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History's Most Sustainable Communities

Updated on May 13, 2012

Sustainability of the earliest cultures in history differs slightly from modern essentials. Conservation practices today are largely a consequence of the Industrial Revolution and the explosive growth of fossil-fuel consumerism. New forms of energy in abundant supply allowed humans to live more prosperous than ever before.

Yet the resources and technology that had taken thousands of years to discover began proving detrimental to the earth and society only 100 years later. It has left us fighting to correct poor and irresponsible decisions.

In the earliest cultures, however, sustainability figured in one notably different way. Sustainability of every type is basically one goal: not to waste. And of our earliest human ancestors this goal required no focus on supply, for the sun, wind, and water were infinite. Instead, sustainability was the efficient use of the land, and in this discovery human life would be changed forever.

Agriculture: The Greatest Invention

The first humans were hunters and gatherers subsisting on wild plants and animals. They tended to be nomadic, following the food trail. But agriculture was discovered and brought revolution to the way humans lived.

Agriculture may very well be the greatest invention ever. The hunter-gatherer way of life decreased as the domestication of plants and animals increased. Plant domestication extends more than 10,000 years in history. Its advent enabled humans to boost their food intake from a small selection of plants to a specialized entre of crops, including the ability now to store large reserves.

The domestication of animals had several additional benefits. Animals provided meat, milk, and fertilizer. Most importantly, however, they could be used to work. Humans were now able to till land faster and more efficiently with animals pulling plows and towing; and this increased farming.

Neolithic Revolution

The beginning of agriculture in world history marking the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to permanent settlements. This period occurred between 8000 and 5000 B.C.

The Rise of Populations

Where there is more food, there will be more people. No longer did men and women have to sojourn to forage and hunt: they could remain closer to home. Thus, dense, permanent settlements arose, conserving land resources. This set the stage for specialized and diverse labor, trade, centralized government, and the proliferation of many sorts of culture—and so civilization arose.


The Major Five Ancient Domestic Animals

  1. Sheep
  2. Goat
  3. Cow (ox or cattle)
  4. Pig
  5. Horse

Ancient Agricultural Sustainability

So you would be correct to say that human civilization owes to agriculture. Now in what ways was early human use of land sustainable? Besides agriculture bringing people into closer groups (bands, tribes, chiefdoms) that put fewer burdens on the land, there are other ways farming practices themselves avoided wastage.

First, farms depended on the rain. Irrigation was learned with time, but irrigation requires the creation of technology and other methods to move and preserve water, naturally less sustainable than rain simply falling on the ground.

Second, terracing helped to reduce erosion and increase soil depth, thereby supporting more farming. Third, field drainage and the rich organic material often transferred to fields increased the fertility of the land, plus protected from frost, improved aeration, and reduced pests and disease in the soil. Finally, fertilizer improved crop yield.

These methods are so sustainable that they continue to be practiced today.

Indigenous Mexican adobe home
Indigenous Mexican adobe home | Source

The Five Great Ancient Food Centers

You may be interested to know where the most important areas were that transitioned from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture. A number of regions were significant but archeologists agree that five were truly great.

  • The Fertile Crescent. This region was a crescent-shaped arc spanning from modern-day Israel, through Syria and Turkey, into Iraq along the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley. The Fertile Crescent was the earliest and most abundant region in the rise of agriculture. From topography to weather to plant types, this region surpassed the other chief food centers, eventually supporting several early empires. It was the original site of many of the world’s main crops and nearly all of its major domesticated animals (exception: the horse).
  • Eastern China. Food production began in China about 1,000 years after its start in the Fertile Crescent. It is likely that China had two or more centers of food production. Several domesticates were important to this time, including chickens, ducks, and water buffalo. China’s food-base would support ensuing dynasties with large labor forces. The world still uses invention from this time, like paper, (bronze) metallurgy, gunpowder, the compass, and the wheelbarrow.
  • Mesoamerica. This area extended from central and southern Mexico into adjacent parts of Central America. Food production here greatly contrasted what occurred in the Fertile Crescent. Mesoamerica had a much slower food production and thus a slower transition from the hunter-gatherer way of life. Corn was its staple grain. Villages didn't appear until around 1500 B.C.
  • The Andes of South America. Domestication here started about the same time as in Mesoamerica. Food production most likely extended to the Amazonian basin as well. These cultures produced the first potatoes and domesticated the turkey. The great Inca Empire was but the last of a millennium of indigenous societies.
  • Eastern United States. Native Americans didn’t learn farming until sometime between 500 and 200 B.C. Their native crops lacked the usefulness of major crops found elsewhere. Instead, they continued to depend on wild foods, fish types, and nuts. Mexican crops arrived after 1 A.D. and corn around 200 A.D. still not impacting the Native American diet. Farming intensified after the arrival of a new variety of corn around 1100 A.D., adding to the beans and squash already arrived from Mexico. Only then did farming truly become successful, and it gave rise to dense populations along the Mississippi River.

Domestication Table

Of Plants
Of Animals
Villages Appear
Some Plants Produced
Animals Raised
Fertile Crescent
8500 BC
8000 BC
9000 BC
wheat, olive
sheep, goat
Eastern China
7500 BC
7500 BC
7500 BC
3000 BC
500 BC
1500 BC
corn, beans squash
The Andes
3000 BC
3500 BC
llama, guinea pig
Eastern United States
2500 BC
500 BC


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