Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Ancient agriculture

Sixty-foot-tall sulfur vat in Hoskins Mound, Texas (May 1943)
A post on NAT about an antique sprayer led to a question about when pesticides were first introduced in agriculture.

Turns out that even chemical compounds have been used by Sumerians about 4,000 years ago! They were ground minerals like sulfur or later on, mineral poisons such as arsenic, mercury and lead, or organic ones such as nicotine extracted from tobacco.

"Ancient" agriculture in the U.S. colonies started back to the drawing board, taking their cue from the Native Americans, with the hand-held tools of the farmers from several thousand years ago, as draft oxen and horses were not imported for some years, and yet it was critical for the new colonies to be able to grow food and be autonomous rather than wait on supplies from England.

As colonist Captain John Smith (really? ;) from Jamestown, Virginia wrote in a 1608 report: "Our next course was to turne husbandsmen, to fell Trees and set Corne. Fiftie of our men we imployed in this service."
Note that "corne" here is wheat, not maize. A source of English language confusion that persisted until WWI or II, when the U.K. asked the U.S. for a food aid in corn, and received a shipment of maize instead of the expected wheat...

Before that time, Native Americans had already domesticated plants such as sunflower, tobacco, squash, pumpkins, wild spinach, cotton, agave, beans, plums and little barley, and switched from sumpweed to corn long ago. Irrigation canals were used near Tucson, Arizona over 1,000 BC, where they were also using stones as "mulch", to protect the soil from the arid conditions and erosion, and to retain moisture.

Chimel. (Ed is on a break this week.)


  1. We give tours at our living history museum. Farming techniques of the early 1970's is the subject of this years focus. Of course this is the same focus we have had since the end of the 20th century when we moved from farming techniques of the 1940's thought 1960's...

  2. Living museum? You've got farmers on display?
    I love this kind of museum, even a millennium ago our elders already had wind power for pumping water, grinding grain, pounding felt or iron, etc. They even had solar power, I think they called it photosynthesis and farming.