You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘farming’ tag.
The first animal to be domesticated was the wolf (modern humans call domesticated wolves “dogs”). This happened thousands (or tens of thousands) of years before any other plants or animals were domesticated. In fact some social scientists have speculated that the dogs actually domesticated humans. Whatever the case, our dual partnership changed both species immensely. It was the first and most important of many changes which swept humanity away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and into the agricultural world.
Today’s post isn’t really about the actual prehistory behind the agricultural revolution though. Instead we are looking at an ancient Chinese myth about how humans changed from hunters into farmers. Appropriately, even in the myth it was dogs who brought about the change. There are two versions of the story. In the version told by the Miao people of southern China, the dog once had nine tails. Seeing the famine which regularly afflicted people (because of seasonal hunting fluctuations) a loyal dog ran into heaven to solve the problem. The celestial guardians shot off eight of the dog’s tails, but the brave mutt managed to roll in the granaries of heaven and return with precious rice and wheat seeds caught in his fur. Ever since, in memory of their heroism, dogs have one bushy tail (like a ripe head of wheat) and they are fed first when people are done eating.
A second version of the tale is less heroic, but also revolves around actual canine behavior. In the golden age, after Nüwa created humans, grain was so plentiful that people wasted it shamefully and squandered the bounty of the Earth. In anger, the Jade Emperor came down to Earth to repossess all grains and crops. After the chief heavenly god had gathered all of the world’s cereals, the dog ran up to him and clung piteously to his leg whining and begging. The creature’s crying moved the god to leave a few grains of each plant stuck to the animal’s fur. These grains became the basis of all subsequent agriculture.
Even in folklore, we owe our agrarian civilization to the dogs, our first and best friends.
The historical roots of agriculture are a common topic of this blog–which has featured posts about the ancient domestication of pumpkins, pigs, olives, goats, and turkeys. However not all agricultural goods have such long tangled pedigrees which stretch into prehistory. Today we are celebrating a fruit which was first cultivated in 1816 by an American revolutionary veteran named Henry Hall. The deep ruby-pink berries were originally known as a fenberries because the wild plants grow in acidic marshes and bogs, however something about that name struck early pioneers as unpoetic and they started calling the fruit “craneberries”—which was shortened to cranberry.
Cranberries are low shrubs and vines of the subgenus Oxycoccus (of the genus Vaccinium, which includes other northern berries like bilberries and blueberries). The evergreen cranberries flourish throughout cold bogs around the northern hemisphere. Because cranberries grow in such poor acidic soil (which is also low in nitrogen) they are heavily dependent on the mycorrhizal fungi with which they are symbiotic.
The berries become ripe from September through the first part of November. There is a long history of cranberries being hand-harvested by hunter-gatherers as a valuable source of food and dye, however modern methods involve flooding the cranberry bogs and agitating the berries from the vine (at which point they float up and can be corralled en masse). As a food cranberries are extremely tart and contain an imposing mixture of vitamins, dietary minerals, fiber and antioxidants which make them a favorite health food. The cranberry is heavily associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas, when rich cranberry sauses, jellies, and aspics are a big part of end-of-year feasting. They also have an association with the American Navy, which in bygone days used the vitamin C rich fruits to stave off scurvy on long voyages. Just as sailors in the Royal Navy were limeys, American seamen were “cranberries” (there is no word on how offensive this is, so you might not want to run into a bar and start shouting this at drunk sailors).
Every year at the banquet table, I am fascinated by how beautiful the color of cranberries is. The berries themselves—and even more so their sauce–produce a sensuous deep crimson pink. Endless decorators and fashion houses have adopted this color for dresses, lipsticks, walls, and what have you, but they were not the first to appreciate the color. The people of the first nations and later colonial Americans made use of the cranberry directly as a fiber dye. Yarns, threads, and fabrics dyed with cranberries take on a delicate lovely pink color—a direct contradiction to the idea that everything the pilgrims owned was black and white.
Heliciculture is the farming of snails for human consumption (and for snail mucous used in make-up and skin cream in the Latino community). Garbage middens from prehistoric settlements contain large numbers of cooked shells–so snails have been utilized as food for a long time. Sustained snail farming dates back at least to pre-Roman Phoenician colonies, however the ancient Romans took heliciculture and snail cooking to new levels. Romans gastronomes regarded snails as a particular delicacy and they introduced certain Mediterranean species to everywhere they conquered. When the empire fell apart Gaul continued the Roman tradition of enjoying escargot. Today the French alone consume 40,000 tons of snails per year. Serious agricultural effort is required to keep up with that sort of appetite.
Roman heliciculture apparently involved building little islands from which the snails could not escape. Today, however, snails are kept in carefully fenced garden plots. A small gauge metal wall which extends into the earth is necessary to keep snail predators out (particularly mice, shrews, raccoons, skunks, and toads) while a second interior wall made of specially constructed material keeps the snails in. A net can be added so that birds do not eat the tasty gastropods. Since pesticide and herbicide could injure the snails or the people eating them, organic greens are grown for the snails to consume. Apparently snails operate by Tron-style rules and do not like to cross another snail’s slime path—which means that only 20 snails can be kept per square meter. There are two principal species which are consumed as escargot. The smaller and more common Helix aspersa is also known as the “petit gris” or “escargot chagrine” whereas the larger, rarer Helix pomatia is called the “Roman snail,” “apple snail,” or “escargot de Bourgogne”. Both of these Mediterranean species have been widely introduced around the world for agricultural purposes. They are now endemic pests in Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, North America and southern South America (and probably elsewhere). It’s funny to think that the snail eating your cabbages is the descendant of a snail which escaped from some long-dead hungry French chef. I can sort of imagine the scene as a black and white early Disney cartoon with giddy jazz playing in the background.
Everybody and everything seems to enjoy eating snails including…other snails. A particular source of difficulty for snail farmers is cannibalism. Larger snails will eat eggs and hatchlings for the calcium. If not eaten by something, snails can live a long time. They hibernate in winter and Helix pomatia can live up to 35 years.
It might seem hard to believe but before Europeans discovered America, pumpkins were unknown in the old world. The familiar orange gourd-like squashes are native to North America. They belong to the Cucurbitacea family, which includes cucumbers, honeydew melons, cantaloupe, watermelons and zucchini. The oldest pumpkin seeds discovered date back to 5500 BC and were found in Mexico—so the people of the Americas have been planting and harvesting pumpkins for a long time. This makes perfect sense since pumpkins are low in calories but high in fiber, Vitamin A, the B vitamins, potassium, protein, and iron.
Today pumpkins are a huge agribusiness and US farmers alone grow more than 1.5 billion pounds worth (which is about the equivalent mass of eight aircraft carriers—although the pumpkins would be less handy in a naval engagement). Annual contests are held around the country to see who can grow the largest pumpkin—a record currently held by Chris Steven’s 821 kilogram (1,810 pound) monster pumpkin grown in Minnesota in 2010. Ninety five percent of canned pumpkin puree is grown in Illinois, the home of Libby’s (a giant vegetable canning company currently owned by Nestlé, the world’s most profitable company in 2011). Strangely the pumpkins canned by Libby’s are a sort of buff colored variety which look very different than the orange jack-o-lantern pumpkins which are sold at produce-stands.
Speaking of jack-o-lanterns the tradition of carving faces in vegetable to ward off evil spirits goes far back into the depths of medieval Irish history, however since pumpkins were unknown in Ireland until the 16th century such face-lanterns were originally carved out of turnip, mangel-wurzel, or swede. It was not until the nineteenth century that such lanterns acquired their name and came to be associated with Halloween.
Since I like to write about colors as well as farming, there is a handsome medium orange color named pumpkin, which, as you can imagine, is a staple hue for plastics and confections manufacturers as October and November roll around.
It’s time to consider the mighty muskox (Ovibos moschatu) a survivor from the ice age. Possessing powerful curved horns, which hang down like side bangs from a helmet-like skullcap, muskoxen are actually more closely related to sheep and goats than to cattle and oxen (although all of the above are members of the Bovidae family). Adult muskoxen weigh from 180 to 400 kg (400 to 900 pounds) but they look much larger on account of their thick coats and large heads. Once muskoxen proliferated throughout the northern hemisphere alongside wooly mammoths and aurochs, but hunting and habitat loss caused them to retreat further and further into the remotest parts of the north until the end of the nineteenth century when the animals could only be found in the unpopulated wilderness and empty islands of northern Canada and deep in the arctic fastnesses of Greenland.
In these remote locations tiny herds of one to two dozen muskoxen still subsist on grasses, willows, lichens and moss while contending with terrible arctic predators and fearsome cold. Fortunately the muskox is provisioned with fearsome horns and doughty neighbors to fend off polar bears and wolves. The herd is capable of assembling in a ring formation with horns outward to stand off wolves and ice bears (although such a strategy works less well against humans with our projectile weapons). To fight the cold, the muskoxen have fat reserves and one of the most remarkable insulating coats in the animal world.
A muskox’s coat is divided into two layers: a long stringy layer of coarse outer wool and an inner layer of soft warm underwool called qiviut (this Inuit word now primarily denotes muskox wool but it was once also used to refer to similarly soft warm inner down of arctic birds). Qiviut is one of the world’s premier luxury fibers: it is allegedly 8 times more effective at insulation than sheep’s wool and yet is softer than cashmere. Unlike sheep’s wool, it does not shrink in water at any temperature.
Every season a musk ox sheds his or her down coating and qiviut can be obtained in the wild by plucking cast-off tufts from thorns and snares. Unfortunately such qiviut is of lower quality than that obtained by combing/plucking the hides of hunted muskox—so demand for qiviut was driving down musk ox numbers. Fortunately, a gentler solution is becoming more prevalent—muskox farming.
Last month I devoted a week to writing about the domestication of various plants and animals (the gist of those writings can be found here, in a post about a strange feral Renaissance painting). Of course many animals have escaped the yoke of domestication, and the muskox was one such creature—until recently. Ranchers have made use of hard-won knowledge of large animals and the muskoxen’s herd instincts to create muskox farms. A modified bison crush is used to immobilize the live muskoxen while they are combed and plucked (I desperately wanted a photo but there was nothing online—so you’ll have to make do with the baby muskox pictures below).
Thanks to reintroduction programs, there are now muskox herds in Siberia, Sweden, Norway, and Alaska as well as in Canada and Greenland. Farm herds are further swelling the numbers of these magnificent beasties.
I have written about pangassius catfish (tra, basa, shark catfish, and what-have-you) before in an article about the trade war caused by protectionist legislators responding to the quick growth and success of the Vietnamese catfish farming industry. However I am doubling back to address the quickly spreading pangassius catfish itself. The farm-raised fish are currently identical to the fish caught in the wild form, but I wonder if that will continue for much longer. Pangasius farming has spread from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, and, above all, China. I have a feeling that the pangassius catfish will escape in all of these places and establish itself as a successful invader. I also feel like the fish farmers will start pushing the captive fish into new shapes with selective breeding (although the catfish is already a near-perfect farm specimen with its ability to tolerate low Dissolve Oxygen, put on weight quickly, eat anything and survive in fishponds, concrete tanks, fish cages, or fish pens).
The Moche civilization was a culture which flourished between 100 and 800 AD in northern Peru. Although the Moche had sophisticated agricultural know-how and created elaborate irrigation canals to water their crops, their religious iconographs shows that their hearts belonged to the ocean. This seems to be literally true, their greatest god, Ai Apaec (AKA “the decapitator”) was a horrifying aquatic deity with the arms of a crab or an octopus [I desperately wanted to feature this deity in my Gods of the Underworld Category, but there is not much hard information about him. I'm still tagging this post to that category because...well, just look at him]. Ai Apaec thirsted for human blood and Moche religious ceremonies seem to have been based around human sacrifice. There is substantial archaeological evidence available about the Moche people and their civilization. Several large structures remain extant in the dry climate of Northern Peru. From these temples and graves, we can get a sense of Moche society.
One of the most important Moche sites is the Huaca del Sol (Shrine of the Sun) an adobe brick temple pyramid which is believed to have functioned as a royal palace, royal tombs, and as a temple. Although a substantial portion of the complex was destroyed by the Spanish, who mined it for gold, enough remained to provide archaeologists with a picture of Moche life. Additionally an untouched smaller temple the Huaco del Luna was discovered nearby. The conclusions drawn from studying these compounds were dramatic and horrifying. Archaeology magazine describes two excavations and their grisly discoveries:
Bourget and his team uncovered a sacrificial plaza with the remains of at least 70 individuals–representing several sacrifice events–embedded in the mud of the plaza, accompanied by almost as many ceramic statuettes of captives. It is the first archaeological evidence of large-scale sacrifice found at a Moche site and just one of many discoveries made in the last decade at the site.
In 1999, Verano began his own excavations of a plaza near that investigated by Bourget. He found two layers of human remains, one dating to A.D. 150 to 250 and the other to A.D. 500. In both deposits, as with Bourget’s, the individuals were young men at the time of death. They had multiple healed fractures to their ribs, shoulder blades, and arms suggesting regular participation in combat. They also had cut marks on their neck vertebrae indicating their throats had been slit. The remains Verano found differed from those in the sacrificial plaza found by Bourget in one important aspect: they appeared to have been deliberately defleshed, a ritual act possibly conducted so the cleaned bones could be hung from the pyramid as trophies–a familiar theme depicted in Moche art.
In 2006, Archaeologists were fortunate enough to discover an extremely well-preserved Moche mummy. Peru This Week outlined the discovery, writing, “The mummy, herself 1,500 years old, is of a woman in her 20s, believed to be an elite member of the Moche tribe. The skeleton of an adolescent girl offered in sacrifice was found with a rope still around its neck. The archaeologists from Peru and the US found the mummy at a site called El Brujo on the north coast near Trujillo. They have dated the mummy to about 450 AD.”
We know a great deal about Moche culture not merely from such rich archaeological finds but also from the vivid artistic skills of the Moche themselves. Not only were they accomplished painters, the Moche were among the world’s great ceramics makers. They crafted vessels which beautifully portrayed deer, birds, mollusks (like the spiny oyster), and other sea creatures. They also made many ceramic art objects portraying war, agriculture, economic activities, and copulation. Many of these Moche ceramics grace the world’s great museums: the expressive grace of the crafting speaks to a society which understood and revered beauty.
The decline and failure of Moche civilization is something of a mystery. The civilization reached an apogee early in the 6th century. Then the great communities of that era appear to have been wiped out by the climate change which affected civilizations worldwide. It seems like the horrible weather events of 535–536 played particular havoc with Moche society. However the Moche survived these upheavels and settlements have been discovered from the middle of the seventh century onward to 800 AD. The character of these latter communities is different from that of the golden age Moche civilizations. Fortifications were much in evidence and the trade and agricultural underpinnings of civilization seem to have been much reduced. Perhaps the Moche were involved in a series of internal battles among varying factions and elites.
The stories of the Crommyonian sow and the Caledonian Boar have made me reflect on what intense life-forms pigs are. I admire pigs–and not just because I love to eat them. Uncooked and on the hoof, the pig is amazing…and also alarming. The familiar Eurasian swine has two manifestations: domesticated (Sus scrofa domestica) and wild (Sus scrofa). The former is big and pink and tailor crafted by human to be easily controlled and scrumptious on the table. However, domestic pigs keep the smarts of their wild kin. They are the cleverest creature in the barnyard except for the farmer (usually) and that’s saying something considering how cunning goats are. Thanks to their intelligence and their strength, farm pigs sometimes get away from us. Within only a few generations, domestic pigs return to their wild type—bristly, furtive, and angry. There are feral pigs just about everywhere humankind has been except for the frigid polar regions. The creatures spread across the entire Pacific Ocean on the canoes of intrepid sea-farers and on isolated islands they have sometimes outlasted their hearty tenders: even in the modern world there are islands with pigs but no humans.
As invaders, feral pigs are immensely successful. They flourish in Australia, North and South America, Asia, Africa, and on innumerable islands. Swine are omnivorous grazers. Their tremendous sense of smell, along with their strength, smarts, and speed, allows them to run roughshod over unprepared ecosystems.
Pigs are fecund, breeding quickly and having large litters. As social animals, pigs communicate via grunts, squeals, and snuffles. A “sounder” of wild pigs is therefore quite adept at avoiding predators and capitalizing food resources. Such groups of wild pigs are controlled by one or two big dominant sows (males are either solitary or form small bachelor groups). Woe upon anyone who backs a wild or feral pig into a corner. The animals have substantial mass, a low center of gravity, powerful tusks, and a bellicose desire not to be eaten. Even domestic pigs can be dangerous. To quote Wikipedia, “pigs can be aggressive and pig-induced injuries are relatively common in areas where pigs are reared or where they form part of the wild or feral fauna.”
There are well-known taboos against eating pigs in many cultures and religions. Some groups feel they are dirty–and indeed swine are strangely similar to people and can bring a host of pathogens and parasites to someone who handles pork carelessly or lives to close to a pigsty. These similarities have also given pigs a large role as laboratory animals, and when we get easily replaceable artificial organs they may come from transgenic pigs (the super intelligent “pigoons” from Atwood’s Oryx & Crake were among the scarier creatures of contemporary science fiction). Brushing those ideas aside, modern agriculture has excelled at producing safe pork. Nearly 100 million tons of pork was consumed worldwide in 2009 (over half of this by people in China).
That’s a lot of pig butchering! But to reiterate the point of this post, being delicious has brought success to the pig. There are over 2 billion pigs worldwide, making the animal one of the most successful large mammals on the planet. Pigs can get away from our farms and go feral. It’s a rare occurrence, but it happens often enough that there will always be wild pigs as long as there are people. No matter how many pigs we eat, they will always be successful organisms maintaining a massive cloven footprint on the earth.
Everyone is familiar with the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, and its domestic descendants. The wild turkey is a highly successful species which ranges across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. There is however another turkey species, the ocellated turkey, Meleagris ocellata, which is native to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico–where it lives in the dense tropical forests. The bird looks similar to the familiar wild turkey, but it is half the size or smaller (females range up to 6 pounds, while males weight up to 11 pounds). The ocellated turkey has brilliant plumage and skin. Its feathers are iridescent green, shining copper, and grey-blue. The male turkey sports a pattern of peacock-like eyes on his tail. Neither gender have “beards” protruding through their breast feathers (a familiar feature in their northern relatives). Ocellated turkeys also have brilliant yellow, orange, and red nodules on their bright blue heads (!). Males have a crown of brilliant nodules behind their snood. They have long red legs to run through the jungle. Like their northern counterparts they have a variety of magnificent vocalizations.
The turkeys are secretive in their tropical jungles and their ecology is not fully understood. Once upon a time, the ocellated turkey existed in both domesticated and wild forms (just like familiar Meleagris gallopavo exists for us today). They were farmed by the Maya people of the Yucatan who used them as table fowl and as sacrifices. Their name in the Maya tongue is “ucutz il chican” which means, um, “ocellated turkey” (maybe my Mayan readers can help me produce a finer translation). Ancient paintings show that the splendid feathers of the ocellated turkey were a major component of headdresses and high fashion for nobles. Yet as the Maya empire declined and jungles stole over the great temples, the farmbirds slipped from human control back into the wild.