Prof. N. I. Vavilov

Member of Academy of Sciences of USSR. President of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences

The Problem of the Origin of the World's Agriculture in the Light of the Latest Investigations

Written: 1931;
Source: Science at the Crossroads: Papers Presented to the International Congress of the History of Science and technology Held in London from June 29th to July 3rd, 1931 by the delegates of the U.S.S.R, Frank Cass and Co., 1931
Online Version: For May, 2002.

Where are the beginnings of agriculture to be sought? Were they independent in different regions, in different continents? How is the geographical localisation of primitive agriculture to be explained? Which plants were first brought into cultivation? Which animals were first domesticated, and where? Where shall we find the primary sources of cultivated plants? How are modern domesticated held animals and cultivated plants connected with their wild related types? How did the evolution of cultivated plants and animals proceed? How are primary agricultural civilizations connected? Which implements were used by primitive agriculturists in different regions?

Viewed from the standpoint of concrete materialistic studies all these historical questions are very actual, and of great significance for modern agriculture. In contradistinction to past practice, the present-day investigator, faced with increasingly difficult economic conditions in the world, attempts to utilise the experience of the past in order to improve upon existing practice. In the Soviet Union, which is now building up socialism and socialistic agriculture, we are interested in the problem of the origin of agriculture, and of the origin of cultivated plants and animals chiefly from the dynamic viewpoint. By knowledge of the past, by studying the elements from which agriculture has developed, by collecting cultivated plants in the ancient centres of agriculture, we seek to master the historical process. We wish to know how to modify cultivated plants and domestic animals according to the requirements of the day. We are but slightly interested in the wheat and barley found in the graves of Pharaohs of the earliest dynasties. To us, constructive questions--problems which interest the engineer--are more urgent. It is much more important for us to know how Egyptian wheat differs from wheats of other countries, which characteristics in this Egyptian wheat are of importance in order to improve our wheat, to understand how this Egyptian wheat has originated. The investigator wishes to find the primary elements, "the bricks and mortar," from which the modern species and varieties were created. We need this knowledge in order to possess the initial material for practical plant and animal breeding. We study the construction of primitive agricultural implements in order to get indications for the construction of modern machinery.

In brief, the historical problems of this origin of agriculture, of the origin of cultivated plants and domesticated animals are especially interesting for us in the sense of mastering and controlling the breeding of cultivated plants and animals.

The results of these studies may be of interest to archaeologists, historians, naturalists, agronomists, geneticists, plant and animal breeders. Therefore we take the opportunity to-day at this International Congress devoted to the history of science and technology, to draw your attention to the chief results of investigations into this subject, which have been made recently in the Soviet Union.

In the course of our work on the practical questions connected with plant-breeding, we have approached some of the problems of the world history of agriculture included in this Congress programme.

The Institute of Plant Industry in Leningrad has recently been studying the cultivated plants of the whole world according to a definite programme. During the systematic study of a number of species it became evident that so far neither the botanist, nor the agronomist, nor the breeder has yet, with any degree of completeness, approached the study of the world's resources even of the most important cultivated plants, whose centres of evolution, as investigations have shown, are located chiefly in ancient agricultural countries. Contemporary European and American horticulture and agriculture know only fragmentary details, derived from ancient centres of diversity of cultivated plants.

We began to study systematically the cultivated plants of the world. Numerous special expeditions were sent to different parts of the globe, chiefly to ancient mountainous countries. They collected an enormous amount of material and new data about the primitive ways and technique of agriculture. The investigations embraced the countries of the Mediterranean, including Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, the whole of Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, Crete, Cyprus and Rhodes. In detail were investigated: Abyssinia, Eritrea, Persia, Afghanistan, Western China, agricultural Mongolia, Japan, Korea, Formosa, and to some extent India. The ancient agricultural regions of Transcaucasia and Turkestan were studied most closely. In the new world the investigations embraced the whole of Mexico (including Yucatan), Guatemala, Columbia, Peru, Bolivia and Chili.

These expeditions collected a great number of specimens of cultivated plants (hundreds of thousands), which have now been studied for several years at different experimental stations. The investigations elucidated the world's geographical distribution of species and varieties; they discovered many specimens so far unknown to botanists, breeders and agronomists, often having valuable "practical qualities." They led even to the discovery of new species of cultivated plants. Thus in Peru and Bolivia our expeditions discovered twelve new species of potatoes, instead of the one known species (Solanum tuberosum). New species of wheat and thousands of new varieties of small grains and of other field and vegetable plants.

The most essential fact established by these investigations, one which is of great importance to the comprehension of the history of the world's agriculture, is the geographical localisation of the chief varieties of cultivated plants. This has been established by close observation. It has been proved possible to locate exactly the primary original centres of the most important cultivated plants, for instance, of wheat, barley, rice, maize, of many field and vegetable crops. This facilitated the acquiring of an enormous amount of basic material, hitherto unknown to botanists.

The fundamental centres of origin of cultivated plants, as was proved by these investigations, very frequently play the role of accumulators of an astonishing diversity of varieties. In small, primitive, agricultural Abyssinia alone, where the whole area under what is certainly no more than half a million hectares, we found more varieties than in all the other countries of the world taken together. The varieties of maize in Southern Mexico--the initial home of this plant--are extremely rich. The wild fruits in Transcaucasia--the chief home of many European fruit trees--are astonishingly varied. Diversity of varieties, however, alone, does not always determine the primary centre of origin of the cultivated plant. It is necessary to study their wild and cultivated stocks, the history of the plant's migrations. We have elaborated methods of differential systemization and of botanical geography which allow us to determine exactly the initial home of single cultivated plants.[1]

As a result of the investigation of several hundreds of cultivated plants we succeeded in establishing the fundamental world centres of the chief cultivated plants. Some of these results are probably of general interest.

In general our investigations have led to the establishment on the earth of seven fundamental, independent centres of origin of cultivated plants, which at the same time were the probable foci of the independent development of world agriculture.

For the majority of our present cultivated plants the chief continent is Asia. A great number of cultivated plants are of Asiatic origin. In Asia we distinguish three fundamental centres of species formation. First and foremost, South-Western Asia, including the interior of Asia Minor, Persia, Afghanistan, Turkestan and North-Western India. Here is the home of soft wheats, of rye, flax, alphalpha, Persian clover (Trifolium resupinatum), of many European fruit trees (apple, pear, Prunus divaricata, pomegranate, quince, sweet cherry), of grapes, of many vegetables.

It is not altogether by chance that Biblical history locates the primary paradise, the Garden of Eden, in this region. Even now it is possible to see forests of wild apples, pears, sweet cherries, quinces, covered with wild grape-vines-paradises in the full sense of the word, in Transcaucasia and in, Northern Persia.

The second independent world centre in Asia is located in India proper, including the valley of the Ganges, the whole of Indostan peninsula, and the adjoining parts of Indochina and Slam. This is the original home of rice--the most important crop in the world--which is still the staple food of half of all mankind. Here it is still possible to observe rice in its primary stage as a wild plant, as a weed in the fields, and to follow its development into the primitive cultivated forms, which display an astonishing diversity. Here also is the home of many tropical cultivated plants, sugar cane, Asiatic cottons, tropical fruit trees (for instance, the mangoes).

The third Asiatic centre is located in Eastern and Central mountainous China. Central Asia, as we now know, beyond question, had no relation to primary agriculture, notwithstanding its immense territory. Neither Mongolia nor Western China, Tianshan, nor Siberia shows any traces of independent agriculture, whether in regard to the diversity of crop plants, or to the technique of agriculture.[2]

Eastern Asia, on the contrary, the upper course and the valleys of the great rivers of China, Hun-ho and Yangtze-Kiang, have given birth to the great Chinese culture, and perhaps even to pre-Chinese agriculture. This is the home of many plants, such as the peculiar Chinese cabbages, the radish, and of many peculiar Chinese crops little known in Europe. This is the native country of Citrus plants, Unabi (Zizyphus), the persimmon, the peach, the Chinese plum (Prunus Simoni), the tea-shrub, the mulberry tree, of many tropical and especially sub-tropical plants.

In this country the technique of agriculture is very peculiar. The soil is cultivated chiefly by hand labour, farm animals rarely being used. The intensive cultivation of truck crops is widely spread. Rain in China is brought by the monsoons. The chief agricultural regions are supplied with an adequate amount of moisture. As to Japan and Formosa, our investigations have shown that these countries have borrowed their crops and technique from China. The same may be said of the Philippines and of the Malayan islands, whose agriculture is chiefly borrowed from China.

In contradistinction to China and Japan, South Western Asia (the first centre) is characterized by an extensive use of farm animals--cattle, horses, camels, and mules. The diversity of agricultural implements is here especially noteworthy.

In Europe, primary agriculture is definitely confined to the South. The fourth world centre embraces the ancient countries adjoining the Mediterranean, including, the Pyrennean, Appenine and Balkan peninsulas, the coastal region of Asia Minor, Egypt, and also the territory of modern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria and Palestine.

In spite of the great historical and cultural importance of the Mediterranean centre, which has given rise to the greatest civilizations of antiquity--the Egyptian, Etruscan, Aegean and the Ancient Hebrew--this centre, according to the investigation of its varietal diversity, includes but few autochtonically important crops. Ancient agriculture is here based on the olive, the carobtree (Cerotonia siliqua), the fig tree. The majority of field crops, such as wheat, barley, beans and peas, have obviously been borrowed from other centres. The varietal diversity of the crops is here considerably poorer than in the principal centres of the corresponding crops. Only a series of forage plants, such as Hedysafirm coronarium, the forage lens, Ervum Ervilia, the forage vetches, Lathyrus cicer, L. Gorgonio, Trifolium alexandrinum, have originated in the Mediterranean region.

Here the cultivated plants have undergone a careful selection promoted by the mild climate and the high level of culture of the population. The varieties of cereals, leguminous grain crops, flax, truck plants, are distinguished in the Mediterranean region by an extraordinary large size of fruits, seeds, bulbs, as well as by their fine quality, by comparison with the corresponding crops growing in regions distant from the Mediterranean.

The primeval agriculture of the Mediterranean is characterized by special types of implements for tilling as well as for harvesting such as the Roman furrow plough, the threshing board set with sharp stones, and the stone roller. China, India, and to a considerable extent, South-Western Asia, are not acquainted with these types of implements.

The fifth world centre is found in mountainous Eastern Africa, chiefly in mountainous Abyssinia. This small centre is rather peculiar, being characterized by a small number of independent important cultivated plants displaying an extraordinary variety of forms. Here we find the maximum diversity in the world, so far as the varieties of wheat, barley, and perhaps also the grain sorghum, are concerned. This is the home of such plants as teff-Eragrostis abyssinica: a most important cereal of Abyssinia; Noug-Guizotia abyssinica: an original oleaginous plant of this country. Flax is distinguished by its small seeds. In distinction from the ancient Mediterranean countries and South-Western Asia, it is grown in Abyssinia only as a bread plant for the sake of its hour. The cultivation of flax for oil and fibre is still unknown to primitive Ethiopia. Abyssinia is the home of the coffee plant as well as of the barley used in brewing.

Though no archaeological memorials testifying to the ancient character of the Abyssinian centre have been found (with the exception of the ancient phallic culture recently discovered in Southern Abyssinia), it may be affirmed, on the basis of the diversity and the special qualities of the cultivated plants, as well as the technique of agriculture (cultivation by means of hoes still exists to some extent in Abyssinia), that this centre is indubitably independent and very ancient. It is our conviction that Egypt has borrowed its crop plants from Abyssinia to a considerable extent. All comparative data concerning the diversity of the cultivated plants, the species of domestic animals, the mode of life of the agricultural population, the original food of the latter--all point to the autonomous character of the Abyssinian centre. The data of linguistics are a further proof of the foregoing conclusion.

In the New World investigated during the last five years by Soviet expeditions, two principal centres must be distinguished: the South Mexican centre including part of Central America, and the Peruvian including Bolivia. The former is the more important. It has given rise to such crops as corn, the Upland cotton, cacao, agave-hennequen, the musky pumpkin, the multiflorous and the common bean, chiota (sechium) papaya, and many indigenous crops of secondary importance.[3]

Peru and Bolivia are the home of the potato, the chinchona tree, the coca shrub, as well as of a series of secondary crops. Here extraordinarily polymorphic groups of the soft corn have been differentiated.

The other regions of South and Central America, though they have given rise to some crops, are of no decisive importance for the history of world agriculture[4].

The agricultural centres of the New World have come into existence quite independently of those of the Old World, a fact proved by the unique cultivated flora of North and South America. The ancient civilizations of the Mayas and the Incas did not know the use of iron, were not acquainted with the plough. The " foot plough " known in the high mountain regions of Peru, is, after all, no more than a spade. Neither Mexico nor Peru had farm animals for agricultural purposes. The llama and the alpaca, as well as the guinea-pig, domesticated in Peru, were raised for the sake of meat and wool, and only the former served as a beast of burden.

Such are the seven principal centres of the world, that have given rise to the whole world agriculture. As may be seen from the appended map, these centres occupy a very limited territory. According to our estimates the Mexican centre in North America occupies about 1/40th of the whole territory of the vast continent. About the same area is occupied by the Peruvian centre in regard to the whole of South America.

The same may be said about the majority of centres in the Old World. The differentiation in the types of agricultural implements corresponds to the differentiation in the primary centres of origin of the cultivated plants. In mountainous East Africa, as well as in the whole of primitive Africa, the cultivation of soil with a hoe may be observed even to-day. As the investigation of plough agriculture throughout the world, made by B. N. Zhavaronkov has shown, the ploughs of Abyssinia, China, SouthWestern Asia, and of the Mediterranean countries, are of different types.

The geographical location of the primary agricultural centres is rather peculiar. All seven centres are chiefly confined to the tropical and sub-tropical mountain regions. The centres of the New World are confined to the tropical Andes, those of the Old World to the Himalaya, the Hindu-Kush, mountainous Africa, the mountain regions of the Mediterranean countries, and to mountainous China.

After all, only a narrow strip of the dry land of the earth has played an important role in the history of world agriculture.

From the point of view of dialectics, considered in the light of the latest investigations, the geographical concentration of the great primeval agricultures in this limited zone, becomes comprehensible. The tropics and the sub-tropics provide optimum conditions for the unfolding of the process of species origination. The maximum species diversity shown by the wild vegetation obviously gravitates towards the tropics. This is especially conspicuous in North America, where South Mexico and Central America, occupying a relatively inconsiderable area, contain more plant species than the whole vast expanse of Canada, Alaska, and the United States (California included) taken together. The republics of Costa Pica and Salvador, pigmies in the sense of the territory they occupy, nevertheless supply the same number of species as the United States, 100 times their size. The powerful process of species origination is geographically localized chiefly towards the moist tropics of the New World.

The same may be observed in the Old World. The Mediterranean countries are very rich in species. The flora of the Balkan peninsula, Asia Minor, Persia, Syria, Palestine, Algeria, Morocco, is distinguished by a great multiplicity of species (4,000-6,000 species on an average), exceeding in this regard Northern and Central Europe. India possesses not less than 14,500 species. The flora of Central and Eastern China displays an extraordinary diversity. Though the more or less exact number of species shown by this most interesting part of China is not known, it runs into many thousands.

Abyssinia is rich in indigenous plants, as well as by its number of species in general.

Thus, the geographical location of the species and of the form origination of cultivated plants coincides, to a considerable extent, with the location of the general process of species origination shown by the floras of the world.

The processes of mountain formation indubitably have played an important r81e in the differentiation of the vegetation into species, promoting the process of the divarigation of species. Isolators, mountain barriers checking the spread of species and genera have been of great importance to the differentiation of separate forms and whole species. The various climates and soils found in the mountain zones to which gravitate the principal centres of the origin of cultivated plants, promote the development of diversity among the species, as well as within the species composition of these plants. On the other hand, the glaciers which in the preceding geological epoch covered Northern Europe, North America and Siberia, have destroyed whole floras.

If the moist subtropics chiefly favour the development of trees, the tropical and subtropical mountain regions, where the primeval agricultures settled, are characterized by the development of herbaceous species, to which belongs the majority of the most important plants of the earth.

The tropical and subtropical mountain regions afford optimum conditions for human settlement. Primeval man was afraid, and is still afraid, of the moist tropics, with their luxuriant vegetation and their tropical diseases, though the vast subtropics with their highly fertile soils occupy one-third of the dry land on the whole earth (Sapper). For his domicile man turned, and continues to turn, to the borders of the tropical forests. The tropical and subtropical mountain regions offered the most favourable conditions of warmth and abundance of food to the first settlers. In Central America and Mexico man still utilizes a multitude of wild plants. It is not always easy to distinguish the cultivated from their corresponding wild plants.

The mountain contour favoured life in small groups; it is with this phase that the development of human society begins. There is no doubt that the conquest of the vast basins of the Lower and Middle Nile, of the Euphrates, Tigris and Indus could be accomplished only by a population united into large groups, and this could have taken place only in the later stages of the development of human society.

The primitive man, the primitive farmer, used to live, and still continues to live in inconsiderable, isolated groups, and for him the mountainous tropics and subtropics presented exceptionally favourable conditions.

In opposition to the common views of the archaeologists, our investigations of the ancient agricultures have led us to the conclusion that primitive agriculture was not irrigated. The analysis of the diversity shown by the cultivated plants in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the irrigated regions of Peru (up to 11,000 ft. above sea level) have shown that the cultivated plants of these countries have been borrowed from elsewhere. The indisputably most ancient crop plants of Abyssinia, mountainous Mexico and Central America, high mountainous Peru (above 11,000 ft.), China, India, and the Mediterranean countries, were not irrigated.

Taking into consideration the interaction of opposed factors, and basing our deductions on concrete facts which may be verified by a direct study, we have been able to fix the exact geographical location of primitive agriculture and have determined the essential features of this localization.

It is obvious that these cultures, based on different genera and species of plants have come into existence autonomously, whether simultaneously or at different times, and that one must speak at least of seven principal cultures or, more exactly, groups of cultures. To them correspond quite different ethnological and linguistic groups d peoples. They are characterized by different types of agricultural implements and domestic animals.

This knowledge of the initial centres of agriculture, throws light an the whole history of mankind, and the history of general culture.

Our investigations have shown that during the spread of the cultivated plants towards the North and into the high mountain regions, the principal crops were sometimes supplanted by their attendant weeds, when the latter carried a certain value for the farmer.

Thus, the winter wheat, when migrating to the North from its chief centre of origin, South Western Asia, was supplanted in a series of regions of Asia and Europe, by the hardier weed, winter rye. In the same way barley and emmer were supplanted by oats--weeds, less exacting in regard to soil and climate. Flax is not infrequently supplanted in Europe by the weed Camelina, in Asia by Eruca sativa, and so on.

Thus, a series of crop plants has originated independently of the will of man, owing to natural selection. In studying the rye weed--mingled with wheat in South Western Asia--we have discovered a striking diversity of forms, of which the European rye-growing farmer has no idea.

A series of regularities in the succession of crops during their northward spread has been established.

We give here only a summary of our collective investigations. They have led us to the mastery of the world resources in species, and to a comprehension of the evolution of the cultivated plants, as well as to the solution of questions concerning the autonomy of the principal agricultures and their interrelations. It is natural that the centres of the New World should be more closely connected with one another than with those of Eurasia. The South Western Asiatic centre is especially near to that of Abyssinia. One has given rise to the soft wheats, the other to the hard varieties.

These data are the material prerequisites to a comprehension of the first phases of the evolution of human society. It is natural that one of the principal factors in the first settling of mankind should have been the distribution of the natural food resources.

The data appertaining to the primary geography of cultivated plants and of their wild growing relatives fit in with our present knowledge of the evolution of primeval man. South Western Asia and mountainous East Africa were evidently the original area for the creation of a human society engaged in agriculture. Here we observe the concentration of the chief elements necessary for the development of agriculture.

Such is the problem of the origin of agriculture viewed in the light of modern methods of investigation. In approaching this problem from the paint of view of dialectic materialism, we shall be led to revise many of our old concepts and, which is fundamentally important, we shall gain the possibility of controlling the historical process, in the sense of directing the evolution of cultivated plants and domestic animals according to our will.


[1] N. I. Vavilov.--Studies on the Origin of Cultivated Plants. Bull. of Applied Botany, Vol. XVI No. 2. 1926.
N. I. Vavilov.-Regularities in the Geographical Distribution of Genes of Cultivated Plants. Ibid. Vol. XVII. 1927.
N. I. Vavilov.--Mexico and Central America, as a fundamental centre of the origin of cultivated plants of the New World. Ibid. 1931.
N. I. Vavilov.--The Linnean Species as a system. Ibid. 1931.

[2] N. I. Vavilov.--The role of Central Asia in the origin of cultivated plants. Bull. of Appl. Botany, 1931.

[3] N. I. Vavilov.--Mexico and Central America, as the principal centre of origin of the cultivated plants of the New World. Bull. of Appl. Botany, 1931.

[4] N. I. Vavilov.--Mexico and Central America, as the principal centre of origin of the cultivated plants of the New World. Bull. of Appl. Botany, 1931.