Neolithic Era or the Agricultural Revolution (the New Stone Age)

8000 – 2000 B.C.E.

Until the last ice age ended around 11,500 years ago man had been a hunter-gatherer, hunting animals and gathering wild plants for food. There was no need to look beyond the savannahs, steppes and tundras, where big game was abundant and easily caught. However as the glaciers melted, sea levels rose, flooding vast areas of lowland hunting grounds, while at the same time the forests advanced. In these new conditions, humans had to find new ways to survive. During the next 5,000 years, known as the Neolithic period, all of these factors kick-started a transition to organized farming.

The impact of the rise of agriculture on Neolithic society cannot be overstated. It revolutioned the way people lived, worked and related at the most profound level and launched humanity into an era of progress that continues to this day. This is most vividly illustrated by considering the experience of those communities that did not adopt agriculture during this period. When Europeans arrived in North America in the 16th century AD, they encountered hunter-gatherers living much as their ancestors had done ten thousand years before.

When people took up farming as a way of life, it meant that they had to stay in the same place for a long time. In some areas, farmers practiced slash and burn agriculture. This means they cleared land, but moved on after a few years, when their crops had exhausted the soil. Elsewhere, early farming settlements grew into villages five to ten times bigger than earlier hunter-gatherer camps. At first, the farmers still hunted wild animals and foraged for food, but soon their herds and crops supplied most of their needs. They lived in villages of rectangular or circular one-storey houses of stone, mud-brick, or timber and thatch. The houses were joined by narrow lanes or coutyards. Most villages lay on low ground, near well-watered, easily worked land. By using irrigation and crop rotation, later farmers.

The First Farmers

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Farming began around 10,000 years ago, or 8000 B.C.E., in an area known as the Fertile Crescent, comprising modern-day Iraq, Syria, Israel, Jordan and Egypt. This region, as well as being fertile, enjoyed a great diversity of annual plants, which were well adapted to the new climate of long dry seasons. Among the first plants to be farmed were probably barley, wheat and oats, which were all easy and quick to grow and readily storable.

So how did the jump from gathering wild plants to deliberately planting them take place? The first farmers were probably hunter-gatherers who began growing crops to supplement the food they obtained from dwindling herds of game. They started by planting the seeds of their favorite wild plants to guarantee a steady supply.

Gradually, they domesticated these plants by breeding strains with desirable characteristics, such as high yield and rapid growth. As their methods improved, farming became their most important source of food.

The move from hunting to domesticating and herding these animals was similarly momentous. The first pastoral farmers were probably shepherds in northern Iraq in about 8000 B.C.E. The wild ancestors of sheep, goats, cows, and pigs were gradually domesticated, exploited not just for their meat, but also for their skins, wool and eventually their milk. The domestication of oxen and horses for traction would come later, starting in about 3000 B.C.E.

Domestication of Animals

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Pastoral societies were characterized by the domestication of animals. These societies were often found in mountainous regions and in areas with insufficient rainfall to support other forms of societies. Many of these societies used small-scale agriculture to supplement the main food supply of animal products, such as milk. The extended family was a major institution, which was very male-dominated because men controlled the bulk of food supply. Women had very few rights. Stratification and social status, which were limited in foraging societies, were based on the size of one’s herd in pastoral societies.  But as in foraging societies, people in pastoral societies had few personal possessions other than their herds. Even though they had domesticated animals, they couldn’t settle down in towns because they had to continually search for food and water for the herds.

As pastoral societies increasingly domesticated more and more animals, they also began to experiment with securing a more dependable food supply through the cultivation of plants.

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Agriculture Spreads

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Over the next 5,000 years, farming spread to different parts of the world. By 6000 B.C.E., people were herding cattle and growing rice and sorghum in northern Africa. Between 5000 and 4000, agriculture developed independently in Asia, where rice rather than wheat was the staple crop. Rice and millet were grown in the Yangtse Valley in China and modern-day Thailand, followed by mung, soy and azuki beans. In the Indus Valley in northern India, people grew wheat, legumes, oranges, dates and mangoes. By 3500, the Indus Valley farmers were growing cotton for textiles.

Between 4500 and 4000, cattle and wheat farmers spread from the Fertile Crescent through modern-day Turkey into the densely forested areas of central, western and northern Europe. The hunter-gatherers of these parts learned farming techniques from the newcomers. Agriculture reached southern Africa by around 3000. In 2700, maize was domesticated in Central America, followed by corn and beans in about 1500. By 1000, people in eastern North America were cultivating gourds and sunflowers. Potatoes, tomatoes and maize were being grown in South America by this time.

Agriculture leads to Societal Growth

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Imagine two people who only grow enough food for themselves. They both have to farm all day every day. There’s little time left to do anything else. Now imagine that one person farms enough food for two people. The second person can do something else, for instance, make tools or dig an irrigation ditch or study to become a philopopher or religious leader. Now imagine that one person can farm enough food for five people, or ten people, or a hundred people. Now the other ninety-nine people can build towns, organize armies, develop a system of writing, create art, experiment, and discover new techniques. In other words, individual labor becomes specialized. Each person can get really good at doing a particular task because he or she no longer has to worry about where the next meal is coming from.

As agricultural societies become more complex, organized economies, governmental structures, and religious organizations began to emerge to keep things as predictable and orderly as possible. Suddenly, there was a society, or civilization.

With the invention of irrigation techniques, lands that previously could not be farmed could be used for additional surpluses. This would lead to more growth and complexity, which would lead to more agricultural advancements, which would lead to more growth and complexity.

Technology Advances

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Compared to hunting and gathering, farming was hard work and in many parts of the world it was adopted only gradually and probably unwillingly. However, farming did make life easier in many ways. It provided a steady supply of food and allowed people to live in one place for a long time, paving the way for some important technological advances.

Heavy tools and equipment, for example, would have been impractical for hunter-gatherers with their nomadic existence, but Neolithic farmers, with their settled lifestyles, were able to develp many new and useful devices. Heavy axes for forest clearing, hoes for digging soil, sickles to cut grain and millstones to grind flour were all invented by the first farming communities. The kilns that farmers built to bake clay pots to store their grain provided them with the means to smelt and cast metals: first copper in about 6000, then bronze in about 3500 and, eventually, iron. The wheel – arguably the most important prehistoric innovation – was invented by Sumerians in about 5000. It was first used to make pottery and only later applied to transport. Wool and cotton producers mastered the art of spinning and weaving plant and animal fibers to produce the world’s first textiles.

Kilns

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Many houses contained ovens or kilns, used for baking bread and firing pottery. A kiln allowe higher temperatures to be reached than an open hearth, and therefore produced better pottery. Each village probably made its own pottery.

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                               Images: Clay pots in a makeshift kiln & wooden wheel.

Colonizing new lands

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The first important effect of farming was that it led to the settlement of many new areas of land. Early farmers would settle in an area for as long as the crops grew well there. When the land surrounding their village grew less productive because the crops had used up the nutrients in the soil, the farmers (who had yet to develop fertilizers to replace the nutrients) would move to a new area and build another village, and so the process of gradual colonization continued.

Houses and Homes

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From the earliest times, humans have sought shelter and protection from the elements. Early nomadic peoples took advantage of the natural shelter that was afforded by caves, rocky outcrops and woodland, or they built tents from branches covered in animal hide.

With the coming of agriculture, people were able to settle in one place and build longer-lasting homes. The Celts, an early European people, built round houses with low walls of stone or branches and twigs woven together and covered with bundles of tied straw.

Neolithic communities of the Middle East learned how to make bricks by pressing mud into wooden moulds and leaving the mud to dry out in the sun. Mud bricks became the most important building material in the region, being strong, durable, yet easy to produce. When a house fell into disrepair, it was quickly knocked down and replaced with a new one.

Population Growth

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As farming methods improved and food became more plentiful, farming communities could support far greater numbers of people. In this way, agriculture enabled an enormous increase in the human population. A single hunter-gatherer required an area of 9.6 miles to live, and a typical band of hunter-gatherers numbered between 30 and 50. By contrast, the most basic forms of agriculture could support up to 20 people per 9.6 miles, and typical farming villages contained hundreds of people. In areas such as Sumer where food production was intensified through the use of ploughing and irrigation, the population of a town could number in the thousands.

It was not only the increased supply of food that allowed a greater population. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, hunter-gatherer families could only carry one child at a time, limiting the number children each family could have, whereas the settled existence of sedentary farmers meant that larger families were now possible. This increase in family size was, however, somewhat offset by a higher death rate due to disease. Farming communities inevitably lived close to the animals they domesticated and a number of diseases, including influenza, smallpox and measles, spread from animals to humans.

Despite disease, the human population rose steadily, especially in areas that adopted intensive farming techniques. As a result, increasing numbers to people could be supported by farming that were not actually needed to work as farmers or food producers. Instead they were able to become skilled at crafts and made baskets, cloth, leather goods, tools or pottery. Farming communities became more specialized. They also became wealthier as people acquired material possessions on a scale beyond anything conceivable in a hunter-gather society. Differences in wealth became more marked and gave rise to notions of social status. This simple egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers gave way to a more complex, hierarchical society.

The Neolithic revolution spread unevenly around the globe. In those places with good soil and a favorable climate, farming developed more quickly and the social changes were consequently more dramatic. It is no coincidence that the first cities arose in Mesopotamia in the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of agriculture. In places with poor soil and climate, such as parts of North America, hunter-gatherer society would continue for many more hundreds of years. Most parts of the world fell between these two extremes.

By around 2000 B.C.E., in South and Southeast Asia, New Guinea, North Africa, northern Europe and parts of the Middle and South America, the majority of farming communities consisted of a few hundred – in some cases, a few thousand – individuals, living in villages. Although they may have traded with and spoken the same language as neighboring tribes, they were essentially independent and self-sufficient. Remains of these early communities show evidence of communal building projects, such as the large stone tombs found in western Europe. This suggests the existence of leaders within the community who could, from time to time, coerce others in their tribe to undertake such works.

Human Environmental Impact

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There’s no question that the Agricultural Revolution had an impact on the environment. Farming villages began to dramaticaly change the lay of the land by diverting water, clearing land for farming, and creating farmland where none previously existed. As villages grew into more permanent towns and cities, roads were built to link them, further altering the landscape. Stones were unearthed and cut to build increasingly large buildings and monuments. All of this activity led to a world in which land and resources were continually being reconfigured to fit the needs of growing, geographically stable populations.

Content Sources:

A Short History of the World , Alex Woolf, Metro Books, New York, 2008.
The Princeton Review: Cracking the AP World History Exam, 2006-2007 Edition, Random House, New York, 2007.
The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, Hurdman, MacDonald, Steele, Tames, Armadillo Books, Pennsylvania, 2011.
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About historymartinez

Social Studies Department Chair, Room A305 Tutoring Mondays @ 4:15 pm & Wednesdays @ 8:00 a.m.
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