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Food History - Farming

Because wild foods were unreliable, humans learned to grow their own food. Grains seem to have been domesticated first, followed by animals as well as other plants.

Wheat was possibly the first domesticated plant in Mesopotamia in the Mideast about 10,000 years ago. Corn, or maize, was improved from teosinte, a native Mexican grass, and became a staple food in the Americas. Corn supported many prehistoric populations, including the Moundbuilders, Anasazi/Ancient Puebloan, Aztec, Mogollon/Mimbres, Hohokam, and Salado cultures, as well as Eastern Woodlands people such as the Iroquois. Maize, beans, and squash were grown together, known as three-sisters cultivation, because each plant contributes to the growth of the others.

Grinding-stones allowed corn or other kernels to be crushed into flour or cornmeal. The dried corn could be easily stored -- some kernels are still found at prehistoric sites in arid climates. Many prehistoric Anasazi/Puebloan sites have prehistoric manual grinding-stones known as metates y manos, a Spanish phrase meaning "flat stones used for grinding by hand."

The earliest domesticated animals were probably sheep and, soon afterward, cattle. Livestock farming not only provided meat but other commodities such as milk and cheese, wool and hides for clothing, bone for tools, and animal power for plowing and for transportation, for example, horses, camels, and oxen. Dogs became domesticated very early, used no doubt to herd livestock, to help track game animals, and as loyal companions.

Agriculture allowed permanent villages to be settled, making possible early civilizations. Domestication of animals allowed nomadic people, such as the ancient Israelites, to raise sheep, goats, and cattle that could move with them seasonally. In a later era, medieval farming under feudalism allowed an upper class of landed aristocracy to be supported by peasants who worked the land.

Markets for farm products developed, which included international trade of cash crops like bananas, citrus fruits, tea, and coffee. Although subsistence farming remained important, many American colonial farms grew commercial crops such as tobacco. In the American South, slaves supplied the labor to produce cash crops such as rice, sugar cane, and cotton. Slaves or low-paid native laborers worked on coffee plantations as well as on other plantations in the Caribbean and Latin America.

By the 19th century, most farms had become specialized, for example, dairy farms, fruit orchards, grain farmers, or cattle ranching. During the 1800s mechanized farm machinery replaced animal power and manual farm labor. Harvesting crops became a big business, and processed foods were available to city households. A transportation network of riverboats, canals, steamships, and railroads carried livestock and produce to food markets.


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