Wheat is the first cereal to be cultivated by man. In several places in the Middle East it is being sowed, tended and reaped soon after 8000 BC. The people of Jericho are the first known to have lived mainly from the cultivation of crops. Barley is grown within the following millennium.
Rice is thought to have been cultivated considerably later, perhaps not until about 2500 BC. It is uncertain whether it is first grown as a crop in India or China.
The first American farmers: 5000 – 2500 BC
The cultivation of crops in America begins in the Tehuacan valley, southeast of the present-day Mexico City. Squash and chili are the earliest plants to be grown – soon followed by corn (or maize) and then by beans and gourds.
These are all species which need to be individually planted, rather than their seeds being scattered or sown over broken ground. This is a distinction of importance in American history, for there are no animals in America at this time strong enough to pull a plough.
Grapes are probably first cultivated in the region of the Caspian sea, where the main grape vine, Vitis vinifera, is indigenous. From there the growing of grapes (always mainly for wine rather than eating) spreads through the Middle East and on through Anatolia to Greece. Wine is a familiar feature in the world of Homer.
The Phoenicians take the vine to southern France and Spain in about the 8th century BC, and in the early centuries AD the Romans plant grapes in the Rhine valley.
Grapes and olives are the two richest crops of the Mediterranean region. Olives, indigenous in the eastern Mediterranean, are relatively easy to gather in the wild. So the cultivation of olives begins slightly later than grapes.
Even so, there is evidence that groves of olives are planted in Crete from about 3500 BC and around the eastern coast of the Mediterranan not much later. Over the centuries growing and pressing olives, to provide olive oil, are two activities which underpin the economic development of Mediterranean civilization.
Cotton, rice and sesame: 2500-1700 BC
The local produce of the Indus civilization includes three crops of great significance in subsequent history, each of which is possibly first cultivated here.
Yarns of spun cotton have been found at Mohenjo-daro. There is evidence of rice-growing in the region of Lothol. And sesame, the earliest plant to be used as a source of edible oil, also seems to make its first appearance here as an agricultural crop. Engravings of elephants on the Indus valley seals, sometimes with ropes around the body, suggests that this civilization is also the first to tame the world’s most powerful beast of burden.
Sugar: 4th century BC
The cultivation of sugar cane, a plant probably indigenous in New Guinea, spreads through southeast Asia in prehistoric times. The first mention of its use, crushed for its sweet juice, is in northern India in the 4th century BC. Both sugar and candy derive from Sanskrit words (sarkara, khanda). Sugar processed for use in solid form must wait for almost a millennium. The first certain reference to it is in Persia in the 6th century AD.
The cultivation of sugar beet, by far the main source of sugar today, is a much later development – not really of significance until the Napoleonic wars.
Tea: 4th century BC
Tea, the leaf of a shrub of the camellia family indigenous to China, is probably the first plant to have been cultivated specifically as the basis for a non-alcoholic drink.
Chinese legend dignifies its discovery with attractive but improbable stories from early times. However the pleasures of tea are clearly known by about 350 BC, when the word features in a Chinese dictionary.
Potatoes: AD 200
The potato, a plant native to high terrain in the Peruvian Andes, is believed to have been cultivated there at least 1800 years ago.
In graves of that period archaeologists have found dried potatoes and pottery with potato motifs – indicative of the esteem in which this plant, with its exceptionally high-yielding crop, is already held.
Tobacco: before the 15th century AD
The tobacco plant, native to South America, Mexico and the West Indies, is from early times cultivated and treasured by the inhabitants of these regions. Images of Mayan priests, carved in stone and dating probably from the first millennium AD, show them smoking pipes and puffing the smoke towards the sun.
A pipe is essential equipment in American tobacco rituals (most famously in the pipe of peace, or calumet). Curved pipes of bone, wood and clay, dating from many centuries before the arrival of Europeans, have been found in the Mississippi valley.
Chocolate: before the 15th century AD
The cocoa tree, the seeds of which are the source of chocolate, is (like tobacco) native to central and south America. Roasted and ground, then flavoured in hot water with vanilla and spices, the seeds are the basis of a drink used by the Aztecs and adopted by Europeans.
There is evidence that the Mayas also valued cocoa beans. So chocolate as a drink may go back to the early centuries of the Christian era. The American Indians are able to derive much of their crop from wild trees, but cocoa becomes a fully cultivated plant after Columbus takes seeds back to Spain.
Coffee: 15th century AD
At much the same time as cocoa seeds are brought from America to Europe for cultivation, coffee beans make the much shorter journey from their indigenous home in Ethiopia to Arabia – where they are probably first cultivated in the 15th century. They are the seeds of a tropical evergreen shrub.
The use of coffee as a drink spreads rapidly in Muslim countries, and reaches Europe by the 17th century.
Plants across the Atlantic: from AD 1492
The most fruitful transfer of plants in all history begins with the first voyage of Columbus to America in 1492. In Cuba, in November of that year, members of his crew discover what they describe as ‘a sort of grain called maize’.
Maize, or corn, spreads rapidly after being taken back to Europe by Columbus and then carried further east in Portuguese ships. Of equal importance in agriculture, though crossing the Atlantic half a century later, is the potato. And a third American species new to the visitors, even though inedible, eventually has an even greater impact worldwide – tobacco.
Meanwhile plants imported from Europe become of economic significance in the new world. When Columbus returns to Hispaniola on his second voyage, in 1493, he brings with him sugar cane. The crop does well and is soon planted in all Spanish settlements in the West Indies. Conquistadors carry it with them on their expeditions into central and south America. Sugar plantations, worked by slaves, become a characteristic feature of colonial America.
Not long after the arrival of sugar, Hispaniola also receives from the Canary Islands a consignment of banana plants (long cultivated in tropical Asia). These too become an important part of the economy of Latin America.
Tobacco outside America: 16th – 20th century AD
During the 16th century an interest in tobacco develops in Europe, at first (ironic though it seems now) for its supposedly medicinal properties. By the 1560s the plant is being grown in physic gardens in all the sea-going nations with an interest in America – Spain, Portugal, France and England.
Soon tobacco plants are carried even further afield, mainly on Spanish and Portuguese ships with worldwide trading interests.
Smoking proves pleasantly addictive, and prevails even against such authoritative opposition as that of the British king James I – who attacks it with passionate vehemence as a Loathsome custom, in his Counterblast to Tobacco of 1604.
By the 20th century the whole world has succumbed to the habit. Today the American continent remains the world’s largest producer of tobacco, closely followed by China. But some 90 other countries also cultivate the plant commercially.
Irish potatoes: 17th century AD
Ireland is the first European region where the potato is grown as a food crop, rather than a delicacy or even aphrodisiac (the plant’s two main uses after being brought from America to Spain, and then dispersed among European physic gardens, during the second half of the 16th century).
Tradition states that the potato is first grown in Ireland on the estates of Walter Raleigh. This may well be correct. What is certain is that by the end of the 17th century it is a major crop in Ireland (where it becomes the staple diet, with the failure of the potato crop causing famine in the 1840s). During the 18th century most other European countries adopt the potato as one of their basic foods.