Hydroponic history is very short compared to the overall history of horticulture. To better grasp hydroponic history, it is important to understand how horticulture and farming has developed throughout history.
THE HISTORY OF FARMING
Scientists estimate that early ancestors to modern humans (homo sapien) have existed on earth for about 6 million years. It is estimated that modern humans only evolved roughly 200,000 years ago based on 1967 fossil discoveries made in Ethiopia. For the vast majority of human history, we have subsisted by utilizing a combination of hunting and scavenging other animals, and gathering edible items of any other form. What made early humans unique in comparison to many other animals is that we combined both hunting and gathering methods, while most other animals primarily focus on one of the two approaches for survival. Another unique characteristic of human hunting and gathering was our practice of obtaining the food and bringing it back to a group or tribe to combine and share rather than consuming at the point of kill or discovery.
For the first roughly 190,000 years of human history, we survived almost exclusively on hunting and gathering. This hunting and gathering approach to survival necessitated a nomadic lifestyle, whereas humans were constantly on the move in the pursuit of sustenance. Some examples of compelling factors that influenced nomadism included following animal migrations, fleeing drought or flood, and avoiding predators. Roughly 10,000 years ago, there was a period known as the “Neolithic Revolution” when humans first discovered how to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. These early discoveries were arguably some of the most significant in human history, and can be viewed as the enabling foundation for expansion as a species, and basis for a distinct human culture as we know it today.
Early agricultural advances correspond closely to the end of the most recent cold phase of the present ice age, which created new temperate regions across the globe. These climate changes proved to be catastrophic for some animals such as the Mammoth, but allowed for other plants and animals to flourish. While some early humans followed the migration of bison and mammoth to colder climates, others made the critical decision to remain in the newly temperate climates and begin to adapt to a new way of life.
The transition from hunting and gathering to cultivation and domestication was a gradual one, and early farmers used agriculture as a means to augment existing hunting and gathering. Interestingly, the adoption of agricultural practices occurred in disparate areas across the globe without any form of communication or collaboration between these different areas. Due to this fact, the adoption of and transition to more robust agriculture occurred in different ways and at varying paces.
The earliest place known to have subsisted primarily from the cultivation of crops was Jericho. Also known as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities (largely due to the adoption of crop cultivation), Jericho is located six miles north of the Dead Sea in the plain of Jordan. Several environmental factors such as a large natural spring, and conducive geological features resulted in a lush and fertile oasis in an otherwise characteristically dry and harsh desert climate. Evidence suggests that some of the earliest deliberately cultivated crops were cereal grasses such as wild emmer and barley. The cultivation of crops and domestication of animals occurred within the same timeframe, as they were complimentary to one another.
Domesticated farm animals were used very early on for clearing farmland, preparing soil, providing manure, and a source of food and other products. A portion of the resulting agricultural products not consumed by the people within farming communities were used to help sustain and grow the stock of animals. Whether or not it was done intentionally is debatable, but evidence indicates that early farmers used primitive breeding and selection techniques to increase yield and nutrition of farmed crops and livestock. While there is evidence of some other very early farming communities in parts of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, it is generally accepted that major adoption of farming originated in the Middle East and spread to Europe and Asia as people continued to migrate and settle in new areas across the globe.
In comparison to the modern era, the spread of information and technology happened at an extremely slow rate, which is why the proliferation of farming across the globe occurred over the course of several millennia with the passing on of agricultural techniques from farmers to hunter-gatherers. By 3500 BCE, the majority of humans were farmers, and it would remain that way up until the twentieth century. There are several notable innovations in farming that originated at different times and locations that allowed for increased yield, efficiency, and sustained population growth. Some key examples of agricultural innovations throughout history include the invention of mass grain storage techniques, the invention of the plow, human controlled irrigation, adoption of fertilizer use, and scientific advances in genetic modification.
The first evidence of grain storage is from around 6000 BCE in what is now modern day Pakistan. The existence granaries indicated that farmers at this time had the ability to produce a crop surplus which was a type of insurance against variability in climate that had never before existed. Stored grain meant that farming communities could comfortably sustain through colder seasons, drought, flood, and agricultural disease. This also allowed for individuals to commit time to non-sustaining activities which contributed to the creation of identifiable arts and culture. It also allowed populations to grow more rapidly than ever before, where food scarcity was previously a limiting factor.
The first use of light wooden plows occurred around 4000 BCE in Mesopotamia, which is now modern day Iraq. Plowing of increased the viability and yield potential of farmland, as well as the frequency at which a plot could be planted and harvested. The earliest plows were powered by humans, but over time were adapted to be pulled by animals, and eventually by combustion engine powered machines. With the increased efficiency afforded by plow technology, farmers could produce more and larger crops in relatively less space. This created healthier and more nutritious crops as well as greater surplus that could be stored to insure against future crop variability, as well as to support growing populations.
Irrigation is the process of controlling water supply to crops at planned regular intervals. Some of the earliest evidence of irrigation practices were also found in the Middle East around 3500 BCE. Early practices consisted primarily diverting water onto fields from a naturally occurring source throughout small channels dug into the field. Irrigation has been a critical development in farming, allowing for larger land areas to be farmed and overall yields increased. Irrigation is also a very important development when it comes to hydroponic history, as many traditional irrigation techniques have been adopted and adapted for use in hydroponic gardening.
Fertilization is a process that occurs naturally to keep soil viable for continued growth. As plants die, they decompose into the soil, adding nutrients that help to feed new growth. Early farmers discovered that by manually adding fertilizers to their land, they could speed plant growth and rapidly replenish the nutrients on their land after a harvest. Farmers traditionally have used manure and plant waste as supplemental fertilizers for their high nutrient content. As farming practices became more advanced, chemical fertilizers were developed on a mass scale to isolate key nutrients at a low cost. Industrial chemical fertilizers allowed for great increases in crop output, but also resulted in serious environmental issues due to the indiscriminate spreading.
Certain fertilizers in concentrated doses, or in small doses over an extended period of time, can damage surrounding ecosystems, and infiltrate the underlying water table. Fertilization continues to play an important role in farming, but practices have improved so that fertilizer is utilized in a more targeted and efficient manner. When looking specifically at hydroponic history, advances in isolation of fertilizer nutrients has played a key role in advances toward soil-less gardening. All plants truly need is access to the proper types and proportions of nutrients for explosive growth, which is where hydroponic gardening flourishes.
The phrase genetic modification is often viewed negatively. What many don’t consider is the fact that humans have been influencing the genetic makeup of plants and animals since the invention of farming and domestication. This was primarily accomplished through deliberate breeding and crop selection. Those plants and animals with desirable traits such as fast growth and resistance to the elements were selected and encouraged for survival, whereas those with undesirable traits were separated out and killed or simply left to perish. This process of human influence on the natural selection process has resulted in optimized desirable traits. Genetic selection through breeding however still takes a long time to accomplish and often would often still occur over several generations.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, scientific advances allowed for direct manipulation and modification of the genetic makeup of plants and animals. This means that traits previously bred for over generations could now be introduced on the genetic level in a fraction of the time. This scientific innovation also allowed for the introduction of traits that had not previously even existed within the species. Genetic modification for pest resistance, insecticide resistance, hyper-growth, and low water utilization are just a few examples of what scientists have optimized for.
In hydroponic history, genetic modification has been extremely beneficial for optimizing plants that flourish in soil-less environments, and produce maximum potency and yield.
We have taken an in-depth look at the history of farming, and how advances in soil-based agriculture has created the basis for all modern farming techniques that are utilized today. We will now take a deeper look at the origins and development of hydroponic farming techniques to understand how we arrived at the current processes and technology.
As a reminder, hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil using just nutrient fortified solution, or a combination of this solution and a static medium for root stability. The nutrients in water can either be derived from natural sources such as fish and duck manure, or can be scientifically engineered with targeted nutrient combinations.
Evidence of ancient hydroponic history exists in numerous cultures, with one of the earliest examples being the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Details about these gardens from the 8th century BCE are limited, but accounts from Ancient Greek writers describe plants irrigated on man made channels of flowing water as part of Babylonian temples known as Ziggurats. In areas comprising what is now Indochina and China, fish have been raised within flooded rice fields for millennia. This process is now known as Aquaponics, which is a subset of hydroculture and creates an enclosed ecosystem where fish waste in the water is used as the nutrient solution to fertilize plants.
In precolonial America, there are examples of floating gardens that were built on large lakes in Mexico and would grow from the naturally occurring nutrients within the lake. The huge output of crops from this technique were a major contributing factor to the flourishing Aztec civilization in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. While these ancient civilizations harnessed the power of hydroculture, it was likely observed originally in nature. There are numerous aquatic plants such as water lilies that extract the majority of their nutrients from water. Orchids are also well known for their aerial roots that extract nutrients from water.
The earliest scientific publication about growing traditionally terrestrial plants without soil is by Francis Bacon in 1627. Water culture methods during this time were initially used for scientific research. It was not until 1929 when a researcher at University of California Berkeley, William Frederick Gericke began publicly promoting water cultre for agricultural crop production. The term hydroponics was introduced by Gericke in 1937, and while there was great interest in the approach, it was not widely accepted in the agricultural sciences. By the 1980’s, the process was introduced to the broader public through exhibits at Walt Disney World’s Epcot center, which featured several hydroponic techniques.
While the same basic inputs of water, nutrients, and light apply to any hydroponic system, there are numerous techniques that have been developed, each with their own potential benefits and drawbacks. Some examples of hydroponic techniques included static solution culture, and continuous-flow solution culture. Hydroponic gardening systems range in size and complexity from the very simplistic hobbyist hydroponic setup, all the way up to commercial hydroponic systems, designed to grow thousands of individual plants within a single system.
Hydroponic history is still in it’s infancy when compared to traditional farming techniques, and innovation is occurring at a rapid rate, spurred by both hobbyists and scientific institutions respectively. While hydroponic gardening methods will not be surpassing traditional soil farming methods at any point in the near future, it is becoming increasingly clear innovation in soil less farming techniques will be critical to the ongoing support of global populations in the face of climate change and destruction of traditional farming lands.