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Ancient Agriculture: The Cornerstone of Civilization

As industrial farming has been irreparably harming the environment through carbon dioxide emissions, soil erosion, pesticide use, and rampant water use, the green switch is slowly turning on worldwide. Recently, many have been referring to ancient farmers who lived in harmony with the natural environment thousands of years ago for innovative and sustainable solutions. In particular, the earliest civilizations — Mesopotamia, the Indus River Valley, and ancient Egypt — have left a rich legacy in regards to farming techniques as well as agricultural technology.



A cult vase from Uruk, Mesopotamia - Iraq Museum, Erich Lessing

Irrigation in Mesopotamia is believed to have begun in 6000 BCE. The Tigris and the Euphrates rivers regularly flooded the region, depositing silt along river banks, which allowed for crop growth.

There were two types of Mesopotamian agriculture, corresponding to the two main ecological domains. Northern Mesopotamia, the land that would eventually become Assyria, had enough rainfall most of the time, so irrigation was less important. Southern Mesopotamia, such as Sumer and Akkad, received almost no rain and required large-scale irrigation works. The fields had to have direct access to canals, therefore, the width of fields was reduced in order to allow a larger number of them to cluster along the sides of the canals.

In Mesopotamia, the main crops that were grown were einkorn, emmer, and legumes.


The Indus River Valley:

Irrigation systems have existed on the Indian subcontinent for at least 5,000 years. The irrigation system of the Indus River Valley was an engineering feat that helped enhance agricultural production.

The Harappan civilization used the monsoons to their advantage. Silt deposited by the floods along the Indus river allowed for crop growth. Additionally, the Harappans devised a unique system of water harvesting to adapt to its local conditions. Dams were built to control and divert the flow of streams. The water was then channelized to fill massive reservoirs. The diverted water, as well as rainwater, was stored and used during the dry season, allowing for irrigation of the fields all year round.

In the Indus River Valley, the cultivation of wheat, barley, and lentils was most common, along with cotton.


Ancient Egypt:

Farming in Egypt took place in the region of the Nile Delta and the Oasis of Fayoum during the Predynastic Period, but there is evidence of agricultural land use as far back as 8000 BCE. Since Egypt had little rainfall, its civilization grew due to the Nile River and its timely flooding.

Due to their ingenuity, the ancient Egyptians were able to build an empire based on great agricultural wealth. They developed a form of water management known as basin irrigation, a crisscross network of earthen banks. Flood water directed into a basin allowed the soil to be saturated, with the remaining water drained off to a basin down-gradient or a nearby canal.

A shaduf was used to lift water from canals or river banks. It consisted of a large pole balanced on a crossbeam, with a rope and bucket on one end and a heavy counterweight on the other. The pole was swung around to irrigate a field.

The design of the Egyptian irrigation systems relied on knowing the height of the annual flood. They developed a system of nilometers to measure the height of floodwater at various points along the river.

Staple food crops grown were emmer and barley, along with industrial crops such as flax and papyrus.


Works cited:

Bjornlund, Vibeke, and Henning Bjornlund. Incentives and Instruments for

Sustainable Irrigation. Southampton, Boston, Wit Press, 2010.

‌Podany, Amanda H, and Marni Mcgee. The Ancient Near Eastern World. New York, Oxford University Press, 2015.

Woods, Michael, and Mary B. Woods. Ancient Agriculture: From Foraging to Farming. Minneapolis, Runestone Press, 2000.

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