Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/March 1895/The Beginnings of Agriculture

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


THE appropriation of the riches of the vegetable world is accomplished in two ways, according as our principal effort is to make use of the spontaneous products of wild plants or to multiply them by cultivation. The former, which constitutes the system of selection, reduces itself to mere taking possession, and, as it is executed by the most simple means, it can be practiced by all animals. The second method, which is applied to the production of resources that are needed, alone achieves a conquest and a durable empire. But it requires superior capacity and a degree of intelligence and reflection to which no other animal than man has risen. Cultivation might therefore serve, as does the use of fire, to mark the precise boundary where reason is separated from instinct and passes beyond it.

During an initial period of very long duration, man, destitute of knowledge and without power to act upon Nature, had to satisfy himself with utilizing the spontaneous products of plants, while he was incapable of adding to them by his industry. Like all plant-eating animals he subsisted on the resources of a hazardous collection. This sort of life demanded nothing more than an attentive search and the instinct to profit by happy finds. Existence was passed in wandering in quest of nutritious plants and gathering their fruits. The numerous families of monkeys and even some human tribes still live in this way.

So simple a method of exploitation is necessarily very restricted. Man did not in the beginning know the value of all the productions that abounded around him. First of all, he had to learn to distinguish the useful plants among those which were not useful. It is not an easy task to pick out, in the three or four hundred thousand species of which the existing flora is composed, those most suitable for satisfying various wants—especially when we recollect that most of the uses we make of them, instead of being naturally indicated, are suggested by previous discoveries, and that there is no motive to impel one to seek in things a utility which is not suspected.

Primitive man was doubtless put in the way of making such discoveries by pressing necessities and the suggestion of chance. The terrible famines to which savages are exposed, which force them to eat the most insignificant berries, grasses, roots, and even the leaves of trees, caused them to learn by repeated trials the productions which could best afford them nourishment. Attention was fixed upon the most advantageous and least repulsive of them. Such experimentation, marked by disgusting and perilous features—for many poisonous plants proffer baits to greedy appetites by which they are sometimes caught—was accomplished at the instigation of hunger, with the assistance of instincts then more formal or better minded than now, comparable to those which guide animals so surely in the choice of their food. At a later date, nascent reason discovered various useful qualities in plants. Fortunate observations and trials followed by success showed what profit could be derived from products long neglected. The uses of wood assigned an increasing importance to it, first as a combustible, beginning with the discovery of fire, then as a substance that could be made serviceable in infinite ways. In time, men learned to separate, twist, spin, and weave bark and fibers, to color them in various shades, and to extract oil, wine, and sugar. Casual cures revealed the medicinal properties of simples. Every age saw an increase in the number of useful products which one could draw from plants. Even now, after the many investigations that have been pursued through thousands of ages, we are far from having made available all the resources which the vegetable world might furnish us; and its fertility holds in reserve for us many treasures of which we are still ignorant.

All the plants that have come into cultivation among us were first used wild, for their value had to be recognized before the thought of multiplying them could take shape. As long as they were naturally abundant enough to suffice for the necessities of sparse populations, no pains would be taken to propagate them. This phase of absolute uncultivation, the longest that the human species has traversed, appears to have continued from the origin of the race to the present geological period. Nothing, in fact, in the vestiges that have come down to us of that age reveals any signs of cultivated plants or of modes of cultivation; and such are not found till the period of the station at Robenhausen, the most recent of the prehistoric ages. A similar condition has persisted among many peoples, not only savages reduced to the sorry resources of the animal searching, like the Hottentots, Bushmen, Fuegians, etc., but hunters, like a number of American tribes, Indians and Eskimos, and even pastoral people like the populations in Asia and Africa which live solely on the products of their flocks. Several peoples of Europe were found in a similar condition at no very ancient date. Tradition preserved among the Greeks and Romans the memory of a time when their ancestors, given over solely to pastoral industry, could neither till nor plant.[2] At the age represented by the kitchen middens and the oldest lake stations, the aborigines of Denmark and those of Switzerland were not aquainted with any sort of cultivation. A large part of England was, not less than twenty centuries ago, plunged in the same state of savagery. "The two most numerous peoples of Great Britain," says the abridger of Dio Cassius, "the Caledonians and the Meati, to whom all the others are related, live on uncultivated mountains or in desert plains, where they have neither cities nor cultivated lands. They subsist on milk, game, and wild fruits."[3] The narrative of the circumnavigation achieved by Other in the ninth century, on the shores of the Baltic, describes populations which lived by fishing, and makes no mention of agricultural products.[4] Even with peoples who have given agriculture its widest developments, a notable part of the resources is always borrowed from the products of the wild flora. We need only cite forest, woods, and pasture lands. Half of the territory of France has not yet been put under regular cultivation, and it is estimated that in the whole world the plants propagated by man do not occupy the tenth part of the surfaces which they might fructify.

Thus man has by the system of gathering become acquainted with and taken possession of the resources of which Nature offers him the gratuitous enjoyment. Although this mode of exploitation is anterior and appears strange to agricultural civilization, we should not fail to appreciate how necessary it was to the establishment of that condition. It has furnished valuable suggestions as to what the vegetable kingdom contained that was useful or capable of being made useful—that is, has indicated all the species which it was profitable to cultivate.

While the appropriation of the products of wild flora presented few other difficulties than those of trying and searching, it can procure only an extremely limited subsistence, because plants adapted to the wants of man were rare and scattered. Like the animals whose kind of life lie continued, he first limited his demands to asking life and shelter from plants. A commensal of all the phytophagous species, he took his place as a parasite, not as a master, at the banquet of creation served without distinction to the multitude of the hungry. If he managed to subsist, it was with great difficulty, constantly a prey to hunger and in a perpetual uncertainty as to the future even in the midst of a temporary abundance, which was dissipated in his hands without his being able to make permanent provision.

To the phase of absolute uncultivation that occupied the first age of the human race succeeded a period of trials which was prolonged through the ages of savage hunting and pastoral barbarity. On rising from the state of Nature, men in quest of food would give more attention and care to the exploitation of the resources of the hunt, always available, than to that of vegetable production, which was limited to a short season. Wherever, as in North America, game was abundant over vast territories, the preying system could maintain itself independently. Where, on the other hand, game was rare and the extent of the territory small, as in Polynesia, the populations had early recourse to agricultural operations. Peoples who from being hunters became shepherds, obliged to wander from pasture to pasture with their flocks, were hardly able to devote themselves to agricultural experiments, which demanded sedentary customs. But when hunters, for lack of game, and shepherds, after droughts and epizoötics, became deprived of their customary resources, they were forced to call upon plants to supplement their subsistence. The getting of wild food was manifestly insufficient for populations which had multiplied in a relative abundance, and people were obliged, under pressure of necessity, to apply their ingenuity to the artificial propagation of useful plants to fill the measure of their wants. In fact, the more earnestly these plants were sought, the rarer they became. A certain number of species of great merit have thus disappeared from wild Nature, and are preserved only in cultivated varieties. The advantage of saving and increasing so precious types was understood at an early period, and man, exercising an intelligence of which no other animal had shown itself capable, learned to take good care of the plants which had proved most valuable to him. Doubtless fortunate accidents showed the way and were a revelation. Some seeds of fruits thrown down carelessly and springing up around the house suggested the thought of intentional plantings. The savage, who saw these young plants spring up and grow, watched over them, tried other experiments of reproduction and plantation—and the garden was formed, the beginning of agriculture. Success was not difficult in regions where propitious conditions of soil and climate favored the propagation of plants of great productiveness. Observation and experiment next fixed the elements of a theory, limited at first to a few species, then extended and perfected by degrees. To reach these feeble beginnings by the rational methods of agriculture, a long series of attempts marked by more failures than successes had to be gone through. Gradually, however, the processes were improved; the resources increased, and the profits of vegetable production, so long surpassed by those of the hunt and of cattle-raising, at last prevailed over them; and this determined the adoption of a special kind of life, the consequences of which were destined to transform the condition of man.

Regarded as a whole, the cultivation of plants was a more complex and more arduous problem than the domestication of animals. To subject animals, it was enough to capture and hold them. They were then tamed as they became familiar, and afterward required nothing more than watching or protection. They could themselves provide for their wants, or make them known in a language easy to understand. They spontaneously sought their food and fled from danger. The mothers suckled and defended their little ones. Animal instinct thus saved the master of the herd much trouble. Plants, on the other hand, although their passive nature is apparently less rebellious to subjection than the undocile character and self-will of animals, really opposed more obstacles by the very fact of their lack of activity, on account of which they could not help and be sufficient for themselves. Constant watchfulness had to be exercised to see that their growth was accomplished regularly, for their needs never became evident till they were dying, and intelligent cares are necessary to prevent this or remedy it. Taking the propagation of plants under his charge, man had to choose a favorable soil for them, to break it up by toilsome labor, to put the seed in at the proper time, to stimulate their growth with manures, to furnish them water, warmth, and light, according to their needs. Their reproduction, in the wild state, was accomplished in the midst of innumerable risks, under the laws of the struggle for existence, and multiplicity of seeds could alone, in the face of a fearful loss, make sure the duration of species. In the hard and incessant struggle to which plants were given in the contest for ground and a place in the sun, the most precious, which were also usually weak and delicate, were liable to be smothered. To cause them to increase, man had to interfere in the conflict, to extirpate useless, vigorous, and aggressive species, and procure for those under his protection conditions of development. It was necessary, therefore, to clear, plow, and weed; to study the phenomena of vegetable physiology, the qualities of different soils, the influence of exposure and climate, the course of the seasons, and the accidents of meteorology; to sow and to harvest at the most favorable moment, and then to store the products in such a way as to prolong the enjoyment of them. The establishment of agricultural industry thus exacted much more investigation, observation, and knowledge than that of pastoral industry; and further, instead of being limited, as in the domestication of animals, to a small number of selected species, agriculture had to extend its empire over thousands. This sort of life demanded, besides, more foresight, for it was necessary to work for results the profit of which was not gathered till after a long waiting. Finally, the profession of agriculture was much more toilsome than that of herdsman, and man, averse to hard work, recoiled long before the fatigue of so rude a task. He could not undertake it resolutely except during a phase of progress in which he had become more capable of reasoning, persistence, and effort. Agricultural civilization is therefore superior in every aspect to pastoral civilization by the extent of knowledge and foresight it implies, by the amount of labor it imposes, and by the quantity of wealth it creates. And when the two functions are in exercise at the same time, while the care of the herds is left to the most ignorant and weakest of the population—children, women, and old men—the agriculturists compose the most active, the most intelligent, and the most experienced part.

A progressive era of agricultural operations did not arrive till after both the hunting and the pastoral phases. On the one side, in fact, the destruction of wild animals must be sufficiently advanced to permit the cultivator to enjoy the reward of his labors, which too many spoilers would render of no avail. Agriculture would be hard to establish in a country where a pillaging and devastating fauna flourishes. In South Africa, for example, the plantations, exposed to the ravages of deer, birds, and insects, give little return. On the other hand, the co-operation of domestic animals was necessary, in order to plow large surfaces expeditiously as well as to fertilize by their manure the ground which repeated croppings would exhaust. This is the reason why, while we find among many peoples just issued from the savage state and destitute of cattle—Polynesians, Mexicans, Peruvians, etc.—interesting attempts at agriculture, they have not been able, in the absence of that resource, to arise themselves above a limited scale of gardening. The real agricultural system comes after the pastoral system.

But, this given, the other should arise from it in time, when the multiplication of herds in the natural pastures has reached a limit which can not be well exceeded. The least accident tending to diminish that wealth will force the herdsmen to seek a supplement to their subsistence in temporary cultivations. Compelled to periodical migrations, they would adopt, in preference to fruit trees propagated from the wild state by sedentary hunters, a few plants of rapid vegetation, like the cereals, and particularly barley, which matures in a short time. Fields are thus occasionally sown around provisional encampments, an intermittent kind of agriculture, consistent with the care of the herds, as appears among Arabs of the Tell in Algeria. In especially favorable regions agriculture gained the preponderance, and the richness of the harvests, accruing more rapidly than that of the herds, attaching man at last to the ground, caused him to change his method of life.

Still, the first men who gave themselves up to regular consecutive work in the fields did not take their place without difficulty in a barbarous world. Antagonism and war would not fail to break out between the pastoral populations, jealous of their rights of way and of pasturage, and the agricultural populations, which, appropriating the ground put under cultivation by them, assumed to reserve the fruits to themselves. The contest between these rival interests and opposing customs occupied a period in the history of the ancient peoples, In the long run the agriculturists, more civilized, more numerous, and better united, at last carried the day, took possession of the most fertile lands, and drove the herdsmen into the steppes and the deserts, the only regions where their system could be perpetuated in its primitive purity. So, when pasturage and agriculture were developed in concert, a marked classification was worked out between the two professions; and while, in the beginning, such gods as Apollo, Mercury, and Pan, or such kings as those of the Vedic age in India and of the Homeric cycle in Greece, were not degraded by keeping herds, the shepherds lost in consideration as the agricultural system became more prevalent, and the business of attending to the cattle fell more and more to the farm servants.

The moment when man sought the chief support of his life in agriculture is one of the most important dates of history, and opened the decisive era of civilization. Till then, hunter or fisherman, he lived chiefly upon his catches, free or domesticated, and, superior to carnivorous species, he differed from them only in having a more intelligent method of hunting. When he became an agriculturist, he rose above all the animals by a manner of living without analogy among them. He made the land his domain, cut down the forests, plowed the ground, and propagated by industry the plants useful for his wants. From that time he had at his disposal incomparably vaster resources than he could draw from animals. His comfort, henceforth assured, depended on himself only, and populations increased rapidly. Under the influence of these new conditions all the elements of civilization were developed and advanced. Varied industries were constituted to give value to the productions of the earth, habits were regulated, and milder religions substituted for the bloody sacrifices of the pastoral phase peaceful offerings of wheat, meal, oil, and wine.

This memorable event of the adoption of the agricultural system by the first pioneer groups probably dated from the later prehistoric times, and could in no case have been anterior to the subjection of the auxiliary animals during the pastoral stage. The dawn of history shows us large empires, already flourishing, from three to four thousand years before the Christian era—Chaldea, Egypt, and China—enriched and civilized by agriculture. The point of beginning should undoubtedly be thrown some thousands of years still further back. Probably also the mythological traditions relative to the origin of husbandry, in which honor is rendered to deified personages, such as Ceres, Triptolemus, Minerva, Bacchus, Osiris, Noah, etc., refer not to the primary institution, which was probably effected by degrees and slowly, but to the extension of the processes, which may sometimes have been made in a very short time and would all the more strike the Imagination of the peoples. The agricultural system once fixed, the initiative of a leading innovator might introduce it by imitation into a country still barbarous, rapidly change the aspect of a district still uncultivated, and bring it, in less than a generation, to the point where territories that had already been transformed by cultivation had arrived after centuries of efforts. Those were undoubtedly benefits of this kind of which myths have transmitted the reminiscence to us. During these ages of ancient barbarity the fertility of the soils, suddenly revealed by practical sages, would appear miraculous to tribes that were acquainted only with the aridity of the steppes. The prodigy of making wheat and the vine grow where only grass and rushes had been would seem to partake of the divine, and it is conceivable that altars should have been erected to those who accomplished it. In the Oriental mythologies the conquest and distribution of domestic animals did not give rise to such legends; whence we may suppose that those achievements dated from an anterior cycle when religious conceptions, more closely related to primitive fetichism, induced the adoration of the animals themselves instead of those who subdued or introduced them, and of whom no recollection survived.

It is easier to indicate the countries in which the evolution occurred in which the pastoral system was supplanted by the agricultural. As our most valuable plants originated in regions now well determined by, botanical geography, we thus know the area in which their cultivation was established as the center whence it radiated to different quarters. By this induction we are authorized to affirm that agriculture was first established in that part of the ancient world which also furnished the most useful species of animals for domestication. Asia has, in fact, contributed most of our fruit trees, cereals, and economical and industrial plants. The fertile valleys of the Euphrates, the Nile, the Ganges, and the Yang-tse-kiang were acquired to agricultural civilization very early. While we are not able to say which is entitled to priority, we can distinguish two principal centers of cultivation in the ancient continent—one in the southwest of Asia (Mesopotamia and Egypt), and the other in the east (China, India, and Indo-China). The former, which seems to have been the more important, propagated barley, wheat, the vine, flax, etc. The second acquired rice, tea, sugar cane, the mulberry, cotton, etc. A third center, more tardily constituted in intertropical America, gave us Indian corn, the potato, tobacco, etc. The north of Asia, Europe, South America, the United States, and Australia have furnished very little.

Without regarding the negroes and the American populations, which, continuing nearly in their original savagery, and having not even risen to the pastoral system, could give only an extremely limited aid to the establishment of agriculture, the credit of having introduced high cultivation can be disputed only by the three races which shared the dominion of the ancient continent. The claims of the Mongolian race are distinct enough in consequence of its long isolation. Some of its peoples have preserved their nomadic customs. Only China and its annexes adopted the new method of living. Yet, although agriculture has been long honored there, its general advance has been less evident than elsewhere, and the Middle Kingdom has hardly got beyond the practice of a highly perfected gardening. The claim of the Semitic race is based upon the record of the two ancient empires, Chaldea and Egypt, which were truly initiators. Yet, although it seems to have given the first example, it had not the honor of making the most decisive advances. Both pastors and cultivators, the Semites perhaps made the most material contribution to the passage from the former kind of life to the other. The pre-eminent agricultural race was that of the Aryans, which only exceptionally ever led a pure pastoral existence, and the name of which is associated with a root from which is derived also the word arare, to plow—as if the Aryans, to distinguish themselves from the nomads who surrounded them, desired to give themselves the characteristic appellation of plowmen[5] In Europe, and under less favorable conditions of fertility, their descendants have carried agricultural industry to its most advanced point, have constituted the theory of rational cultivation, and have most largely developed the system of civilization which is the consequence of it.

The first people who adopted the agricultural system possessed only a few species of plants borrowed from the local or neighboring flora. Each region, apart from the others, was poor; only the world was rich. To compose the treasure of our agriculture, it was therefore necessary to collect in each country the best products of all the others. Such sharing in common was for a long time impracticable for want of relations between the ethnic groups, which were separated by geographical obstacles or impassable distances. Gradually profitable exchanges distributed the plants from their native regions into the zones which were suited to receive them. From the time when special centers of cultivation were established, the richness of this fund has gone on increasing. The migrations of peoples, their military expeditions, their conquests, the foundations of distant colonies, commercial and political relations, and often the intelligent curiosity of travelers gave opportunities for inestimable gains. The Egyptians sought for new plants. Queen Hatasu sent a squadron of five ships to the ports of the country of Punt, to bring from there fragrant trees, which she planted in her gardens at Thebes. Thothmes III had represented in one of the chapels of the Temple of Amun at Karnak the various species of plants he had collected during his campaigns in Syria and on the Upper Nile. We may also cite the case of the embassy of Chang-Kien, who, sent in the second century by the Emperar Won Ti into Bactriana, brought back a number of plants with which he enriched the agriculture of the Celestial Empire.[6] At successive dates, all the agricultural peoples have made their contributions to the common stock and have drawn largely from a constantly increasing patrimony.

The Indo-European race, with its taste for travel and its ambition for expansion, has especially contributed to the dissemination of useful plants. Originating in the center of Asia, it in the very beginning borrowed from its elder sisters the resources, acquired by them, of an agriculture which was destined to become cosmopolitan. The most ancient Aryan migrations carried into India and into Europe the precious seeds which the race had collected near its cradle. The Phœnicians, Greeks, and the Romans afterward propagated on the shores of the Mediterranean a choice of fruit trees, vegetables, and industrial plants selected from three continents: the vine, the olive, the almond, the walnut, the chestnut, the plum, the apricot, the peach, the cherry, etc. In extending their domination from one extremity of the ancient world to the other, the Arabs still found something to glean, and the Crusaders took numerous loans from them. Europe then acquired rice, sugar cane, and the orange. Finally, since the great expeditions of the Renaissance, the flora of the entire world has been put under contribution. The Romans caused trees loaded with fruit to figure in their triumphs, in testimony, Pliny says, of a victory which had been gained over Nature not less than over men. Thus, wherever civilization established itself it sought, in order to make itself welcome and its presence a blessing, to lavish upon the new lands the gains which it had accumulated in its former cultivations. Like the gods of other days, when they descended among men, it appeared with its hands full of precious gifts. This propagation of useful plants is of itself so great a benefit that it compensates, and more, for all the evil that civilization has been accused of spreading.

During the course of the subjection of the vegetable world to our use, the conquest has followed an order upon which the documents of the past do not always cast a sufficient light, but of which it i^ possible to restore the stages by means of a logical induction, while bearing in mind the urgency of the needs, the difficulties of cultivation, and the complexity of the uses. The first plants which man interested himself in propagating were those which would assure his subsistence, for the demands of hunger are the most imperious. Then came economical and medicinal plants. The industrial species usually belong to a later stage. Ornamental and fanciful species were a late gain and the luxury of an already rich civilization.

Suess, in his book, The Face of the Earth, and Neumayr, accepting the Chaldean story of the flood as the original version of the Mosaic account, held that it was a local event in the plains of the Euphrates and Tigris, and that view has prevailed extensively. Richard Hennig, however, discussing the subject in the German Weekly Magazine of Science, argues in favor of the independent origins of the flood stories found among so many peoples, and associates it with some of the striking phenomena of the Ice age which indicate a general increase of rainfall and lowering of temperature during the Quaternary period. Isolated lands—Egypt, for instance—far from these influences, remained free from interruption. The accounts in the German Saga would apply well as descriptions of such a period.

Of the people of Montenegro, Mr. W. H. Cozens-Hardy says that every man, even the poorest, has the bearing and dignity of a gentleman. Education is universal and compulsory on all children over seven. Theft is unknown, and drunkenness unheard of. Women are universally respected; a woman goes in safety where no man dares.

  1. From his book, Conquéte du Monde Végétal (Conquest of the Vegetable World). Félix Alcan, Paris, publisher.
  2. Varro, De Re Rusitica, i, 2.
  3. Xiphilin, Abridgment of the Roman History of Dio Cassius.
  4. Periplus of Other, inserted in the introduction to Paul Grose's version by Alfred Le Grand.
  5. Max Müller, Science of Language.
  6. The Pen-ts-'ao mentions the bean, the pea, lucerne, sesame, saffron, and the walnut.