More than 100 species of plants, including several upon which much of the world's population is dependent today, were originally cultivated and domesticated by Native Americans. The most familiar and widespread of these crops are maize, which came from Mexico, and potatoes, which were first grown in the highlands of Peru. The roster of American cultigens also includes sweet potatoes, manioc, several kinds of beans, squash and pumpkins, tomatoes, chili peppers, avocados, sunflowers, and amaranths. In addition to their use as food, cultivated plants provided Native Americans with stimulants (tobacco, coca), fiber (cotton), and containers (gourds).
Archaeologists have traditionally viewed agriculture, or “food production,” as a radical and momentous break with earlier hunting and gathering lifeways. The Australian prehistorian, V. Gordon Childe, referred to a “Neolithic Revolution” which agriculture had triggered in the societies of the Near East and Europe. Agriculture yielded much more food than foraging; with an assured food supply, Neolithic populations increased rapidly. Permanent villages were established, as farmers settled down beside their fields. Freed from the daily search for undependable wild resources, farming people had more leisure time to develop crafts such as pottery making and weaving. If they harvested more food than was immediately needed, it could be stored, and the surplus could be used to trade with other groups for luxury items. The surplus could also be used to free some members of the community – specialist craftsmen, merchants, priests, and a ruling élite – from subsistence tasks. Thus, agriculture paved the way for social and economic stratification.