Bridgette Byrd O’Connor, BHP Team Member
Louisiana, USA

What’s the easiest way to hook students into a lesson (or in this case a unit)? The answer that pops to mind as being at the top of that list would be food but there’s a close second—animals—in particular cute furry animals like puppies! Luckily, in this unit, we have the perfect video to 1) engage students and 2) introduce the transition from foraging to farming: Jacqueline Howard’s History of Domestic Animals.

Cute furry beagle puppy in grass, by Garrett 222, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Another dog-related hook for your students would be to share with them the amazing images below. These images just might be the first representation of humans using dogs in a hunt. The rock art was found by a team of archaeologists headed by Maria Guagnin of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in the Arabian desert. They’ve estimated that the images could date from between 9000 to 8000 BCE; although it’s hard to date rock art in the desert so further tests will have to be done before it’s a conclusive date. What’s so interesting about the image is that it shows a group of dogs that appear to be leashed to the human who is about to strike a prey with its arrow. This is a remarkable find and one that provides some interesting detail about how early human foragers and pastoralists may have used dogs in their everyday lives.

This composite image of a panel of rock art discovered in Saudi Arabia shows a hunter with 13 dogs and a few possible leashes. © Journal of Anthropological Archaeology/Maria Guagnin/Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

But this unit also has food (farming!) so it’s a win-win in terms of content to entice the high school student. And while farming probably isn’t very exciting for most students, the possibility of bringing food from different cultures to share for the Early Civilizations Museum Project presentations should make the topic of farming a bit more intriguing.

This unit is packed to the brim with assets that will help students understand why, where and how humans began to make that switch from foraging to farming. In particular we want students to be able to formulate an evidence-based response to the DQ for this unit: “To what extent was farming an improvement over foraging?” In Lesson 7.0 David Christian walks students through the importance of this transition (Why Was Agriculture So Important?) and how these changes in food supply and sedentary lifestyles led to an increase in collective learning (“Collective Learning, Part 2”). This lesson also has the activity Biography of a Crop, which will help students prepare for the next step in the Little Big History Project.


While all of these assets make for a great introduction to the unit, hands-down the most favorite activity for my students year after year has been the Early Civilizations Museum Project (really, the absolute favorite every single year!). In this activity, students get to do a deep dive into one of the agrarian societies in Lesson 7.1 (Uruk, Mesoamerica, Jericho, East Asia, Greco-Roman, Aksum, or Ghana, although you could also add a few of your own choosing to the mix). In addition, this lesson introduces students to the formation of portable, congregational world religions, which is something that I personally find fascinating but a topic that will also probably be interesting to most students, many of whom believe in one of these faiths.

Lesson 7.2 gets students to think about the transition from foraging to farming in different ways in terms of what types of systems were created to help with this transition, such as the introduction of writing and recordkeeping. But one of the best counterclaims to this idea that farming was an improvement over foraging is the article “The Origin of Agriculture in Africa”, which helps to put the late transition to farming in Africa into perspective. Why would Africa, the cradle of human evolution, be one of the last places to make the switch to farming? It’s really a case of if it’s not broke then why fix it, which helps students see that farming is not all pros (in fact, there were quite a few cons!), but it also allows students to see how the environment shapes human choices and lifestyles.

All of these assets will help students decide if the benefits of living in an agrarian society outweighed those associated with foraging. Because sometimes living in a society was not all philosophy, monumental architecture, and poetry (the rainbows and unicorns mentality), as there were also wars, environmental or natural disasters, social hierarchies, and gender inequality that occurred when humans began to settle down.

About the author: Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, world history, and AP US government and politics for the past 10 years at the high school level. In addition, she has been a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course World History and US History curricula.

Header image: Agricultural scene from The Theban Tomb, located in Deir el-Medina. Facsimile by Charles K. Wilkinson, CC0 1.0.

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