Ask a historian or an archaeologist about the Earth's first agricultural revolution, and they may quibble, but will generally agree it occurred about 10,000 years ago.
Ask a biologist, and the answer is more likely to be 50 million years ago.
When nomadic humans only learned the secrets of agriculture a few thousand years ago, setting the stage for the advanced civilizations we have become, ants had already been farming for millions of years.
Now, National Museum of Natural History entomologists Ted Schultz and Sean Brady have traced the evolutionary tree of leaf-cutter ants, showing that the earliest farmer lived 50 million years ago.
Agriculture is very rare in the animal world, said Schultz. We only know of four animal groups that have discovered agriculture: ants, termites, bark beetles and humans. By studying certain fungus-growing ants, which our study indicates are almost like living fossils, we might be able to better understand steps involved in the evolution of ant agriculture.
The leaf-cutter ants are the best known fungus farmers of the ant world, though "four different specialized agricultural systems have evolved," according to the Smithsonian. Leaf-cutter ants can be seen gathering leaf clippings far and wide, and returning to their vast colonies.
"The ants do not eat the leaves; they grow their fungus gardens on them and then eat the fungus," according to the Smithsonian. "By studying the agricultural evolution of leaf-cutter ants, as well as various other species, scientists may be able to develop improved human agricultural and medical methods."
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