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In the setting I'm building now, then there's supposed to be a location where the natives had found three food staple crops within close proximity with one another, near a handful of rivers. Naturally, these natives would found one of the biggest economies in the world, and their lands would be very tactically advantageous to have, but I'm wondering how they could find so many crop species in such a small area.

I'm wanting them to be in one of the temperate bands of their planet, and in a location whererivers and the sea are readily accessible, and that there would be some nearby mountains, so it's possible one of those mountains is a volcano that produces lots of ashes?

To summarize, with these conditions, how would there be three different species of food staple crops?

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  • $\begingroup$ Do you mean you want 3 species that evolved in close proximity geographically or that you want 3 plants you can plant in close proximity on a plot of land. In the former case the fertile crescent had * crops that evolved in the latter case consider companion planting. $\endgroup$ – John Oct 16 '18 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ The former, sir. $\endgroup$ – Dead Knight Oct 16 '18 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ Does this have to be an unusual condition? The types of wild grasses that turned into the first grain crops in the fertile crescent (emmer, eikhorn, barley) tended to grow in reasonable proximity to one another. Or do you want food crops from different families? $\endgroup$ – tbrookside Oct 16 '18 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ You mean something like how wheat, lentils, broad beans and peas have been grown in the Fertile Crescent since the 7th millennium BCE? I've never heard of an agricultural civilization growing only one or two or three types of crops. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Oct 16 '18 at 23:09
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    $\begingroup$ Biodiversity is the hallmark of natural environments. It is only in artificial environments (farming) that we see species isolated. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Oct 17 '18 at 2:44
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Forest Gardening

Robert Hart wanted to use the least amount of land to produce the largest amount of food possible. He pioneered a system where you can inter-crop fruit and vegetables into vertical layers which then grow together almost on top of one another. This is not used on an industrial level as it is people intensive to harvest.

However, it is assumed this method of farming was a core practice in jungles and monsoon prone regions. It will require a good amount of human intervention to fill all 7 layers but it is possible and was used in our own history.

As far as how this would happen, it is possible that these plants are slowly transplanted by roaming animals between their own food staples and leave droppings with seeds as they pass by.

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I'd like to address "Naturally, these natives would found one of the biggest economies in the world...". There's a theory presented by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel which explains why the biggest economy in the world developed in Eurasia as opposed to the Americas. Agriculture originated in both hemispheres, but it happens to be the case that Eurasia is the best land mass for your native cultures to grow and expand east-to-west. Not only is the landmass larger, its mountain ranges tend to run east-west and therefore don't block people (or climates!) from extending along a line of latitude. And with early agriculture, it's a lot easier to take a few domesticated plants from one place and spread them to similar climates and latitudes east and west.

The theory is that, even though the native Americans developed what many experts consider the most important crop in the world (corn maize), it would have been very hard for them to spread very far with it. It took a long time to develop new varieties that could survive at different latitudes with different growing seasons, and the American mountain ranges all being oriented north-south would have blocked migration and trade to the east and west.

Now it's obviously a just-so story, an unverifiable hypothesis that can never be proven, but it does make a lot of sense to me. If you want your natives to found the greatest agricultural economy in the world, you need to consider not only where they find the crop species, but how they can spread them. If they're hemmed in by mountains or deserts, they're going to be limited.

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  • $\begingroup$ More of a "just ain't so" story WRT corn/maize, as the peoples of the American Northeast and the intermountain West - each a long way from Central America, and in different climates - both grew it. (I suspect other agricultural tribes did so as well, though I don't know for sure.) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Oct 17 '18 at 3:00
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    $\begingroup$ His theory is that it took many centuries for it to spread, though. Also, there was no American "silk road" to spread technologies like this very quickly. $\endgroup$ – workerjoe Oct 17 '18 at 3:15
  • $\begingroup$ Did food crops spread "very quickly" along the East-West axis of Eurasia? And how quickly is "very"? Certainly there seem to be a number of non-staple edibles that were traditionally grown in the east, but only reached the west in relatively modern times. Goji berries are a recent example. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Oct 19 '18 at 4:00
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For another example, there's the "Three Sisters" - corn (maize), beans, and squash - of the Iroquois and other Indian tribes of northeastern North America: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Sisters_(agriculture) Of course those plants did not originate there, but were imported from elsewhere. But that's really the norm: a useful food species will be rapidly exported to any suitable climate, once there is contact between them. Consider how quickly New World food crops like corn, potatos, and peppers (to name just three) were introduced into Europe.

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This is actually far easier than it seems. The fertile crescent (a rather small patch of land centered around two close rivers) is the origin of 8 major crops, Emmer and einkorn wheat, barley, peas, chickpeas, lentils, vetch, and flax (which is fiber and food) and at least 4 major forms of livestock, goats, sheep, cattle and pigs, as well figs and several other possibles.

This is not unique, it appears many places where agriculture originated (such as southern asia and central china) involved many local species being domesticated as time progresses.

What all these places appear to share in common is many different climates/environments (mountains, valleys, forest, grassland) packed together adjacent to large rivers surrounded by large flood plains. This combined with great access to larger land masses seems to encourage both self-pollinating R strategist plants (which most of our crops are), and flexibility in diet, habitat, and mating for animals (which again is common to all domesticated livestock). this is not to say this is the only place they can evolve but these conditions encourage many species to have these adaptations.

The current hypothesis/understanding is these conditions produce lots of local variation and a climate that shifts around easily yet still has high fertility, this discourages specialization and encouraging more flexibility and R strategy. They are also the sources of high yield grains which most major forms of agriculture are based on.

so basically you need a large temperate floodplain bordered by mountains and desert, ideally attached to large continents for biodiversity.

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You can have different environments in close proximity. Flood plains for rice, dry sandy soils for corn, clay-rich soils for beans, roots or cabbage.

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If the problem is the lack of space, there is no real problem. Beside the idea of frost gardens there are othere possibilities.

One way ist a crater bed. In German it is "Kraterbeet", but I could not find the right translation. Basicly you dig a large hole with a diametere of 3-5 meters. On the bottom is a dry zone, where you can plant crops that need much heat and less water. Then you plant on the walls the crops like beans, peas and so on. If raise the borders a little, all the corps are perfectly protected against the wind and storm.

We tried this version and version where plant the crops on an artificial hill. Both works great with right crops.

Farming in layers safes a lot of space, if you do not have to harvest with machines.

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Plant crops that benefit from each other.

E.g. beans using the stalks of maize as an aid to grow, while the beans provide the maize plant with nitrogen.

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