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Primitive Agriculture


AGRICULTURE, PRIMITIVE. Agriculture (cultivation or tillage of the ground f or the production of plants for food) is the basis of civilization, and primitive agriculture marks the transi tion from the lowest cultural stage, commonly called savagery. When and where, how and why were the first steps taken? No simple answer can be given. As to the date and place, a few hints are given by archaeology, but where primitive agriculture is now established there is rarely even a tradition of its origin. "God Al mightie first planted a garden" is the general belief, God being rep resented by Osiris in Egypt, King Kintu in Uganda, Sidi or Soidi in Torres Strait, Ofanu in Tahiti, Tupan in Brazil, and by all the other local culture-heroes who brought the good gifts to men. As to the how and the why, information must be sought in areas where beginnings are being made. There is as yet no cultivation of the soil or raising of crops in the Arctic regions, in the semi-desert regions of north and south Africa and Arabia, in the prairies of North America, the steppes of Asia, the high pla teaux of Tibet and Mongolia, or the whole of central Australia. It is unknown also in certain jungle areas inhabited by groups of pyg my peoples, such as the Negrilloes of the Congo, the Andamanese, the Semang of the Malay penin sula, and there is no record of it among the extinct Tasmanians.

The first steps have been noted in various parts of the world.

In Western Australia a species of flag was cultivated to the extent of burning down the crop at the end of the season to improve the next crop. Also, when digging up yams, the natives replaced the heads in the holes. Purslane (Portulaca) was also encouraged if not artificially cultivated. The Besisi of the Malay peninsula used to carry fruit they were eating to fresh spots so that the seeds might spread over the country. In Arizona a company of Cocopa, Mohave or Pima women, safely guarded by a number of men, set forth to a rich and favourable spot on the side of a canon. Each woman has a little bag of gourd seed, and she plants these, one by one, in rich crannies or crevices where the roots can find suste nance, the sun may shine in, and the fruit may later swing down, as from a trellis. The planters go home and take no further notice of their vines until they return in the autumn to collect the gourds. In manioc areas, the natural means of procuring food is still by hunting. Cassava forms a useful alternative, and when game is scarce or hunting unsuccessful, manioc culture increases in im portance, yams, beans, peas, pumpkins and maize being added to the crops, while if hunting fails altogether, the group perforce turns to agriculture. Examples are common in the Congo region. Similarly compulsion turns pastors into agriculturalists. In Africa the women have no share in cattle tending and are often mainly occupied in cultivating the crops of maize and vegetables. Should war or disease cause the herds to dwindle, or encroachments di minish the extent of the pasturage, the necessity for agriculture is increased until it absorbs the whole community. Sometimes the stimulus is given by political pressure, as in the case of the Bash kir Tatars, whose pasture lands were encroached upon by Rus sians to the north and west, and by the Ural Cossacks to the east, so that they could no longer support flocks and herds in sufficient numbers. Sometimes, however, although the first steps are taken, progress goes no farther, as in the wild rice districts of North America in the neighbourhood of the Great Lakes. Most of the Indians who had access to the rice fields collected the rice, ate it at every meal until it was finished, and then turned to other sources of food. There was a common belief that if any seed were sown no more would ever grow wild, and while food was plentiful and space and game were abundant, no further steps were taken.

Assartage.—In tropical or semi-tropical countries the com mon method of agriculture is assartage or essartage (from Lat. exsartare, to grub up trees and bushes from forest land to make it arable). For example, in South America a tract of specially productive forest land is chosen as a site for a maize field, smaller trees and undergrowth are cut down at the end of the rainy sea son, except those of greater size or of very hard wood, and the fallen masses, dried by sun and air for a few weeks, are then fired. On this charred surface, among half-burnt branches and blackened trunks, the maize is planted in holes a few feet apart, and when it reaches the surface the Indian clears and stirs the ground with the hoe. Immediately after harvest the ground is prepared for a fresh crop, which, however, yields much less, and the clearing is then abandoned for several years. It soon becomes overgrown with weeds and undergrowth, and after a time, if no virgin land can be had, these will be burnt down and the land replanted as before but the crops are poor, the soil is exhausted, the ashes of the undergrowth have not sufficient fertilizing value, and the clearing is finally abandoned. The burning of the felled trees enriches the land, and the same clearing can be ,used two, three or more times, but is less and less productive each season, so that new land is prepared and the cropped piece left fallow. The system is practised wherever space permits.

In Torres Strait each family has its patch of garden land marked out within the tribal area by definite boundaries. The limit may be marked by standing trees but more commonly the boundary is a ridge of earth, formed by the weeds and refuse thrown on the edge in the process of clearing the land. Every year a man clears a new piece of land and lets another portion lie fallow. The men cut down the larger trees, formerly with shell axes, while the women attack the undergrowth. There is no regu lar rotation of crops; usually the same plants (yams, bananas, sweet potatoes or sugar-cane) are planted in the same patch; only, as the crops deteriorate after one, two or three years, the land is allowed to lie fallow until the undergrowth is four or five years old, when it is cleared again. There are special names for gardens of successive ages. A newly cleared patch is kerkar gedub (new garden), next year it is keas gedub, and after two years gazag gedub. Keas and gazag gardens are not replanted, though sugar cane and bananas continue to bear. (Torres Strait Reports, iv. 145-151.) Extensive agriculture (clearing a fresh patch every season) may go on as long as there is sufficient land, either virgin land still uncleared or overgrown fallow worth clearing; but where, owing to limitations of land or increase of population or other economic influences, more crops or better crops are required and the exhausted land cannot restore itself, artificial restoration must be applied. Extensive agriculture becomes intensive.

Agriculture is everywhere associated with magic and religious ceremonies to ensure fertility, but artificial fertilization of a more practical nature is not unknown to primitive gardeners. Mariner describes it in Tonga in 18 2 7 ; powdered pumice was used in the Gilbert isles; human manure was a marketable commodity in Mexico, as in China. In America artificial manuring was found from Nova Scotia to Chile. Fish was commonly planted in the mounds with the maize seed and guano was carefully collected. In Peru extensive cultivation was impossible from lack of space, and crops were restricted to the pockets (bolson) of rich soil, consist ing of detritus washed down by the mountain torrents, enriched with mineral deposits from volcanic rocks. These natural plots were enlarged by irrigation streams which were also fertilizing. The guano beds of Peru were highly valued ; they were the property of the different provinces, and the breeding places of the birds were protected by law.


Leading an artificial stream on to a patch of land, to provide water for a crop varies from the hollowed tree-fern trunk which the Fijian lays down to supply his taro bed, to the imposing engineering works of the primitive agriculturalists of Peru, or the miles of aqueducts of ancient Ceylon. The sources of water may be natural rivers or lakes, artificial canals, reservoirs or underground supplies, and there are many contrivances for di recting it over the land to be watered. Water from a higher level is led off in narrow mud-banked channels which can be stopped or diverted merely by blocking up or breaking down a channel wall here and there. If the water has to be raised, a man may sit by the side of a stream with a half gourd or coconut (now-a days often a kerosene tin) fixed to a stick, ladling out the water and pouring it on to his crop. In deep water a bucket is lowered by means of a rope and drawn up to the surface. The shaduf, char acteristic of Egypt, and widely distributed from West Africa to the East Indies, consists of a forked pole stuck in the ground, with a long pole balancing on the fork, its heavier end on the bank, and the lighter end, with a bucket attached, over the water. The bucket is lowered into the water, and, when full, the heavy end of the pole helps to raise it. Water can thus be raised 10 or 15f t., and a succession of shadu f s can raise it to any height required. When there is running water, a water-wheel with buckets on an endless chain is common in the Old World, or the wheel may be turned by animals or men. Where the underground supply of water is very deep, as in parts of India or in the Sahara, a pit is dug, walled in with masonry, and a skin bag lowered over a pulley by long ropes to a depth of i oo or zoof t. The ends of the ropes are attached to bullocks, mules, donkeys, camels, women or slaves, who walk down a slope equal to the depth of the wall. Neither the shaduf, the water-wheel or the pulley was used in the New World, but there are extensive irrigation works in the drier Pueblo region, especially Arizona, where 1 so miles of ancient irrigation ditches may be traced. In Mexico and Peru extensive engineering works prove the care given to irrigation. Channels were carried round the sides of mountains and even tunnelled through them; so that the waters of the higher valleys where the supply was abun dant were made available for the cultivation of others where it was deficient ; and these channels were made to irrigate not only the cultivated fields but the llama pastures on the mountain sides.

Terrace Cultivation.

In clearing the land for planting, the trees are felled, the stones are collected or undergrowth and weeds heaped up all along the edges of the space to be planted, and ridges and terraces are thus formed. The discovery of their value for preserving moisture and preventing erosion on slopes would easily lead to the artificial terracing so widely distributed through out the Old and New Worlds. Terrace cultivation is imposed on agriculture by political, geographical, climatic or economic influ ences. An agricultural group is by its nature exposed to attacks which, by its nature, it is unable to resist except by retreat to a naturally fortified or easily defended position ; and this is pro vided by the hills, where every patch must be carefully preserved and augmented. Artificial banks are therefore raised to prevent further erosion, and, if necessary, loads of earth are retrieved from the valleys. Such is the precarious agriculture of the Man Tze, or "untameable worms," as the aboriginal inhabitants are called by their Mongol conquerors who forced them to retreat into the mountain fastnesses of the Yangtse valley, where, at a height of about ro,000ft. above sea-level, they perch their villages on the steep cliffs. The back of the house is burrowed out of the rock face ; the front is supported on a platform, resting on beams; the approach is by steps made of bolts driven into the rock, and small children are tethered to the door-posts to prevent them from fall ing over the edge. Here in little patches between the rocks every inch of soil is carefully tilled and crops are raised though the only access to the terrace may be by a rope (I. B. Bishop, The Yangtse Valley and Beyond, 1900). Both archaeology and history show evi dence of early terracing round the Mediterranean and in Brit ain during the Bronze Age.

In hilly and mountainous dis tricts where the rainfall is in sufficient or irregular, terrace cul tivation and irrigation go hand in hand. The water from a mountain stream is easily directed down the slope, and the embankments of the terraces preserve the moisture, so this method is universal on the drier slopes through out the world. The Arabs in Yemen give the best example. Here the mountains are terraced from their base up to sometimes as high as 6,000ft., with terrace walls from 5f t. to 15f t. high. Reser voirs filled in the two rainy seasons supply the streams for the irrigation channels. When, in the loth century, the Arabs reached Spain, they converted every mountain slope into a succession of green terraces. In the mountain areas of India, in Ceylon, in Tibet and in China, terrace cultivation can be seen on a large scale. The Chinese, farmers of 4o centuries, carry terracing to a fine art. In densely populated neighbourhoods every inch of soil is of value ; it is collected in baskets in the valleys, carried up the barren hill slopes, and embanked, forming astonishingly productive gardens. Examples are rare in the New World, but in Peru the same necessities were met by the same device, and hundreds of terraces one above the other rose from the valleys to the utmost cultivable limit. These were extended year by year by communal labour, and produced the finest crops of potatoes and maize, eliciting the astonished admiration of Cortes : "There was not a span that was not cultivated." Increase of population and of civilized wants, with the growing importance of food-crops or drink-crops, lead to the intensive cultivation seen in the mountain zone of Europe ; in Switzerland, for example, or the Moselle and Rhine valleys, in the Vosges and Black Forest, in the Suabian Jura, in Italy, up the slopes of the Apennines or the Ligurian Alps, and in the "desperate agriculture" of Teneriffe, where camels laden with earth bring soil for the gardens almost daily into the town of Santa Cruz.


The primitive implement is everywhere the dig ging stick, usually merely a strong stick, with one end pointed or flattened (a rudimentary spade) and often hardened in the fire. This is used for digging up roots by people who do not cultivate the soil, such as the Australians or the Bushmen of South Africa. The Bushmen weight their digging sticks with a heavy perforated stone whorl which acts as a lever. The digging stick or o in use in Tahiti nearly a century ago,was originally a stick sharpened at the point and hardened by charring at the end ; but when iron was ob tainable, a narrow sharp piece like a chisel was fixed at the end, and as much of the ground was stony, this was found very convenient. No use was made of the foot in thrusting the spade into the soil, but the digger assumed a crouching attitude, piercing the ground and breaking up the earth by the strength of hands and arms (Ellis, Polynesian Researches, p. 137-138). In Fiji the grass, reeds and undergrowth were broken down by a sharp-edged club. The dig ging sticks (poles with one end flattened) are used by three or four men encircling a large clod which they lever up. The women, fol lowing on their knees, pulverize this with their hands. A hoe, made of turtle shell or an oyster valve, was used for weeding. A knife has now replaced the club, but as a spade is painful to bare feet, the digging stick holds its place, though its power is now increased by an iron blade. In New Zealand the Maori lashed on a f oot piece at right angles to the digging stick; in Peru a foot-rest is bound on with leathern thongs, and, higher up, another rest is attached in the same way; this is for the left hand, which assists the foot in applying the weight of the body to the thrust. Similar types are found from New Mexico to Chile. The caschrom, still used in the stony patches of the Shetlands and the Hebrides, is a larger and more elaborate dig ging stick, with its end shod in iron and a foot-rest attached. The hoe is really a pick, with the dig ging end flattened. The simplest form is a piece of wood, with a natural angle, usually part of the trunk and a projecting branch, or two pieces of wood fastened to gether. The former is illustrated in Europe in the Swedish "hack" and the latter was characteristic of ancient Egypt. In North Amer ica a bent piece of wood, the shoulder blade of elk or bison, or a piece of tortoise shell is fas tened to a handle, but the hoe was rare in America except in the eastern maize area. The African hoes are of iron, often set at an acute angle to the shaft, this and the shortness of the handle necessitating a crouching position when hoeing. The size and shape of the hoes in Nigeria reflect the variation of soil, a grada tion being traced from the sandy soils of the north to the heavier land of the south.

There can be little doubt that women were the earliest agricul turalists. Even when the harder labour of clearing the ground is done by men, planting, sowing, tending and collecting are still women's work. "When the women plant maize," say the Indians, "the stalk produces two or three ears. Why? Because women know how to produce children. They only know how to plant corn to ensure its germinating. Then let them plant it. They know more than we do." (Payne, History of the New World, ii. 7.) It i$ therefore easy to guess that the cultivation of plants was one of women's contributions to the development of civiliza tion; and it is quite in harmony with this conjecture that the cereal deities are usually female, both in the Old World and in the New.

See O. T. Mason, The Origins of Invention (1895) ; E. J. Payne, History of the New World called America (1895) ; E. C. Semple, Influence of Geographical Environment (19ii). (A. H. Q.)

land, water, crops, soil and world