By the time the Israelites entered Canaan, all major food plants and animals had been domesticated and the agrotechnology needed to exploit these resources was, for the most part, well developed.

The roots of this agrotechnology, however, lie in the Chalcolithic period and Early Bronze Age and to a lesser degree in the still earlier Neolithic period.

For hundreds of thousands of years before the Pottery Neolithic period (c. 5500–4500 B.C.E.), hunting and gathering were the main human subsistence activities in the Near East. In the Pottery Neolithic period, however, hunting and gathering became much less important than farming and food production. Most of the major plant crops, such as cereals (wheat, barley) and legumes (pea, lentil, bitter vetch and chickpea), were domesticated and farmed for the first time in the Neolithic period. Sheep, goats, pigs and cattle were also raised and exploited by villagers at this time. The famous British archaeologist V. Gordon Childe called this change in subsistence strategies—from hunting and gathering to farming and livestock raising—the “Neolithic Revolution.”

By the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age, another major development in agricultural technology occurred. Andrew Sherratt has referred to it as the “Secondary Products Revolution.” During the Neolithic period, domesticated livestock was used primarily for meat. But in the Chalcolithic period, these animals were used for milk, wool, riding, traction (the pulling of plows) and pack transport. While the evidence for each of these conclusions is varied and nowhere conclusive, the changes seem to converge during the Chalcolithic period, the fourth millennium B.C.E.

How do archaeologists document these changes? Mostly from excavated animal bones. For example, Caroline Grigson, the archaeozoologist on our staff at Shiqmim, studied domestic animal bones from Chalcolithic sites all over the northern Negev. At one Chalcolithic site, Bir es-Safadi, located about ten miles upstream from Shiqmim, Grigson was able to identify the sex and age at death of each animal in a group of sheep and goats. More sheep than goats lived into old age—a clear indication that sheep were being kept for their wool. They were spared slaughter so that they could be exploited over a longer period of time. This reflects a sophistication in herd management that did not occur before the Chalcolithic period, and, incidentally, still holds true for seminomadic Bedouin in the Levant today.

Another advance in the Chalcolithic period involves fruit growing. Fruit trees make up an important element of traditional food production throughout the Mediterranean basin. Fruit was of special importance because it could be dried and stored in time of abundance, and then used later in time of need. Archaeobotanical studies of carbonized seeds indicate that the earliest evidence for both the olive (Olea europaea L.) and the date (Phoenix dactylifera L.) come from Chalcolithic sites. Interestingly enough, the fig (Ficus carica L.) appears even earlier—in the Neolithic period. On the other hand, the grape (Vitis vinifera L.) and pomegranate (Punica granatum L.) seem to have been domesticated only in the Early Bronze Age. By the dawn of the Bronze Age, however, horticulture appears to have been fully developed in the Levant. Deuteronomy’s description of the Promised Land was accurate—but only because of agrotechnological advances in pre-Biblical periods:

“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey” (Deuteronomy 8:7–8).