What civilization was the best in agriculture

Cultivation methods

Agriculture: the foundation of human civilization

Now we can hardly imagine that not so long ago three quarters of the population worked in agriculture and that crop failures regularly caused famine. It was a long way from the first cultivation techniques in the Neolithic Age to the modern tractor with satellite navigation or the fully automatic greenhouse.

An epochal step in human history took place in the Neolithic Age: the transition from nutrition through hunting and the gathering of fruits and carrion to the agricultural production of food through agriculture and animal husbandry. In science, this step is known as the "Neolithic Revolution".

For China, the researchers date this revolution to the twelfth millennium BC, for the Middle East to around 10,000 BC. Europe followed several thousand years late. The associated sedentariness and improved nutritional situation formed the basis for the first high cultures in Mesopotamia (today's Iraq) and Egypt.

Wooden grave sticks and planting sticks are accepted as the oldest tools. The end of a large branch is pointed to make it easier to dig up the ground. In the following millennia, the success of cultures is essentially linked to the technical progress of their agricultural technology. Artificial irrigation in the Middle East has been documented since the fifth millennium BC at the latest.

The invention of the plow is just as important. The oldest evidence can be found as characters in the third millennium BC in the city of Uruk (in the south of today's Iraq). Scientists suspect that simple hook plows already dug furrows over the fields on the Nile in the sixth millennium BC.

With the plow and the yoke it became possible to use the animal labor to cultivate the soil. Plowing loosened the soil, weeds and, in some cases, pests were destroyed. The efficiency of agricultural work increased considerably.

Increased yield through fertilization

Fertilization with mineral flours made from slate, clay, sandstone or limestone was already known in ancient times. The so-called "green manure", the incorporation of fast-growing plants that suppress weeds and form humus, is more than two millennia old.

The Roman historian Pliny (23-79 AD) writes: "The soil on which field beans were grown is as happy as if it had received fertilization."

What Pliny did not know: Beans belong to those plants that enrich the soil with nitrogen and thus contribute to fertility. Without fertilization, the soil was exhausted after a few years and needed fallow land, a time without agricultural use, in order to recover.

In order to protect the soil, the three-field economy was introduced in medieval Europe in the 11th century. A year of cultivation with winter cereals was followed by a year with summer cereals and finally a fallow year.

Of course, the breeding of grains that had larger ears or more resistant stalks also made a decisive contribution to increasing the yield. Scientists assume that this breeding started practically with the beginning of arable farming, with the farmers always sorting out the largest grains from the harvest for the seeds.

Groundbreaking inventions of the industrial revolution

For centuries there were no developments in agricultural technology that could be compared in terms of importance with the plow or irrigation. Agriculture was still very laborious. Before the Industrial Revolution, four farming families supported another family. Today one farmer looks after more than 25 families.

Agriculture also changed fundamentally in the 18th and 19th centuries, the time of the Industrial Revolution. The cities grew and with them the need for food. The fields became larger so that they could be cultivated more effectively. A more targeted crop rotation between grain and other crops did not deplete the soil as quickly.

Scientific research brought a new era to agriculture, especially with the invention of artificial fertilizers by Justus von Liebig (1803-1873). Now it was possible to operate profitable agriculture even on poor soil.

Chemical sprays, which avoided catastrophic crop failures caused by pests, were equally successful. However, artificial fertilizers and pesticides proved to be double-edged swords. The health risks were underestimated for a long time.

As a reaction to the dangers posed by industrial agriculture, a countermovement developed in the early 20th century that relied on "biologically dynamic", i.e. gentle forms of production.

From steam plow to modern tractor with GPS

Up until the 19th century, field work was manual labor. Only draft animals helped and moved heavy equipment across the fields. During the Industrial Revolution, industrial production methods found their way into agriculture. Machines for mowing and threshing were developed. What could be mowed with a scythe in one day, simple mowers could do in half an hour.

Around 1860 the Englishman John Fowler (1826-1864) developed the first efficient steam plow. Since the steam engines themselves were too heavy to drive across the field, two machines each pulled a large plow on a wire rope across the field from the edges of the field.

The system could do as much work in an hour as a team of horses in a day. However, the device was very expensive. Only large farmers could afford it.

To date, the improvement of agricultural machinery has not stopped. A high-tech tractor with 200 hp now has three to five times that of its predecessor from the 1950s. The most modern tractor units are now equipped with satellite navigation and can practically find their way around the fields on their own.

Greenhouses: total control

In the course of the millennia, humans controlled more and more factors in the field in order to increase the yield. Only the climate was beyond the reach of the peasants, if one disregards artificial irrigation.

But the weather factor should also be checked: by moving the plants to a greenhouse.

As early as the 17th century there were the first plant houses in European courtyards in which citrus fruits were cultivated. They were laid out like winter gardens and leaned against the sunny south side of buildings.

In the 18th century, greenhouse culture gained momentum in Europe with the production of inexpensive flat glass. Heaters made it possible to cultivate tropical plants and the public orangeries were very popular.

However, the greenhouses did not make a significant contribution to supplying the population with fruit or vegetables until the 20th century. Heating, ventilation, irrigation and fertilization were improved to such an extent that greenhouses had turned into true high-tech wonders by the end of the 20th century.