In the 21st century, with billions of people to feed, can we really learn anything about present-day food production from prehistoric farmers?
Research by Professor Amy Bogaard shows that their methods were far from primitive – and they have important things to tell us about how we can address issues of food security today.
Ancient grains have survived for thousands of years on archaeological sites in the Middle East and Europe, often as a result of fires which charred them just enough to preserve their shape and stop them rotting away.
By studying the chemistry of these grains dating back as far as 8000 years, Professor Bogaard’s team has discovered that the farmers who grew them were already using sophisticated techniques such as fertilising crops with manure, and practising water management in very dry regions.
Analysis of the weeds that grew with the crops shows high levels of fertility and careful working of the soil. As cities started to develop, farming expanded in scale, with increasing dependence on stress-tolerant cereals that could be grown with low inputs.
However, long-term sustainability depended on maintaining crop diversity. Households might keep small ‘allotment gardens’, for example, growing other crops such as lentils for their own use.
Professor Bogaard's research shows that such strategies helped certain prehistoric communities to survive for centuries and even millennia when faced with challenges such as a changing climate or political collapse.
This message is an important one for modern food production, which often promotes homogeneity of crops and growing conditions.
Globally, we face concerns about food wastage, reliance on agrochemicals, and resilience to climate change.
Information on farming practices from thousands of years ago suggests that a diversity of crops capable of thriving under variable growing conditions is crucial for long-term sustainability, together with production adapted to local conditions.
These lessons from prehistoric farming can inform the design of future farming systems and food security, especially in the face of climate change. By examining what proved to be sustainable in the distant past, Professor Bogaard is helping to shine a light on some of the major global challenges of the present.
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