Book Summary: “First Farmers” by David Bellwood

Title: First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies
Author: David Bellwood
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Bellwood examines the emergence of agriculture in a few scattered geographical regions and the migration of their people throughout the world.

If you would like to learn more about the role of agriculture in human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • Agriculture appears to have been invented separately in just a few regions:
    • Fertile Crescent of Southwest Asia
    • Yangzi and Yellow river basins of China
    • New Guinea
    • Tropical regions of the Americas, perhaps with one or more foci in central Mexico and northern South America
    • Eastern Woodlands of the USA.
    • (perhaps also) West Africa
  • The ability to grow vast amounts of food enabled these regions to grow rapidly in population size.
  • Some of these populations (particularly Southwest Asia and China) migrated across vast regions bringing their genes, languages and culture with them.
  • These migrations explain much of the genetic and cultural variation today.

Other books by the same author

Important Quotes from Book

“This book suggests that major episodes of human movement occurred from time to time, in various parts of the world, as different populations developed or adopted agriculture and then spread farming, languages, and genes, in some cases across vast distances.”

“The early farming dispersal hypothesis postulates that the spreads of early farming lifestyles were often correlated with prehistoric episodes of human population and language dispersal from agricultural homelands. The present-day distributions of language families and racially varied populations across the globe, allowing for the known reassortments that have ensued in historical times, still reflect to a high degree those early dispersals.”

“The farming story also gives all of the world’s ancient farming populations a kind of equality, in the sense that so many peoples and cultures contributed, not just an elite few. We have clear signs of relatively independent agricultural origins in western Asia, central China, the New Guinea highlands, Mesoamerica, the central Andes, the Mississippi basin, and possibly western Africa and southern India.”

“This book owes its origin to a consideration of two primary observations:

1. Prior to the era of European colonization there existed (and still exist) a number of very widespread families of languages, ”

“2. Within the early agricultural past of mankind there have existed many widespread archaeological complexes of closely linked artifactual style, shared economic basis, and relatively short-lived temporal placement.”

“The expansions of early farming populations that form the subject matter of this book reflect two consecutive processes:

1. the periodic genesis of new cultural (archaeological) or linguistic configurations in homeland circumstances;

2. the dispersal of such configurations into surrounding regions and their subsequent transformations, in situations either of pristine colonization (no prior humans), or in the presence of other populations.”

“One of the suggestions that will dominate the chapters in this book is that short bursts, or “punctuations,” of dispersal by closely related populations over very large areas have occurred from time to time in human prehistory, especially following the regional beginnings of agriculture or the acquisitions of some other material, demographic, or ideological advantages.”

“In the Old World, virtually all societies which practice agriculture and/or stockbreeding derive more than 50 percent of their food supply from these two sources. Very few combine them with any major reliance on hunting and gathering. Most exceptions to this generalization, where agricultural dependence drops in a few cases to below 50 percent, occur in Pacific Island communities where the high importance of fishing and absence of major herd animals clearly push the figures for food production downwards… the two modes of production most decisively do not merge or reveal a gentle cline. Almost no societies occupy “transitional” situations, deriving for instance 30 percent of their food from agriculture and 70 percent from hunting and gathering. ”

“The following chapters will demonstrate that the spread of agriculture in the past could not simply have occurred only because hunter-gatherers everywhere adopted it. Agriculture spread in Neolithic/ Formative circumstances mainly because the cultural and linguistic descendants of the early cultivators increased their demographic profiles and pushed their cultural and linguistic boundaries outwards”

“According to the archaeological record, agriculture emerged as the predominant form of food production directly from a hunter-gatherer background, without any major significance attributable to external diffusion, in at least five major regions of the world:

1. the Fertile Crescent of Southwest Asia (wheat, barley, pea, lentil, sheep, goat, pig, cattle);

2. the middle and lower courses of the Yangzi and Yellow river basins of China (rice, foxtail millet, many tubers and fruits, pig, poultry);

3. New Guinea, probably in the interior highlands (taro, sugar cane, pandanus, banana, no domestic animals);

4. the tropical regions of the Americas, perhaps with one or more foci in central Mexico and northern South America (maize, beans, squashes, manioc, many fruits and tubers, minor domestic animals);

5. the Eastern Woodlands of the USA (squashes and various seed-bearing plants, no domestic animals).

It is possible that central (Sub-Saharan) Africa also witnessed early agricultural developments, particularly in the Sahel zone for millets and north of the rain forest in West Africa for yams and African rice. There are also claims of a similar nature for southern India.”

Southwest Asia

“ Southwest Asia has the largest area of Mediterranean climate (hot dry summers, cool wet winters) in the world, plus the greatest range of altitudinal variation within this climatic category. It also has the largest number of large-seeded annual wild cereal and pod-bearing legume species (legumes include broad beans, peas, chick peas, and lentils) of any region of Mediterranean climate,”

“Focused within the two and a half millennia from 6500 to 4000 BC, the farming system that developed in Southwest Asia spread over vast areas of the Old World – to Britain and Iberia in one direction; to Turkmenistan, the Altai Mountains, and Pakistan in the other; as well as to Egypt and North Africa. At the other end of Asia, East Asian agricultural systems were also on the move by this time, reaching toward Southeast Asia and eastern India.”

“there are very few archaeological sites anywhere in the world, including Europe, that show unarguable, on-the-spot, continuity from a hunter-gatherer subsistence into farming, with no outside influence being present in material form. The main exceptions to this generalization, as we might expect, occur in regions believed to be independent homelands of agriculture”


“Europe has become one of the major regions of debate in world prehistory with respect to the question of how agriculture spread. Was it mainly by hunter-gatherer adoption? Or, following the terminology used by Albert Ammerman and Luca Cavalli-Sforza (1984), was it mainly by a “wave of advance” of farmers? Evidence suggests that it probably spread by a mixture of both processes, with rapid farmer dispersals in some regions such as Greece, the Mediterranean coastline, the Danube Valley, and onward into Germany and the Low Countries, but much slower spreads with substantial Mesolithic population involvement or resistance in western Europe and around the rugged and/or colder Atlantic and Baltic coastlines”


“The Indus Valley and Baluchistan. Baluchistan witnessed the oldest agriculture in South Asia, documented by the introduction of a Southwest Asian economy at Mehrgarh by the seventh millennium BC. This economy continued in Baluchistan with no significant outside introductions until the appearance of one of the world’s greatest early urban civilizations – the Harappan”

“The Ganges Valley. This region, much wetter generally than the Indus and with increasing summer monsoon rainfall reliability, had a mixed economy of both Southwest Asian winter crops and rice (a monsoon crop) established at the start of the Neolithic, ca. 3000 BC, although the possibility of earlier rice cultivation should not be overlooked. The Southwest Asian crops were initially of more importance in the west, but rice increased its dominance as time went by, to attain the enormous significance it holds in the Ganges Basin today.”


“Let us now review the germs of an agricultural prehistory for the African continent:

1. With improving climatic conditions, a tradition of  wild cereal harvesting (and cultivation?), together with the use of pottery, was spreading through many regions of Saharan and Nilotic Africa by 8000 BC. Some form of cattle management was under development in the eastern Sahara at the same time.

2. Around 5500 BC, the Fertile Crescent agropastoral economy was introduced into Egypt,”

“3. Herders moved south with the drying of the Sahara, triggering by 2000 BC the domestication of pearl millet in the Sahel and savanna zones. Herders also moved from Sudan into equatorial east Africa at about 2500 BC. Fertile Crescent crops reached the highlands of Ethiopia at an unknown date, but presumably before 500 BC.”

 “In 1500 BC, the whole southern half of the African continent, including the rain forest and probably all regions below the Equator, still remained the terrain of hunters and gatherers. That is, until the unleashing of one of the most striking and far-flung episodes of agricultural spread in world prehistory. This is the spread associated with the expansion of the Bantu languages from their presumed homeland in Cameroon, around and partly through the rain forest and down the whole eastern side of subSaharan Africa, until they reached their limits against the Kalahari Desert and the Cape zone of Mediterranean winter rainfall.”

East Asia:

“In East Asia, the foci of interest as far as agricultural origins are concerned lie in the middle and lower basins of the Yellow (Huanghe) and Yangzi rivers, and the several smaller river basins, especially the Huai, that lie between them. Like central Africa and India, this is an area of monsoon rainfall that produced a range of domesticated summer cereals, of which rice has evolved into one of the most important foods in the world today”

“The “heartland” of East Asian agriculture, extending from the Yangzi to the Yellow rivers and incorporating the Pengtoushan and Peiligang/Jiahu foci for both rice and the millets, has given rise to the dispersal of the ancestors of almost half of the world’s modern population.”

Southeast Asia and Oceania:

“Nowhere in Southeast Asia is there currently any good evidence for a presence of any form of food production before 3500 BC. This is significant, given that rice was well domesticated by at least 6500 Bc along the Yangzi. As with the movement of agriculture from Southwestern Asia into India, so in Mainland Asia we also see an apparent slowing down, in this case apparently caused by cross-latitudinal movement and perhaps hunter-gatherer resistance,”

“Thus, we see a vast sweep of agricultural populations moving into new terrain from southern China, through Southeast Asia and into the Pacific Islands, over a time span of about 5,000 years, commencing at about 3500 ac in Taiwan and culminating in the Maori colonization of New Zealand around AD 1250.”

“As for agricultural dispersal, it can only be stated that New Guinea does not show the expansive trends so typical of other regions such as the Middle East, Mesoamerica, and China.”

The Americas:

“The transitions through time and in space between hunting-gathering and farming are rarely as sharp in the New World as in the Old. One reason for this is that few major meat-producing herd animals were ever domesticated in the Americas, so ancient farmers continued mostly to derive meat from wild resources. The main exception to this generalization, albeit one of fairly restricted regional impact, concerns the domestication of llamas, alpacas, and guinea pigs in the high Andes of Peru and Bolivia. Turkeys were domesticated in Middle America and dogs were also widely eaten, especially in the Maya region, but none of these served as widespread meat staples.”

“The Americas also lacked the broad base of highly productive cereals available in the Old World, with only maize fulfilling such a role on a large geographical scale, and only after about 2000 BC. The earliest domesticates in the Americas were mainly condiments, fruits, or industrial plants (e.g., chili pepper, gourd, avocado, cotton, and possibly even maize in the first instance) rather than productive staples.”

“At European contact, about half (probably more) of the land area of the Americas was still occupied by hunters and gatherers (Figure 8.1), and many regions potentially suitable for agriculture in western North America, from California northward, simply had not been reached by farming communities.”

Language Families:

“Because the component languages within the well-defined families share a common genetic ancestry, and because many of these families had reached (in ancestral form) their current geographical limits well back in prehistoric times, we are forced to assume that they owe their existences to processes which took place long before the rise of conquest states, literacy, world religions, and centralized systems of education and language domination. In other words, they are solidly “prehistoric,” pre-literate, and pre-state. Families which certainly spread over vast distances in prehistoric times include Indo-European, Dravidian, “Altaic” (a controversial macrofamily that might include Turkic, Mongolian, and perhaps even Japanese), Uralic, Afroasiatic, Benue-Congo (including Bantu), Austroasiatic, Austronesian, Sino-Tibetan, and many of the major families of the Americas such as Uto-Aztecan, Algonquian, and Arawak (Figures 1.1 and 1.2). Of course, subgroups of many of these families – Germanic, Sinitic, and Malayic, for instance – have undergone considerable expansion in historical times,”

“On the other hand, some other language families, such as Khoisan and NiloSaharan of Africa, probably most of the families of northern Australia, parts of New Guinea and northwestern North America, together with the several small language isolates dotted here and there across the world (e.g., Basque), might have remained relatively static for enormous time spans without significant movement at all, except for contraction due to language competition.”

“If all the major language families of the world imply human population expansions, as suggested here, then we have a situation of immense significance, especially in the Old World where a small number of language families have expanded to enormous extents in quite recent prehistoric time.”

“Linguists often make the assumption that a true language family, one which can be shown by the comparative study of shared innovations to be internally structured genetically, with an array of reconstructed proto-languages, must owe its existence to some kind of population expansionary process. From a comparative perspective this is the only explanation that makes sense. Historical data indicate that language shift alone, without population movement or some degree of dispersal by the population carrying the target language, has never created anything remotely equaling those vast inter-continental genetic groupings of languages with which we are here concerned.”

“Imperial conquest by itself, without large-scale and permanent settlement by members of the conquering population, generally imposes little apart from loan words in the long term.”

“Conquest, trade, and cultural diffusion can spread languages, but never on a trans-continental language family scale unless assisted by another factor, this being actual movement of existing speakers of the languages concerned.”

“Basically, and right at the heart of the matter in terms of the theme of this book, is the observation that a major language family, if it is identified by the comparative method as a genetic unit with a history of differentiation from a common ancestral language (or a series of related dialects), can only have been spread by processes of movement by native speakers, not by language shift alone.”

“Since much of the world is divided amongst quite a small number of major language families, recent human prehistory is perhaps to be written very much in terms of a small number of equivalent massive continentwide dispersals of population.”

“The essential factor in long-distance language spread and continuing long-term survival in vernacular form at the whole population level, especially in pre-state circumstances, is a sufficiency of population movement at the base of the dispersal.”

“My feeling at this point is that radially patterned dispersals of language families and early farming systems from agricultural homeland areas can be traced to a degree much greater than we could expect from chance alone. Indo-European, Afroasiatic, and Elamo-Dravidian radiate from around the Southwest Asian region of early farming. Likewise, Sino-Tibetan, Austroasiatic, and Austronesian, not to mention Tai, Hmong-Mien, and Altaic, all emanated from the Chinese region, albeit not all during the Neolithic. New Guinea has its Trans New Guinea Phylum, while West Africa spawned the Niger-Congo languages. In the Americas, we have just reviewed some rather hazy evidence that Quechua, Aymara, Arawak, and Panoan (with Tupian being less specific) developed in or fairly close to the Andes of Peru. Mayan, Chibchan, Mixe-Zoque, Otomanguean, and Uto-Aztecan developed within Mesoamerica. Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Siouan perhaps had some connection with the early development of seed cropping in the Eastern Woodlands.”

“These radial patterns of genesis and spread of agriculturalist language families and early forms of farming do not occur at random all over the world. There is no evidence for them, for instance, in Europe, central Asia, southern Africa, the lower Amazon or the lower Mississippi.”

“I found it useful to visualize four different zonal concepts as involved in processes of agricultural origin and spread.

i. Homeland or starburst zones reveal upwelling patterns with radial spread, high suitability for agriculture, and of course considerable hunter-to-farmer continuity across the agricultural transitions. Examples include the major regions of agricultural and language family origin discussed in previous chapters.

2. Spread zones (following earlier usage of this term, with a slightly different meaning, by linguist Johanna Nichols) fall close to the replacement extreme described above, with widespread levels of homogeneity and strong indications of temporal discontinuity in cultural trajectory.”

“3. Friction zones are characterized by genetic admixture and cultural reticulation between hunters and farmers. Some friction zones lie at the end of the road for agriculture, for instance in northern and western Europe, where climatic factors or high hunter-gatherer densities backed by coastlines imposed barriers to further spread.”

“4. Finally, we have those zones of overshoot where farmers found themselves, for varying reasons, in adverse environments and so modified their economies accordingly. The southern Maoris, the Punan of Borneo, and the Numic speakers of the Great Basin would appear to be excellent examples of this.”

“one conclusion I would draw… is that changes in rainfall seasonality formed much greater barriers to early farmers than changes in temperature (except when the growing season shrank below length requirements for the available crops). But there are exceptions, and one of these is southern China.”

“It can be hypothesized that agricultural systems have developed fundamentally through the following very generalized stages.

1. Pre farming. During terminal phases of hunting and gathering we can expect deep cultural heterogeneity if populations had already been in place for many millennia.”

“2. Transition to fanning. With trends toward agricultural production during the Holocene we can expect increasing sedentism, population density, and social complexity to have developed. With the establishment of farming, larger communities allowed village-endogamous mating networks to operate,”

“3. Ensuing dependence upon farming, and dispersal. With increasing population growth, environmental impact, inter-group conflict, and demand for increased agricultural production, expansion from homeland/starburst regions began, centrifugal in pattern and derived mainly from peripheries rather than inner core regions. Expanding populations on peripheries would have shared many features of language and style due to previous interaction.”

“In general, we may expect the greatest degrees of correlation between patterns of material culture, language, and biology to occur in this third phase, at the cusp of an expansion as it progresses or hops through new territory. Such episodes will sometimes produce more homogeneous cultural patterns than existed in the agricultural homeland itself, since they will have predominantly phylogenetic (dispersal-based)”

“Another aspect of excitement for me is the fact that all populations in the world have somehow been involved in these early farming dispersals in some way or another, whether as initiators or receivers. Our world needs a story to bring peoples together, not to isolate their ancestors as archaeologically impressive but parochial one-off experiments. The human ability to migrate and successfully populate new environments was one of the greatest assets of the ancestors of all peoples in the world, at all levels from hunters through ancient farmers to early states.”

If you would like to learn more about the role of agriculture in human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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