I'm trying to work on a chapter in my lore but I'm stumped on how agricultural developments could work in tropical settings, and real world examples so far mostly include temperate places, I.e. Britain (agricultural revolution of 16th to 19th century for example).

  • Hey there and welcome! what exactly do you have in mind by agricultural revolution? the first thing I thought of was the invention of agriculture but you then go ahead and cite 17th-century Britain. – Miguel Bartelsman Nov 23 at 7:40
  • Welcome, what level agricultural developments are you referring to? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Agricultural_Revolution this points to a medieval time period event in a much hotter environment that Britain. but several of the improvements that caused the British revolution happened due to scientific understanding and technological improvements that by definition couldn't have happened in the medieval period, other however are possible – Blade Wraith Nov 23 at 7:41
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    Tropical environments tend not to have agricultural revolutions. It's too hot, humid and there's too much food in the forests. – RonJohn Nov 23 at 7:45
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    As RonJohn pointed out. Revolution is needed when you need to increase production from the same plot of land. In tropical environment you tend to have a lot of very fecund soil. Even right now we haven't yet run out of land we could turn into crops. – SZCZERZO KŁY Nov 23 at 9:24
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    India is in the tropics, use them as an example. – John Nov 23 at 15:22
up vote 10 down vote accepted

Introduction of foreign crops

Lets look at the leading agricultural produce from Nigeria, ranked by mass of production in 2016:

  • Cassava: From South America
  • Yams: Native
  • Sorghum: Native
  • Paddy Rice: From India and China
  • Taro: From SE Asia
  • Pearl Millet: Native
  • Maize: From Mesoamerica
  • Melon seed: Various, native and imported
  • Sesame: From India

Here is Tanzania's list of food crops:

  • Maize: From Mesoamerica
  • Sorghum: Native
  • Pearl Millet: Native
  • Paddy Rice: From India and China
  • Wheat: From Middle east
  • Common Beans: From the Americas
  • Cassava: From South America
  • Potatoes: From South America

So, you see that, in tropical regions in particular, The best productivity is achieved by mixing crops form all over the world. Therefore, globalization, the first voyages of exploration could drive an agricultural revolution.

How the revolution happens

Let us assume that we start with a region of intense, high productivity farming, but low crop variety. There exist tropical river valleys with periodic flooding and intense cultivation with animal traction power (something that was missing in Nigeria or Tanzania, historically).

What makes the difference is the introduction of new crops. By planting imported paddy rice and taro in the low-lying areas, you don't have to worry about flooding killing your crops. By planting imported cassava in the drier areas, you don't have to worry about drought causing starvation; there is always a backup crop of cassava that can make it through all but the worst droughts.

If the region has hills or mountains, potatoes expand the scope of agriculture to the cooler mountain regions, while maize is particularly good for feeding livestock. More maize means better fed livestock, which means more productivity.

Take an already productive agricultural environment, add foreign crops, and you will get an agricultural revolution.

  • To the advantage of your suggestions of globalisation introducing mixed crops, I can have this occur earlier in my world as it's Bronze Age equivalent was marked by heavy portal usage (not so later on), as such early agricultural civilisations from around could access varying parts of the world. This could spur the spread of crops and the concept of agriculture perhaps? – Spiro Nov 24 at 0:49

There are some problems with agriculture as we know it from Central Europe in the tropics.

First of all, unlike in Europe, tropic soils are rather thin. Most of the biomass is alive and thriving instead of lying around waiting to decay (aka humus). Thus, you can't expect european forms of agriculture to work, not for a long time at least. You might get 4 to 5 harvests, then the soil is depleted and you have to log new fields and let the forest reclaim the old ones. This cycle can be lengthened by mixed crops, especially of different heights (e.g. yam below coffee bushes below banana trees) - but still, neat, orderly fields plowed by horses and seeded once per year are rather out of the question. Go for forest plantations and small patches of bare earth distributed evenly across the forest floor instead.

Furthermore, the climate can be rather problematic. You might have rainy seasons and dry seasons, you can expect heavy downpours washing away your bare soil, etc. At the same time the temperatures are high, so some plants don't grow there, etc.

Last but not least there's the concept of "geomedicinical drawback". This means that under tropical conditions with all the ensuing diseases (malaria, ebola, etc) it is more difficult to support larger populations and ensure technological advances.

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    Interesting point on disease. My worldbuilding can address that as there are gifted folk with relatively supernatural means of curing disease (among othe abilities) but they are rare to come by, and not trusted by many cultures. Perhaps tropical cultures see them in a far better light due to their importance in maintaining the health of farmers? Something I'll have to think about further. – Spiro Nov 24 at 0:53

Two obvious aspects of Tropical life oppose the development of agriculture, the abundance of uncultivated food and the ease of mobility. These two factors support the continuation of a hunter-gather approach to food acquisition.

To motivate such tropical nomads to start planting crops, all you need to do is eliminate both of these factors. If you eliminate only the abundance of food in an area, the tribe will simply move elsewhere, but if you simultaneously eliminate the food which they have access to and eliminate their ability to move to where food is more available, that will either get them planting or kill them off.

A stronger, larger tribe might move into your tribe's territory and push them out of their food-rich region. Simultaneously, that same tribe or other large tribes might already occupy all the other food-rich regions in the area. Or that larger foraging tribe might have already stripped all surrounding regions clean of food before attacking your tribe.

Facing starvation, your people would be motivated to find another solution such as agriculture. Many would starve during those first experimental seasons, but the few who survived would create hope from a hopeless situation. Finding a secluded barren valley in the jungle and bringing it back into active food production, they could remain hidden from the larger tribes while still remaining well fed.

In the long run, with stability from their dependable hidden food supply, the tribe might even grow larger than their previous oppressors, at which point the knowledge of agriculture would spread (by force) throughout the land.

  • Ease of mobility in a jungle? – Joe Bloggs Nov 23 at 16:11
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    Relative ease of mobility. They have medieval tech so machetes shouldn't be to hard to come by. – Henry Taylor Nov 23 at 19:21

Erik is right about soil degradation resulting from importing western agricultural techniques. However, some initiative may change the course of events:

1) a society may develop techniques to restore degraded soils and re-forest them with fruit trees. This is especially applicable to societies which lost the battle and their land to a stronger adversary.

2) tropical climate is wet, and aquatic or pond plants are a significant part of agriculture. The most common plant is rice, but there is more, like water chestnut and these ones: https://www.fishandlily.com.au/water_plants/edible_water_plants/

3) develop hydroponics for other vegetables. The earliest known work on hydroponics was published in 1627, so it may have been invented in your timeline. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydroponics Plus, it avoids the issue of soil degradation.

Interestingly, there was already a bit of an agricultural revolution that took place in mesoamerica between 450BCE and 950BCE. 'Terra preta' (black earth) is a man-made nutrient rich substrate, created by a continued process of mixing charcoal, bone, pottery, compost and manure into the soil. The charcoal helps to bind nutrients into the soil, and remains stable in the soil for centuries. Some deposits are up to 2 metres deep. Compared to the relatively infertile natural amazonian soils, terra preta retains its fertility for far, far longer.

Widespread adoption of this technique alongside smart crop rotation could quite easily result in your desired tropical agricultural revolution.

You should watch the agricultural scenes from "Guns, Germs, and Steel". An agricultural "revolution" requires a revolutionary kind of crop which not only grows well but contains high levels of calories for human consumption, so that humans can afford to pursue other interests like weapon development and science. There's no reason why a hypothetical tropical settlement can't harvest a large amount of grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. Lots of rain forest lands are being cleared in South America for that very purpose. If by "tropical" you really mean tropical islands, then it's a little more problematic since volcanic islands don't have nice flat land for typical methods of grain cultivation. You might try potato, taro, banana or yam farms if wheat and rice don't work out for your story's setting.

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