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 similar story.
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
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
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 years ago.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're
interested in the way inventive minds work.