In human history, the hoe predates the plow. Descending from the digging sticks of ancient hunter-gatherers, the modern hoe shows a virtually unchanged design except in terms of materials. In other times hoes used to turn and till the fields could have been fashioned from the shoulder blade bones of buffalo, from large mussel shells, or from knapped stone. In historical terms, modern steel hoes only recently replaced the iron sarculum--a Roman design nearly identical to hoes today.
Crude wooden hoes played a crucial part in ancient Egyptian agriculture and architecture. Blades and handles of fitted wood with rope bindings found use in fields where farmers hoed clumps of ground and cultivated plantings. Masons with hoes mixed mud mortar used for plastering and mud bricks. The hoe ranks as the first tool to be developed especially for agriculture. One bronze example found in the Caucasus region of Europe dates to 2000 BC. The heavy iron sarculum used by Roman farmers allowed intensive cultivation of slopes too steep and rocky for ancient plows.
In the New World only Peruvian farmers used any version of plow before the arrival of European technology. The corn, squash, beans and other American crops grown by the New World's ancient cultures depended on a variety of hoes for turning of the earth and crop cultivation. Imported iron hoes soon replaced indigenous versions.
The hoe remains an important tool in both modern industry and agriculture. As recently as 1972 one hoe became the focus of an important legal battle in America. The short-handled hoe imported to Californian fields by immigrant Chinese laborers endured as standard equipment for modern agricultural workers. The California Rural Assistance League led by Maurice Jourdaine campaigned to ban the tool, and in 1975 California's Supreme Court declared it unsafe and illegal.
Gardeners find the hoe as essential as the gas-powered tiller. Clods of hard earth tossed aside by machines still yield to a few hard blows from the hoe. Planting tilled ground requires a quick chop more often than a neatly furrowed row. After the garden grows, weeds fall quickly to the hoe's blade. Careful work with the hoe eliminates competition and loosens the top layer of soil without disturbing plant roots.
Dutch hoes with triangular blades or stirrups push forward just beneath the surface of the ground to eradicate weeds quickly in loose soil. Rectangular garden hoes perform the traditional chopping chores necessary in vegetable plots. Larger mortar hoes with mixing holes in the blades substitute for cement mixers when only small batches of mortar or concrete are required. A hoe and a mixing box make short work of combining sand, gravel and cement for setting posts on-site.