Re-establishing Ancient Agricultural Practices: Lessons from the Recent Past (Part One)

By Jennifer Huebert Editor’s Note: This article is the first of three case studies investigating ancient agricultural practices. Look for the next installment in the Winter 2012 issue.

One of today’s most pressing global issues is the need to produce food more efficiently in order to feed the growing world population (1). This issue has been addressed with solutions ranging from genetically modified food plants to mechanized large-scale monoculture cropping practices. However, modifications people make to the landscape to cultivate food create significant and often destructive changes in the environment (2). Conscious efforts must be made to sustain agroecosystems and conserve natural resources so they can function in perpetuity.

There are important reasons to look to the ancient past for possible solutions to today’s agricultural problems. The environmental and social problems humans face today are not new. In fact, humanity may have faced the very same challenges millennia ago; people developed strategies to survive, and, at other times, the choices they made led to their ultimate demise. By looking at the past, we can see that cultures that modified ecosystems in environmentally unsustainable ways did not endure (e.g. 3, 4). We must study challenges faced in the past and attempt to learn from mistakes. In doing so, we can learn how to deal effectively with today’s problems.

Forces both cultural and natural—climate fluctuations, shifting dunes, geographic exploration, wars—acting over widely varying spans of time combine to make the world an unpredictable and constantly changing place (5). Cultures must be able to adapt because the environment and the world around us are continually changing; I argue that cultures must also adopt environmentally sustainable subsistence practices to ensure their long-term survival. In order to effectively implement change, these practices must fit within the social and economic systems of the cultures that use them (6).

In the distant past, when civilizations survived hard times there was often no record of their successes. Strategies once used to survive in difficult environments may be long forgotten; adaptive strategies may have occurred as an accumulation of subtle changes over long spans of time. When faced with looking at cultural and environmental changes over the long durée, archaeology can provide a unique perspective (7). As an interdisciplinary field, it also has the ability to bring together humanist and scientific disciplines in its pursuit. All of these attributes make archaeology especially suited to help people understand the consequences of the changes they consider effecting in the modern world (2, 4).

The study of ancient agricultural practices can thus provide valuable data to modern-day farmers, crop scientists and policy makers. Some agronomists have advocated that participatory development that uses sustainable practices is the answer. These practices encourage people to be self-sufficient in their means of food production, and ensure local control over resources and techniques used to raise crops (8, 9). An added benefit is the ability to apply a uniquely local perspective to management strategies that mitigate risks (10). This review, presented in three installments, explores case studies where forgotten or fading traditional agricultural practices were revived to address modern-day agricultural challenges. Examples were chosen to compare and contrast these initiatives in different cultures and geographic regions of the world. Each example illustrates a distinct problem to solve, and has a unique history to consider. Additionally, the teams all take different approaches to planning and implementing their projects. All face significant challenges and meet with varying degrees of success.

There are several key questions that should be addressed when considering the successful revival of forgotten agricultural technologies (4, 8-10).

•          First, is the practice appropriate for current environmental conditions? A landscape that once may have been a green pasture may now be a barren desert.

•          Second, is the practice sustainable? This answer may not be easy to discern without extensive study and experimentation.

•          Third, is there a clear benefit for the cost of implementing the practice? The practice may be very labour intensive to initiate, but if the returns are significant perhaps the investment is justified.

•          Fourth, is the technology accessible and are methods to implement it appropriate for this culture? Methods that require exotic tools and equipment may not be sustainable, and techniques that are unknown may be deemed risky or met with cultural resistance.

•          Finally, the ideology of the present society must be taken into account. The social networks that structure society and the motivations and needs of groups within must be understood, both for effective learning and to continue teaching these practices to the next generation (6).

Three case studies will ultimately be presented, along with a review of how effectively each initiative addressed the foregoing concerns. The projects will also be revisited to establish where they are today, and to assess whether these resurrected agricultural practices have benefitted modern-day societies.

Case Study #1: Runoff agriculture in the Negev Desert, Israel

Despite perceptions that the desert is a barren landscape, various forms of agriculture have been utilized to make desert areas productive. Modern irrigation systems have often been seen as the only solution to solving water problems in these areas, however these systems can be economically and technologically unattainable for many people (11). The techniques of runoff agriculture can provide an alternative. These techniques involve either channeling and storing seasonal desert floodwaters, or pumping the water through a system of chained wells to irrigate fields (12).

The remains of large-scale agriculture are seen throughout the Negev Desert of southern Israel, including thousands of hectares of stone walls and farmsteads, although the tradition and techniques have largely passed from memory. These remains were the source of scholarly speculation about the effects of severe erosion and climate change for more than a century before attracting the attention of a young Israeli botanist, Michael Evenari. Evenari considered that if the desert had once been farmed, it had the potential to be productive again (12). Evenari and an interdisciplinary team of scientists including archaeologists, agronomists, geologists and hydrologists, set out to study the remains of these ancient farms in the mid-20th century. Initially, the team’s goal was to prove theories about the effectiveness of runoff agriculture, rather than to revive ancient farming practices in this region. However, the project was later expanded to include extensive study of the desert climate, rainfall patterns and plants that could thrive under arid conditions.

After defining their project, the team set up a base at one of the ancient farmsteads and began to study the desert environment (see image 2). They first had to establish that the Negev had actually been a desert in ancient times, putting to rest speculations regarding a collapsed environment caused by erosion or climate change. Using archaeological excavation and aerial reconnaissance techniques, the team mapped stone walls, mounds, channels and dams that had been used to control seasonal flood waters in the desert (12). They discovered that water was channeled to the farms and, through varying arrangements, conveyed directly onto the fields or into cisterns where it was later distributed during the growing season. Three basic types of farms were identified. One involved simple terraces of low stone walls called wadis, which resemble a series of steps (see image 1). Wadis channeled floodwaters and prevented erosion. Another type of farm consisted of terraced fields and a farmhouse or watchtower, all surrounded by a stone fence. Hillside channels directed water to the terraces, and a series of stepped channels intricately directed the flow of floodwaters and pooled it for later use. The third type of farm was larger and far more elaborate, designed to catch runoff from very large wadis and direct it through a series of canals.

What were at first thought to be simple remains of single-occupation farm settlements were actually the layered remains of numerous, subsequent occupations. Archaeological excavations assisted the team in understanding the patterning and duration of human occupation dating back more than 10,000 years. While early residents settled near water sources, later residents settled along desert trade routes. Historical records, including ancient papyri discovered during archaeological excavations (12) indicated that this area was extensively settled to protect Nabataen trade routes across the desert, and later to support Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Desert farming was intensely practiced over these time periods. Historical documents indicate that the Negev desert was intricately divided up based on water rights enforced by law. After about AD 700, the desert region was taken over by people who did not need to protect these routes. Traffic decreased, and the farms were abandoned. The area has since been home to Bedouin, a traditionally nomadic peoples who occasionally farm small plots of land.

Two ancient farms were reconstructed in the team’s initial field season. These were highly experimental projects intended to collect data about rainfall volume and to observe water runoff patterns. Water was collected from the first seasonal flood and a test planting of trees and crops took place. Crops planted included grapes, almonds, olives, fruit trees and barley. Fodder crops, legumes, fibre plants and vegetables were added in subsequent seasons. Fields were fertilized with animal dung left in the area by Bedouin animal herds, with the addition of some modern fertilizers. Bedouin residing in the area assisted with the first planting (12).

The team’s first experimental season did well despite a severe drought that followed. Evenari and his team took on a larger-scale project of 80 plots of land, planted extensive fruit tree groves the following season, and reported successful harvests. Systematic evaluation of these desert runoff collection systems indicated that over 50 percent of rainwater could be collected with these methods (13). Over the next 15 years, the team continued to cultivate, observe rainfall patterns and study desert crop plants on the reconstructed farms. In 1970, one farm became a training centre to teach others how to use these methods to cultivate crops in arid areas (12).


Did this case study satisfy the criteria outlined for a successful revival of forgotten agricultural technologies? After much research, Evenari’s project team concluded that these practices were sustainable in a desert environment. It was remarkable that even unattended for many hundreds of years, water was still being channeled to the ancient cisterns during heavy rainfall. The team concluded, after examining historical documents and archaeological investigations, that desert farming had actually been practiced extensively here for a very long time. It only became a forgotten technology when trade routes through the desert were abandoned and / or remote borders were no longer maintained.

The team performed background research and experimented for several seasons to establish that these practices were appropriate for the current environmental conditions. They concluded that these cultivation techniques were still viable and productive in the Negev.

The immense effort and skill required to initially build walls and terraces throughout the desert in ancient times is thought to have involved labour coordinated from a state centre (14). Once these cultivation structures were in place, however, no extraordinary amount of labour was needed to farm the desert. Additionally, the cultivation techniques used in these systems did not require tools or technology that was out of reach for the Israeli food producers of the region.

Evenari’s project was conducted in large part to benefit the then newly formed state of Israel, and because of this, the initiative was well-supported on many levels. It should be noted, however, that the desert is also home to Bedouin. In his concluding remarks on the Negev project, Evenari mused that it would have been ideal to turn the desert into a productive environment for the Bedouins while preserving their cultural heritage (15). While it is not clear whether this aim was achieved, the model farm is now a worldwide teaching and research centre for the study of agronomy, plant and soil sciences in arid environments. It has affected change in arid farming practices in ten different countries (16), making it by all measures a successful re-establishment.

Part Two in this series will present a case study focusing on the revival of raised-bed agriculture in the Lake Titicaca basin of Peru.


1.         Uphoff NT (2002) Introduction. Agroecological Innovations: Increasing Food Production With Participatory Development, ed Uphoff NT (Earthscan, London), pp xv-xviii.

2.         Rogers JD (2004) The global environmental crisis: an archaeological agenda for the 21st century. The Archaeology of Global Change: The Impact of Humans on Their Environment, ed C. Redman SRJ, P.R. Fish, and J. D. Rogers (Smithsonian Books, Washington), pp 271-277.

3.         Diamond JM (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, New York).

4.         Redman CL, S.R. James, P.R. Fish, and J.D. Rogers (2004) Introduction. The Archaeology of Global Change: The Impact of Humans on Their Environment, ed C. Redman SRJ, P.R. Fish, and J. D. Rogers (Smithsonian Books, Washington), pp 1-8.

5.         Barton CM, et al. (2004) Long-term socioecology and contingent landscapes. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 11(3):253-295.

6.         Kolata AL, Rivera O, Ramirez JC, & Gemio E (1996) Rehabilitating Raised-Field Agriculture in the Southern Lake Titicaca Basin of Bolivia. Tiwanaku and its Hinterland : Archaeology and Paleoecology of an Andean Civilization, ed Kolata AL (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington), Vol 1: Agroecology, pp 203-230.

7.         Kirch PV & Sahlins MD (1992) Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii (University of Chicago Press, Chicago).

8.         Browder JO (1989) Introduction. Fragile Lands of Latin America: Strategies for Sustainable Development, ed Browder JO (Westview Press, Boulder), pp 1-10.

9.         Uphoff NT (2002) The Agricultural Development Challenges We Face. Agroecological Innovations: Increasing Food Production With Participatory Development, ed Uphoff NT (Earthscan, London), pp 3-20.

10.       Wilken GC (1989) Transferring Traditional Technology: A Bottom-Up Approach for Fragile Lands. Fragile lands of Latin America: Strategies for Sustainable Development, ed Browder JO (Westview Press, Boulder), pp 44-60.

11.       Fernandes E, Pell A, & Uphoff N (2002) Rethinking Agriculture for New Opportunities. Agroecological Innovations: Increasing Food Production With Participatory Development, ed Uphoff NT (Earthscan, London), pp 21-30.

12.       Evenari M, Shanan L, & Tadmor N (1982) The Negev: The Challenge of a Desert (Harvard University Press, Cambridge).

13.       Evenari M (1974) Desert Farmers: Ancient and Modern. Natural History 83(7):42-49.

14.       Haiman M (2006) ADASR - Ancient Desert Agriculture Systems Revived.

15.       Evenari M, Shanan L, Tadmor N, & Aharoni Y (1961) Ancient Agriculture in the Negev. Science 133(3457):979-996.

16.       Lange OL & Schulze E-D (1989) In memoriam Michael Evenari (formerly Walter Schwarz) 1904–1989. Oecologia 81(4):433-436.

Contributor’s Biography

Jennifer Huebert is a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland, New Zealand. She is an archaeobotanist with a particular interest in the identification and analysis of archaeological wood charcoal. Her primary research topics include the study of human palaeoecology and the development of arboriculture in the archipelagos of East Polynesia.

Georg Gerster (Image 1)

Occupy Creation!: The Role of Religion and Ethics in Addressing Climate Change

Human Chains