, they were hunting wild game of all kinds with the use of their hands and crude tools.  This grueling routine was a daily one and I wonder if they ever sat in their caves at night, after a long day of barely surviving, scratching their heads and thinking, “There must be a better way.”

A Metamorphosis for Mankind 

In another part of the world, known as the Fertile Crescent, the dawn of agriculture had begun.  The Fertile Crescent had rich soil and at least three important rivers, the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates.  Nomadic peoples found the area well suited to settling down; the pasturing of their flocks and the growing of food thus began.  Wheat, barley, peas, and lentils began sprouting from the rich soil.  The metamorphosis of mankind was underway and the lifestyle of hunting and gathering was fading fast.

The Fertile Crescent

The Secret’s in the Sludge

The Nile River flooded the land of the Fertile Crescent and was the water the Egyptians who lived there needed to grow their crops.  After the river subsided, it left behind a layer of silt that nourished the plants.  The silt carried nutrients from different regions as well as sand particles and clay, and deposited them in the land of the Fertile Crescent; this silt played a huge part in the fertility of the soil that grew some of the first crops known to mankind.

Silt, or sludge as it was also known, was composed of particles of irregular size and shape that allowed for good aeration of the soil.  The clay particles helped hold on to water and the sandy parts helped the soil drain; these properties combined to store plant nutrients and make for a very productive soil.  The silt deposited in the Fertile Crescent had probably been fermenting for millions of years; what a windfall for the ancient farmers.

The Egyptian Shaduf

Taming the Nile River was a challenge; the Egyptians in the Fertile Crescent had water but needed a way to move it from one place to another.  They used something called a shaduf.  It was a see-saw like device that had a leather container at one end that farmers filled with water; at the other end was a large stone used as a counterweight.  All the farmers had to do was pull down on a rope attached to the long end of the shaduf to lower the bucket into the water.  The counterweight raised the bucket back up, and the water was then poured on the thirsty crops. This simple yet efficient device could lift as many as 2500 liters of water a day.

Egyptian Shaduf
Egyptian Shaduf

The farmers made reservoirs, also called canals, out of sun-baked bricks.  When the Nile River flooded its banks, the water flowed into the canals.  The shaduf was then used to keep the canals full by removing water, one bucket at a time, from a well and into the canals.  As the canals were filled, the water was then channeled to the crops that sustained the people.  Through their ingenious methods of irrigation, they tamed the rivers of the Fertile Crescent and turned an arid land into bountiful farmland.

Chinampas: The Floating Gardens of the Ancient World

One of the most ingenious farming systems of all time was the Chinampa.  Also known as raised-field agriculture and/or floating gardens, the Chinampas were the superstars of the Aztec world.  These “floating gardens” came into use as far back as the tenth century, and are still in use today in regions of Mexico.  Chinampas (meaning “man-made islands”), were simply crops grown in lake mud.


It was the “one-stop shop” of the ancient farming community.  Crop yields were high using this method because it took advantage of all that nature had to offer in one place.  The Aztecs created their manmade islands by fencing in an area of shallow lake-bed.  Inside this enclosure they built up layers of lake mud and decaying vegetation in which to plant their crops.  The decomposed material was the result of countless years of the buildup of composted nutrients that had settled to the bottom of the lake beds; it providing a super rich mixture of plant nutrients.  It was the Miracle Gro of its day.  What plant wouldn’t like that?

The Aztecs farmers grew maize, squash, tomatoes, beans, amaranth, and chili peppers, among other things.  When it was time to harvest the crops, it was simply a matter of plucking the ripe fruits and veggies and placing them into their boats as they paddled around the gardens.  

Why the Floating Gardens Worked:

  • The gardens provided a micro-climate that prevented frost damage.
  • The soil was super productive due to eons of nature’s nutrients being deposited on the bottom of the lake.
  • The lake provided a self-watering system; water trickled in from the sides of the floating garden and moisture evaporated from the surface.
  • Plants and fish could be grown and harvested in the same area.
  • A drainage system of dams, sluice gates, and canals were put in place to manage flood control in the rainy season.

Ancient farmers even built arching trellises over the Chinampas to grow more fruits and vegetables.  Chinampas were many ecosystems working together and were possibly the most productive system of farming ever created by mankind.

The Treasure of Sichuan

Twenty-two hundred years ago in ancient China, a marvel of engineering created the only non-dam irrigation system the world has ever known; it’s still in operation today.  The Dujiangyan provides water to 668,700 hectares of farmland.  One hectare is the equivalent of 2.47 acres or 10,000 square meters.

In ancient times, a tributary of the Yangtze River used to flood the entire area where the Dujiangyan now stands.  The farmers in the area could have solved the problem by simply building a dam, but the waterway needed to be kept open for the passage of military vessels and also to supply troops.  Their solution was to split the river by redirecting part of the water with an artificial levee and another part to the dry Chengdu plain by cutting a channel through a nearby

The people wove oblong baskets of bamboo, known as Zhulong, and filled them with stones to create the levee and prevent the overflow of the river.  The baskets were held in place by wooden tripods called Macha.  Making use of the natural topographic features of the land, farmers were able to have water for irrigation and their farms prospered.  Once the mountain had been hollowed out, the water flowed through to the Chengdu plain allowing the Chinese farmers to grow lots of food.  They invented row planting so that they could walk down every row and harvest every single plant.  The part of the river that the levee protected would be the part kept open for military purposes, thus meeting the needs of the military.  The ancient farmers solved two problems in a very ingenious way.

ancient farming with levees

The area no longer flooded and the irrigation provided the farmers with the most productive agricultural place in China up to this very day.  The project is now called the “Treasure of Sichuan” because water is allowed to flow through naturally so that all ecosystems and wildlife can subsist in harmony; and flooding was no longer a problem. Now they could grow more of their staple crop, rice.  Other crops grown included wheat, millet, and sorghum; fruits included citrons and peaches.  

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

The Hanging Gardens may not have been in Babylon (modern-day Iraq), and they probably didn’t hang in mid-air.  According to historians, the gardens may have been in the city of Nineveh and were probably built in a stair-step fashion; thus giving the effect of hanging.  But wherever and whatever they actually were, they were an amazing agricultural achievement for their time, which was approximately 600 BC.

One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the hanging gardens were built to please the wife of King Nebuchadnezzar, so the story goes.  Queen Amyitis, the daughter of the king of the Medes (the Medes were an ancient Iranian people), was married to King Nebuchadnezzar in order to create an alliance between the two nations.  She grew up in a land with very lush and thriving landscape; it was green and full of trees.  But the land of her husband was flat and dry.  This depressed her to no end, and so her husband built the hanging gardens to help her feel more at home in her new land.  He was obviously a man who believed in the saying, “Happy wife, happy life.”

The gardens were a set of vaulted terraces, sort of like stadium bleachers; they were supported by cube-shaped pillars.  The hollow pillars were filled with dirt and had large trees planted in them, and the terraces were made of baked brick and bitumen, an early version of asphalt.  Trees and bushes with all kinds of edibles were grown along the terraces. They probably grew fruit trees and olives for olive oil, a staple of the ancient world; golden apples, known as quince; pears and figs.  Crops like almonds, dates, and grapes (a symbol of fertility) were likely also grown.

Laborers were put to work bringing water from the Euphrates River to the top of the gardens in the watering system that had been created for the hanging gardens.  This was no easy task.  The water was lifted to the highest level and then flowed down each consecutive level watering all the plants as it went.  There were no engines or pressure pumps to help fifth century ancients in this process and it’s thought that they might have used a chain pump to move the water.

A chain pump looks kind of like a double Ferris wheel; it had two large wheels connected by a chain and buckets were attached to the chain every few feet.  At the bottom of the wheel is a water source and as the wheels turn, the buckets pick up water, lift it to the upper wheel and are then dumped into an upper pool.  The process then repeated itself and was kept going by a worker, or workers, at the bottom of the pump who continually turned a handle.

Because the gardens were constantly exposed to water and the bricks that made up the gardens were composed of clay and straw, they had a tendency to dissolve.  The solution was to cover the bricks with reeds, bitumen, and tiles.  The ancients made use of a naturally occurring substance known as bitumen, (used in modern day asphalt).  It was a black, gooey byproduct of decomposed organic materials.  Its waterproofing qualities made the perfect sealant for the hanging gardens.  Gated channels were likely constructed to let the water in and direct it to the plants.

Some estimates say the gardens could have been as much as 400 feet wide by 400 feet long and may have stood as high as 80 feet.  They were truly a sight to behold and no small irrigation feat.  When finished, the hanging gardens were a breathtaking spot of green in an otherwise arid world.  I’m sure Queen Amyitis spent many long hours gazing at them and her soul must have been refreshed by this bright spot in her world.

The Digging Stick

All the tools the ancient farmer used were simple and crude and made the job of farming difficult and exhausting.  But in due course, improvements came along.  The first “plow”— if you want to call it that—was no more than a digging stick.  Ancient farmers walked through their fields simply making grooves and holes in a straight line as they went.  Someone else came along behind them and dropped in the seeds, covering them loosely with dirt.  Later, farmers added a stone, bronze, or iron tip to make the digging easier.  Some farmers even made sickles out of a donkey’s lower jaw.

Eventually, the plow was invented; pulled by oxen and donkeys.  Then came the harrow, a wooden board attached to the plow that made it much easier to turn over the dirt and plant the seeds.  At harvest time, sickles made of bone and flint were used to cut the grain.  A major breakthrough came when bronze and iron sickles came into use.  Farming still had a long way to go, and many improvements lay ahead.  The ingenuity and inventiveness of ancient farmers caused change to happen, leading the way to the modern agriculture of our day.

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