Today, farming changes native life in North
America. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Did any invention do more to
change life than the invention of agriculture? We
first farmed around 8000
to 6000 BC, in the Middle East. After that,
civilization changed utterly. We created cities. We
capitalized goods. We generated the first social
So what about Native American agriculture?
Archaeologists have been sifting the remains of
seeds from Indian caves and rock shelters along the
Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. They've learned to
date them accurately. Those old seeds tell a
When we began harvesting and replanting wheat in
Jericho and Mesopotamia, Indians were gathering
food from the lush greenery. They ate marsh elder,
sunflower seeds, and goosefoot squash.
But in Kentucky we find gourd seeds that were
native to Mexico. Someone carried them north and
replanted them. That means some idea of farming was
as old here as it was in the Middle East.
By 2000 BC the same seeds are larger, with thinner
protective coats. What's happened? Well, the seeds
are larger because human hands have selected them.
The coats are thinner, because when humans take
care of them, seeds need less protection.
By the Golden Age of Athens, harvesting and
replanting was common in America. Farming was a
regular part of North American life before the
birth of Christ.
Yet those crops didn't include grain. So what about
the Indian grain -- corn, or maize? Maize turned up
about AD 200 -- during the late days of the Roman
Empire. Like wheat in the Middle East, maize was
probably the result of a genetic mutation.
Maize didn't become a regular part of American
farming for another 600 years. That was after AD
800 -- in the time of Charlemagne. Grain farming
isn't simple. It took six centuries to invent the
technology of farming corn.
Now everything changed. Fortified settlements
sprang up along our rivers. Native American life
became more complex and uneven. For the first time,
we find wealth and poverty among Indians.
When Indians started growing grain, they triggered
the same social changes that'd followed farming in
the Middle East, thousands of years before.
Agriculture may have been the greatest invention.
But it also did most to shape our social order with
all that's both good and terrible about it. And
grain farming brought those same changes when it
came to the Mississippi-Ohio River Basin -- 1200
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds