Early people depended for their survival on hunting, fishing, and food gathering. To this day, some groups still pursue this simple way of life, and others have continued as roving herders (see nomad). However, as various groups of people undertook deliberate cultivation of wild plants and domestication of wild animals, agriculture came into being. Cultivation of crops—notably grains such as wheat, rice, corn, rye, barley, and millet—encouraged settlement of stable farm communities, some of which grew to be towns and city-states in various parts of the world. Early agricultural implements—the digging stick, the hoe, the scythe, and the plow—developed slowly over the centuries, each innovation (e.g., the introduction of iron) causing profound changes in human life. From early times, too, people created ingenious systems of irrigation to control water supply, especially in semiarid areas and regions of periodic rainfall, e.g., the Middle East, the American Southwest and Mexico, the Nile Valley, and S Asia.
Farming was often intimately associated with landholding (see tenure) and therefore with political organization. Growth of large estates involved the use of slaves (see slavery) and bound or semifree labor. In the Western Middle Ages the manorial system was the typical organization of more or less isolated units and determined the nature of the agricultural village. In Asia large holdings by the nobles, partly arising from feudalism (especially in China and Japan), produced a similar pattern.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.