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READ: The Transition to Farming - Differing Perspectives

Farming was adopted in many places, but there’s a fierce debate on how and why it happened and whether it was a good thing.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What evidence does the author use to suggest that farming was an unintentional process to begin with?
  2. How did the rise of fixed farming communities change what people’s daily work looked like?
  3. According to the author, how did the rise of villages both expand and shrink networks of interconnection?
  4. What were the benefits and drawbacks of foraging?
  5. What were the benefits and drawbacks of farming?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. To what extent does this article provide evidence to help you understand the causes and consequences of the shift from foraging to farming.
  2. Given the evidence in this article, would you have preferred to have been a farmer or a forager?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Transition to Farming: Differing Perspectives

Paneled, detailed early painting shows different scenes related to farming, including spreading grain and cutting down crops.
By Eman M. Elshaikh
Farming was adopted in many places, but there’s a fierce debate on how and why it happened and whether it was a good thing.


Diet fads come and go. One diet that is still around—and you may have heard about—is the “Paleo” diet. Paleo dieters only eat foods that Paleolithic hunters and foragers ate. They don’t eat grains, dairy products, or even beans because they don’t believe these foods existed when our ancestors were only hunter-gatherers. The Paleo diet is based on the belief that our ancestors were healthier before the spread of agriculture.
While health experts debate the merits of the Paleo diet, historians are asking an even bigger question. Why did humans begin farming? If the foods produced and consumed during the Stone Age were so great, then why did humans everywhere adopt farming and begin eating new foods?
Well, they didn’t, and farming actually spread slowly and unevenly. Researchers are still trying to understand the when, where, how, and why of the so-called agricultural revolution—and they’re debating its costs and benefits.

When, where, and how did farming happen?

So, farming happened, that’s a fact. But, it didn’t really have to happen—it was one of many different possibilities. Yet, at some point, in many different areas, humans started collecting plants and domesticating animals. We aren’t sure how intentional these processes were at first, but it is likely that it was a slow, gradual, and unintentional process. Many scholars think that plant cultivation in southwest Asia was an accident, as people dropped pieces of wild grains near their homes while preparing food. When these grains produced more grains, people got the idea to keep it going.
It’s generally thought that southwest Asia was the first place where farming developed. But scholars think it developed independently in a few different places at different times. The earliest centers of farming included Southwest Asia, Central America, northern China, and New Guinea all from about 10,000 to 6,000 years ago.
Map shows the location of the fertile crescent and farming villages. The fertile crescent is coastal and indeed crescent shaped.
Area of the fertile crescent, circa 7500 BC, with many farming villages from Neolithic period. By GFDL, CC BY-SA 3.
From these centers, agriculture seems to have spread to other regions, with the exception of most of the Americas. Agriculture spread when farmers migrated and colonized territories and traded across networks. Tools, plant and animal species, and agricultural knowledge were exchanged along these networks.

So what did farming change?

The adoption of farming revolutionized human how humans organized their communities, networks, health, and population. And though we won’t get into it here, it also completely changed the environment.
Farming meant people could settle into fixed communities. They could live in one place with members of their families, as opposed to moving frequently with a much larger band or group. Family homes became the basic unit of production, distribution, and consumption.
Photo of ancient ruins: shows foundational elements of a family home such as walls and a small stairwell.
Foundation of a family dwelling in Jericho. By A. Sobkowski, public domain
These farming communities became more firmly organized with some people getting more or better access to wealth, food, and status. Some people invested in land and homes for long periods of time and began to have a sense of ownership over these places. Eventually, farmers could produce enough food to feed their families and to feed others in their community. When people could buy or trade for their food, they no longer had to work to produce their own. Instead, they could become soldiers, merchants, craftspeople, priests, or kings. Dividing up work this way helped to create a social hierarchy based on what a person did for a living. It sparked conflict and inequality. Women increasingly worked raising children and in the home.
The shift to settled farming communities had major health impacts too. The new way of organizing the community meant a person spent more time on one specific daily task or job. Repetitive work led to stress on bones and muscles. But perhaps most importantly, with agriculture came the rise of infectious diseases. Because domesticated animals lived closer to humans, pathogens (disease-causing organisms) moved from animal to human hosts easily. Many people living close to each other transmitted these pathogens quickly.
People moved into villages, some of which joined networks or grew into large cities. This made networks both shrink and expand. For instance, the network of a farmer in a small village might grow in number of people that he met, like neighbors and people at the markets, but it would shrink as he stayed only within a small area. Traders, by contrast, would have more connections from different places like the next farming community, village, or empire. So a trader’s network would grow.

Why farm?

Farming seems to have been both good and bad, so, we ask again—why farm? Why work more, possibly harder, and have worse health? Why live in a crowded community where people are unequal and have to compete for resources?
Well, it’s not as though early farmers sat down and made a pro and con list. It’s easy for us to look back at history and give reasons why the switch to farming was good or bad. But in almost all cases, farming wasn’t a deliberate choice.
But historians think there are multiple possible reasons why farming was adopted. The main one is that people started farming in response to things that happened in their environment. For example, naturally-occurring climate change dried up many previously fertile areas. So people stopped going to those areas and instead settled in less dry river valleys where farming was possible. Another potential reason is population growth. But we’re not sure if people started farming because they needed more food for a growing population or if people started farming and that helped the population to grow. It could have gone either way.
It’s also difficult to know whether or not farming is more efficient than foraging. Some recent research suggests farming increased the amount of food per area, but the amount of food per person stayed about the same. However, the food supply seems to have been more reliable with farming. No matter why people shifted to farming, we do know that it grew and shrunk in different places. Over time, there was a shift from scattered farming to intensive farming.

Was it better?

So, we now have a better sense of the when, where, how, why, and so what of farming. Now, let’s get back to our initial question of was farming better than foraging? What were some good outcomes and bad outcomes from the transition?
Before the mid-twentieth century, historians thought of the shift to agriculture as purely positive. Farming, for them, was the way out of the miserable life of hunting and gathering. They were no longer at the mercy of unpredictable nature—they could control it and maintain a stable food supply. But recent research from a wide variety of disciplines including anthropology, genetics, and environmental science have contributed new evidence to challenge that story.
Some research suggests that foragers actually had an easy life. They worked less and ate a varied diet. Despite lacking all the things we associate with complex societies, they were relatively healthy and enjoyed social equality. They had lower rates of disease and more leisure. Meanwhile, settled farmers worked more, had less healthy diets, and lived in dirty, polluted cities where they competed for resources, status, and space.
These are conflicting points of view. It’s just not a simple question. Some scholars point out that even with things like inequality and disease, farming was a good thing overall as it allowed for cultural exchange and collective learning. Without it, we wouldn’t have things like writing, for example. We also wouldn’t have stable, predictable lives, and we wouldn’t enjoy the achievements of complex societies: architecture, literature, laws, or religions.
Incredibly detailed dwelling carved into the rock features pillars, detailed carvings, and a carved stairway.
Petra, in modern-day Jordan, is a city from c. 4th century BCE. By Randall Wallace, CC BY-NC 4.0.
Others point out that life really wasn’t that happy or healthy for foragers. They may have had lower rates of disease, they argue, but they had higher rates of mortality (early death). They weren’t peaceful like some might imagine, but competed for scarce resources. Food was not always available.
And even though they may have worked less, this work may have been more difficult or dangerous. It’s also possible that they worked less because more work wasn’t productive. If you’ve already picked all the berries in an area, continuing to search doesn’t do much good.
While we don’t have a clear answer, we have a more complete picture. It’s not that foragers were entirely miserable, but they weren’t totally happy, healthy and carefree, either. And while farmers may have had monuments and cities, they also had diseases, hierarchy, and vermin. The transition to farming completely transformed communities, networks, and systems of production and distribution. It also was a trade-off because the quality of life didn’t just get better or worse. What people thought of as work and what people considered needs and wants totally changed. It was a very complex—and momentous—transition.
Author bio
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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