Agriculture and Livestock in Ancient Greece

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jug showing olive harvesting
The soil in Greece was generally poor. The Greeks grew grain at the bottom of the valleys and grapes and olives on the hill slopes. Greek-farmer soldiers usually only possessed about 15 acres of land or less. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

According to myth, Promethius was caught stealing fire from the gods and consequentially brought the harsh necessity of agricultural labour upon the Greeks. It was seen as a punishment imposed by a vengeful Zeus because without this labour seeds could not be converted into edible plants (Garnsey 1999).

During the 5th century B.C. most farmers were small landowners. A typical farmer possessed olive and fig trees, and grew some wheat and barley on their plots of land. From the third century B.C. onwards, the sudden influx of cheap slave labor and the growth of abnormally large estates in Roman Italy dispossessed many small landholders and tenant-farmers and sent them to swell the ranks of an ever-increasing urban population." Former tenant farmers were claimed as slaves.||

Ancient Greek agricultural tools consisted of copper, bronze or iron sickles, shears, and pick axes. Sometimes cattle were hooked up to primitive plows, but for the most part all the work was done by hand. Fields were tilled with shovels and spades and olives were beaten out of trees with sticks and collected in baskets.

One Italian archeobotanist told National Geographic that the Greeks "knew that some sites were good for olives, others for vines or wheat. So they divided the land accordingly. They brought new tools for deeper plowing. They rotated crops. They used cattle dung to fertilize fields. They knew that if you prune a tree properly, you get a much better yield."

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Development of Agriculture

Agriculture began around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Considered the most important human advance after the control of fire and the creation of tools, it allowed people to settle in specific areas and freed them from hunting and gathering. According to the Bible, Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, developed agriculture and domesticated animals, .”Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground,.” the Bible reads.

The first documented agriculture occurred 11,500 year ago in what Harvard archaeologist Ofer Ban-Yosef calls the Levantine Corridor, between Jericho in the Jordan Valley and Mureybet in the Euphrates Valley. At Mureybit, a site on the banks of the Euphrates, seeds from an uplands area — where the plants from the seeds grow naturally — were found and dated to 11,500 years ago. An abundance of seeds from plants that grew elsewhere found near human sites is offered as evidence of agriculture.

Early agriculture is most famously associated with the Fertile Crescent, an arc of land that extends from southern Turkey into Iraq and Syria and finally to Israel and Lebanon. Seeds of 10,000-year-old cultivated wheat have been discovered at sites in Iraq and northern Syria. The region also produced the first domesticated sheep, goats, pigs and cattle.

Around 10,500 years ago agriculture began developing in the Middle East and China and to a lesser extent in Mexico, the Andes and Nigeria. The is also evidence that bananas and taro were cultivated in the highlands of New Guinea at least 7,000 years ago.

First Crops, Einkorn and Emmer Wheat

The earliest crops were wheat, barley, various legumes, grapes, melons, dates, pistachios and almonds. The world's first wheat, peas, cherries, olives, rye, chickpeas and rye evolved from wild plants found in Turkey and the Middle East.

Scientists have found genetic evidence that the world's four major grains — wheat, rice, corn and sorghum — evolved a common ancestor weed that grew 65 million years ago.

The first domesticated crop is believed to have been einkorn wheat, a kind of nourishing grass adapted from a wild species of grass native to the Karacadag mountains near Diyarbakir in southwestern Turkey first cultivated around 11,000 years ago. Scientists deduced this by examining the DNA of modern strains of einkorn wheat and found the were more similar to einkorn wheat grown in the Karacadag mountains than in other places. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 20, 1997]

Collecting seeds from wild grass is not an easy matter. If you pick the seeds before they are ripe they are too small and hard to eat. If you wait so long they fall from the stem and you have to pick them up one by one. With some grasses the period in which the seeds are feasible to collect is only a few days a year. If one wants to get a long term food supply it makes sense to collect as much as you can and take it back to your cave and store it.

Emmer wheat, rye and barley were cultivated around the same time, and is difficult to say which was cultivated first. Emmer wheat and another wheat strain from the Caspian Sea are thought to be the first bread wheats. Emmer wheat is a wild grass. It is thought to have been singled out because its seeds stay attached to the stem significantly longer than that of other grasses.

Cereals were being cultivated in what is now Syria. Lebanon, Israel and Palestine around 10,000 years ago in the 8th millenniums B.C. Barley was first grown in the Jordan valley about 10,000 years ago. The earliest levels of excavations at Jericho indicate that the people that lived there collected seeds of cereal grass from rocky crags flanking the valley and planted them in the fertile alluvial soil.

Spread of Agriculture to Europe

Wheat and barley agriculture spread out of Fertile crescent by 7000 B.C. By 6000 B.C., it had gotten as far as the Black Sea and present day Greece and Italy. By 5000 B.C. it had spread to most of southern Europe. The Linear Pottery Culture of central Hungary is believed to have introduced agriculture to central Europe around 5000 B.C. Agriculture finally reached southern Britain and Scandinavia around 3800 B.C. and north Britain and central Scandinavia by 2,500 B.C.

According to the “wave of advance” model of Luca Cavalli Sforza agriculture moved westward slowly by farmers whose, swelling population forced them to seek new land in the west. This model is based partly on the fact that agriculture developed in Europe from plants grown in the Middle East not Europe. According to some estimates, the rate of advancement was only about a mile a year. Other scholars believe that agriculture was spread from farmers to hunter-gatherers in a cultural exchange rather than a migration of people.

After the introduction of agriculture and livestock raising in Britain, there was dramatic shifts in what people ate. This was determined based on the presence of certain isotopes, linked with different foods, found in bones. Around 3200 B.C. there was a sudden shift from a predominately seafood diet to one consisting of foods from plants and animals.

Some think agriculture was carried westward more suddenly and dramatically in early ships. Remains of boats found in Sardinia and Crete show that men have been crossing seas for more than 10,000 years.

Agriculture developed independently from the Middle East in China, Peru and Mexico and other places. The plow was invented about 3000 B.C., greatly increase the food output of a given parcel of land.

Olive Oil Production and Olive Tree Cultivation

olive oil extractor juicer

Olive oil is expensive, labor-intensive and time-consuming to make. Most oils are extracted in a refineries from seeds or nuts, using solvents, heat and intense pressure. The best olive oil is made using a simple hydraulic press. Tom Mueller wrote in the New Yorker, “they are more like fresh-squeezed orange juice than industrial fats. Oil is usually dark green after it is us pressed and turns a golden color over time as it ages and settles.

Olive oil is made from olives that are picked by hand from November to January, then washed in cold water and crushed pit and all into a gooey paste under granite wheels. The paste is spread over bags or mats made from rush, grass or hemp. These mats are the stacked in piles and pressed, producing the oil. It takes about five kilograms of olives to produce one liter of oil.

The oil is then placed into vats. In the old days the presses were powered by donkeys, camels, cattle and mules and later steam. Today they are mainly driven by electricity. In Tunisia olive oil is still made from camel-driven presses.

Gnarled olive trees survive well in places with dry climates, particularly in the Mediterranean Some olive trees take 15 years to bear fruit. There is old saying that farmers would grow a vineyard for their sons and an olive tree grove for their grandsons. But once they start producing, they can keep producing for centuries. These day varieties of olive of tree are available that begin producing fruit after tree or four years.

Olives need sandy soil and at least 180 mm of rain fall. They are pruned and fertilized. The olive fly is the the primary olive pest. Olives are vulnerable to killing frosts — an ice storm in January 1985 killed hundred of thousands of olive trees One farmer in Tuscany lost all but 79 of his 2,800 trees — but overall are incredible survivors. Even if the central trunk is eaten away by disease, the tree manages to survive.

The carefully-pruned and tended trees of small scale olive producers reportedly produce better olive oil than the full-foliage trees in Spain and the massive plantations in Greece. A relatively small farm with 600 trees yield about two tons of olives a year. Even today most of the work is done by hand by the owner and his family.

Greek olive gathering
Olives and Olive Oil. See Food

Harvesting and Preparing Olives

Harvesting methods vary according to the type of olive and the time and money that is at stake. Olives are generally harvested by people who climb into the trees using ladders and bring the olives down by shaking the branches, beating the branches with long sticks or combing them with wooden or plastic rake-like contraptions with seven tines. The olives are collected sheets of plastic or cloth or fine netting laid on the ground. After the olives are collected they are placed in blankets and twigs and leaves and other extra materials is removed.

Harvesting is generally done in the fall. In southern Italy the harvesting season begins in October. Olives used to make olive oil are harvested at the moment of the "invaiatura”, when they begin to turn from green to black. Ideally, they are picked by hand and milled within hours to minimize oxidation and enzyme reaction, which leave unpleasant tastes and odors in the oil.

Green olives are generally picked in September or October and are too bitter and hard to eat. They are treated with an alkali solution to remove the bitterness, washed and then soaked in salt water. The olives are then dried in the sun on large cloth sheets and soaked in water, lye, oil or brine. The substance they are submerged in, and the length of time they are soaked, usually determines the color, texture and cost of the olives.

Black olives are ripe olives. They are harvested in December or January. No alkali bath in necessary for them. They are either pickled in a bath of brine or rubbed in oil. The biggest problem at harvest time is rain. Wet harvested olive can ferment and fermenting ruins the flavor.

Early Domesticated Animals

5th century BC Greek pig figurine
The domestication of plants and animals took place around the same time. Hunter-gatherers and village horticulturists kept pets so they knew how to take care of animals. The domestication of animals took place when animals were raised as a source of food and labor. Grains were raised with the intent of feeding people and animals.

Some animals were domesticated so long ago that they have evolved as separate species. The process, some theorize, was as much accidental as intentional. With cats, for example, the anthropologist Richard Bullet suggests, the ancestors of cats were attracted to human settlements because they kept stores of grain that attracted mice they could fed on. Humans in turn tolerated the cats because they ate mice that fed on their grain and otherwise were not threatening.

Bullet has also theorized that horses, cattle and sheep were initially not domesticated for food but were domesticated for religious sacrifices. He argues it was more easy to hunt these animals than herd them and humans would have not gone through the trouble of keeping them unless they served some other purpose. He speculated that perhaps that unruly animals were sacrificed first to avoid trouble leaving more docile animals to mate and their offspring became increasingly tame.

Domestication of Different Animals

Animal, Wild Progenitor, Region of Origin, Approximate Time of Domestication 20120222-Minoan_Head_Bull Heraklion.jpg
Minoan bull head

Dog, Wolf, Western Asia (Israel, Iraq), 12,000 to 14,000 years ago
Pig, Boar, Southeast Turkey, Syria, 9,000 to 10,000 years ago
Goat, Bezoar goat, Western Asia (Iran), 9,000 to 10,000 years ago
Sheep, Asiatic moufflon, Western Asia (Turkey, Syria), 9,000 years ago
Cattle, Aurochs, Western Asia (Turkey), 6,000 to 8,000 years ago
Cat, Cat, Northeast Africa, 5,000 years ago?
Chicken, Jungle Fowl, Southern Asia, 8,000 to 4,000 years ago
Reindeer, Reindeer , Northern Eurasia, Unknown
Llama, Guanaco?, South America , 7,000 years ago
Alpaca, Llama species?, South America, 7,000 years ago?
Horse, Horse, Central Asia , 6,000 years ago

Donkey, Ass , Arabia, North Africa, 6,000 years ago
Water buffalo, Water buffalo, Southern Asia, 6,000 years ago
Dromedary camel, camel , Arabia, 5,500 years ago
Bactrian camel, Camel, Central Asia, 5,500 years ago
Ducks, Ducks, Southeast Asia, 5,000 years ago
Guinea pig, Cavy, Andes in South America, 4,500 years ago
Guinea fowl, Guinea fowl, North Africa, 2,300 years ago
Mithan, Gaur, Southeast Asia, Unknown
Bali cattle, Banteng, Southeast Asia, Unknown
Rabbit, Rabbit, Iberia , Roman Era
Turkey, Turkey, North America, A.D. 100 to 500
Honeybee, Bee, Europe, A.D. 500
Goldfish, Carp, China, A.D. 960
[Source: New York Times, Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution (Cambridge University Press), Dr. Michael Rosenburh/University of Delaware.

Livestock in Ancient Greece and Rome

The Greeks domesticated goats, dogs, horses, pigs, and sheep. Large horses first appeared in Greek times. Greeks developed the first horseshoes in the A.D. forth century. Sheep were raised for their fine wool.

A Hungarian biologist told National Geographic that the Greeks were often cruel to their animals. "They were quite rude to them," he said. "I've found cattle with unhealed fractures. Their owners could have set the bones easily, but they didn't bother. Animals were often beaten. I've seen many fractures on the heads of dogs."

pig sacrifice
Chickens were raised in Egypt and China for meat and eggs by 1400 B.C. Greeks ate them and they were in Britain at the time the Romans arrived. They were brought to New World by explorers and conquistadors. Chickens and other fowl were known to the Greeks. The expression "Don't count your chickens before they are hatched" is attributed to Aesop in 570 B.C. In the story “ The Milkmaid and her Pail” , Patty the farmer's daughter says, "The milk in this pail will provide me with cream, which I will make into butter, which I will sell at the market, and buy a dozen eggs, and soon I shall have a large poultry yard. I'll sell some of the fowls and buy myself a handsome new gown."

Goats have been around a long time. Mesopotamians wrote poems about goats, depicted them in golden sculptures, worshiped them as gods and made the goat-god Capricorn into a Zodiac sign. Goats have been taken all over the world to trade as sources of meat, wool and milk. Goats are mentioned in the Bible as well as in Buddhist, Confucian and Zoroastrian texts. In Greek myths, the gods were nursed on goats milk.

Cattle were used for transportation purposes long before horses and figured prominently in many religions and myths (Hindu holy cows, the half-bull-half man Minotaur, the images of the Golden Calf that made Moses so angry). Bulls were sacrificed by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Druids but treated with reverence by Egyptians (black bulls in particular were given harems and palaces because they were believed to be related to the bull-god Apis).

Pigs are believed to have been domesticated from boars 10,000 years ago in Turkey, a Muslim country that ironically frowns upon pork eating today. At a 10,000-year-old Turkish archeological site known as Hallan Cemi, scientists looking for evidence of early agriculture stumbled across of large cache of pig bones instead. The archaeologists reasoned the bones came from domesticated pigs, not wild ones, because most of the bones belonged to males over a year old. The females, they believe, were saved so they could produce more pigs.

Pigs were originally tuber-eating forest and swamp creatures. They had difficulty living in the deserts of the Middle East because they don't sweat and therefore can't cool themselves. When pigs were first domesticated there were vast forest areas in what is now Turkey and the Middle East. There was enough water and shade to support small number of pigs, but as population in the Middle East grew, deforestation degraded the environments best suited for the animals.

Donkeys in Ancient Times

Donkeys were the first members if the horse family to be domesticated. They are believed to have been domesticated from wild asses, or onagers, from Arabia and North Africa about 6,000 years ago. See Assyria, Mesopotamia.

Onagers stand about 120 centimeters at the shoulder and weigh about 290 kilograms. They eat mostly sparse grasses and herbs that grow along desert edges. In the summer when water is scarce onagers survive by drinking salty water. Today onagers are threatened by loss of habitat, poaching and competition from grazing animals. About 800 onagers live in four remote desert areas of Iran.

Donkeys appeared in Egypt in the third millennium before Christ and are pictured on old Kingdom engravings dated to 2700 B.C., carrying people and loads in villages and urban areas. In the Old Testament the prophet Balaam was saved by a talking ass, who helped the prophet communicate with an angel he couldn’t see. In the New Testament Jesus made his final entry into Jerusalem on one. In Roman times, Nero's wife is said to have bathed in donkey milk scented with rose oil.

Sheep, Wool, and Ancient History

Famous reference to wool and sheep from the ancient world include Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece, Ulysses escaping from the Cyclops by clinging onto the underbelly of a ram, and Penelope's nightly unraveling of her weaving to keep suitors away until Ulysses returned. Salome's veils may have been wool and Cleopatra most likely used a wool carpet to smuggle herself in to see Caesar.╤

There are a number of references to wool-damaging pests in the ancient world. The Romans used bare-breasted virgins to beat away moths and beetles that ate their wool garments. Other cultures tried cow manure and garlic. Now we use moth balls. Proper washing is also supposed to be affective discouraging moths.

Weaving weights

There are 300 references to sheep and lambs, more than any other animal, in the Old Testament, one the earliest documents that mentions sheep. Abraham, Moses and David tended a sheep at one time to make a living. Jacob gave Joseph a multicolored coat and Roman's drew lots to see who would get Jesus's cloak. Both garments were probably made of wool. During biblical times fleece was left out overnight in the desert to collect drinking water. In the morning dew was wrung out of it. ╤

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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