Author: Maciamo Hay
(written in December 2017. Last updated on September 2018)
Agriculture is what allowed humans to settled down into villages, support larger populations, which evolved into towns, then cities until the rise of the first civilisations. It did not happen out of the blue and did not emerged as a whole package. The process of domestication, be it for cereals, vegetables or animals, was lengthy, tedious, subject to trials and errors, and often required adaptations to the local climate and geography. It led to the invention of irrigation, the plough, the wheel, carts and chariots, and a number of other innovations to improve yield and transportation.
The food we eat today is the result of over 10,000 years of agricultural evolution and of exchanges of crops and animals between people from various parts of the world. One of the most recent exchange of crops happened when Europeans reached the New World, introducing their crops (and animals) to the Americas, and bringing back with them tomatoes, avocadoes, potatoes, maize (corn), squash (pumpkins, courgettes), chili peppers, sunflowers, peanuts, pineapple and cacao, prompting a culinary revolution that is still underway today.
Think about what northern European diet would be without potatoes (including chips/fries), what Mediterranean cuisine (not just Italian food) would be like without tomatoes and courgettes/zucchini, how many kinds of Indian curry there would be without tomatoes and chili peppers, or what Japanese futomaki would taste like without avocadoes. Not to mention a world without chocolate. Yet all these American crops are just the tip of the iceberg of agricultural history. What about other species? Where did all other commonly used herbs, spices, vegetables and fruits come from? That's what I will attempt to answer here with this list.
- Rice: Probably domesticated twice independently, in China (12,000–13,500 years ago) and India (at least 7000 years ago).
- Wheat : Emmer wheat was first grown in the southern Levant about 11,500 years ago, while einkorn wheat cultivation first appears in the Karacadag Mountains in southeastern Turkey some 9700 years ago. Cultivation of non-domesticated wheat could go back as far as 20,000 years ago in the Jordan Valley.
- Barley : Probably first cultivated in the southern Levant about 10,500 years ago.
- Maize (corn) : Domesticated in southern Mexico about 10,000 years ago.
- Rye : Appears to have been first cultivated central and eastern Turkey during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, between 8000 and 9500 years ago.
- Buckwheat : Domesticated in inland Southeast Asia, possibly around 8000 years ago.
- Millet: Domesticated at least 7000 years ago in China.
- Oats : pre-domestication cultivation took place in the southern Levant during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A between 11,500 and 10,000 years ago. However the actual domestication of oats did not occur until the Bronze Age, approximately 4000 years ago.
- Sorghum: Domesticated between 3000 and 4000 years ago in Ethiopia.
Herbs & Spices
- Coriander: Domesticated in the Eastern Mediterranean in the Early Neolithic (at least 11,000 years ago).
- Onion: Origins unknown, but cultivated in the Middle East and China for at least 7000 years.
- Garlic: Native to Central Asia and northeastern Iran. It has been cultivated for over 5000 years in the Middle East.
- Basil: Possibly first cultivated in India over 5000 years ago
- Cumin: Cultivated in the Levant and Egypt for some 4000 years.
- Black pepper : Native to South Asia and Southeast Asia. It has been known to Indian cooking at least 4000 years.
- Cinnamon: It was already imported to ancient Egypt 4000 years ago, although its origins are unknown. Historically most of the cinnamon has been grown in Sri Lanka, where it might have originated.
- Saffron: Was probably first cultivated in or near Greece about 3500 years ago.
- Lentils : First grown in the Fertile Crescent about 11,500 years ago.
- Sweet potatoes : Domesticated in the Andes some 10,000 years ago.
- Squash (Cucurbita) : Domesticated in Central America between 9000 and 10,000 years ago. Squash cultivars include pumpkins, gourds and courgettes/zucchini.
- Chickpeas : Oldest domesticated chickpeas found in Jericho (Palestine) and southeast Anatolia during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, between 8000 and 9500 years ago.
- Peas: First cultivated in the Eastern Mediterranean some 6500 years ago.
- Carrots: Originated in Persia at least 5000 years ago.
- Lettuce : First cultivated in ancient Egypt over 4500 years ago.
- Leeks: Originated in the Mediterranean over 4000 years ago.
- Spinach: Originated in ancient Persia at least 3000 years ago.
- Cabbage: The wild ancestor of cabbage, Brassica oleracea, originally found in Britain and continental Europe. Nonheading cabbages and kale were probably the first to be domesticated at least 3000 years ago by the Celts of central and western Europe.
- Broccoli: Developed in southern Europe (probably in Italy) around 2500 years ago.
- Radishes: Probably originated in the Middle East some 2500 years ago.
- Figs: Cultivated in the Fertile Crescent during the Early Neolithic (oldest evidence from 11,300 years ago).
- Plums: First cultivated in the Near East during the Early Neolithic, at least 10,000 years ago.
- Pumpkins: Domesticated in Mexico between 7500 and 9000 years ago.
- Grapes: First cultivated in the South Caucasus at least 8000 years ago.
- Bananas: First cultivated in Papua New Guinea between 7000 and 10,000 years ago.
- Peanuts: Oldest known signs of cultivation in Peru some 7500 years ago.
- Olives: First cultivated in the Eastern Mediterranean over 7000 years ago.
- Mangoes: Have been cultivated in South Asia for at least 6000 years.
- Pears: Originated around the Tian Shan, between central Asia and western China, about 6000 years ago. Its cultivation spread across Europe during the Bronze Age.
- Capsicum (peppers) : First cultivated in Mexico at least 5000 years ago.
- Pomegranates: Domesticated in the Middle East at least 5000 years ago.
- Melons: Domesticated in Egypt some 4700 years ago.
- Watermelons : Domesticated in southern Africa (possibly Namibia) at least 4500 years ago.
- Oranges: Domesticated in China 4500 years ago.
- Cucumbers: First mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh in southern Mesopotamia around 4500 years ago.
- Apples: Modern apples are a hybrid of Central Asian and European apples that may have emerged about 4000 years ago.
- Peaches: First cultivated in China 4000 years ago.
- Tomatoes: First cultivated in Mesoamerica at least 2500 years ago.
- Persimmon (kaki) : First cultivated in southern China at least 2500 years ago.
- Apricots : Wild varieties are native to China, Korea and Japan, but it was first cultivated in China some 2000 years ago.
- Cherries: Native to most of Europe, western Asia, and parts of northern Africa. First cultivated in Roman times.
- Lemons: Wild variety originating from Northeast India and Burma, but the modern fruit is a hybrid of bitter orange and citron created in the Mediterranean region around 1600 years ago.
- Dogs: Earliest known domesticated wolves date from 31,700 years ago in Belgium (Goyet Cave near Namur). May have spread across Siberia from Palaeolithic Europe, as the next evidence of domesticated dogs appears in Northeast Asia some 15,000 years ago.
- Pigs: Wild boars may have been domesticated as early 15,000 years ago in the Tigris Basin in Southeast Turkey.
- Sheep: Domesticated between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.
- Cows: Cattle were domesticated around 10,500 years ago in Southeast Turkey.
- Goats: The oldest remnants of domesticated goats date from 10,000 years ago in Ganj Dareh, western Iran (Zagros mountains).
- Cats: Were domesticated in the Near East during the Early Neolithic around 9,500 years ago.
- Donkeys: Domesticated about 7500 years ago in Egypt or Nubia.
- Horses: Domesticated in the Middle Volga region of Russia 6000 years ago.
- Llamas: Domesticated in the Andes near Lake Titicaca around 6000 years ago.
- Chickens: Origins still unknown. Could have been domesticated in Southern China 8000 years ago or in the Harappan culture in Pakistan 5000 years ago.
- Camels: Dromedaries first domesticated in Somalia and southern Arabia around 5000 years ago, while the Bactrian camel was domesticated in southern Central Asia around 4500 years ago.
- Geese: Probably domesticated in Egypt more than 4,000 years ago.
- Ducks: Mallard ducks were first domesticated in Southeast Asia at least 4000 years ago.
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