The Agrarian Revolution And The Birth Of Civilization
Author: Stearns, Peter N.;Adas, Michael;Schwartz, Stuart B.
Human Society And Daily Life At The End Of The Old Stone Age
Most human societies in the Old Stone Age consisted of small groups that
migrated regularly in pursuit of game animals and wild plants. But recent
archeological research has shown that in a number of places natural conditions
and human ingenuity permitted some groups to establish settlements where they
lived for much of the year, and in some cases for generation after generation.
These settled communities harvested wild grains that grew in abundance in many
areas. After surviving for centuries in this way, some of these communities
made the transition to true farming by domesticating plants and animals near
their permanent village sites. Many Paleolithic peoples who established
enduring settlements did not advance to domesticated agricultural production,
and in fact often reverted to a migratory hunting-and-gathering existence.
The rejection of full-fledged agriculture and the reversion to migratory
life-styles caution us against seeing farming as an inevitable stage in human
development. There was no simple progression from hunting-and-gathering
peoples to settled foraging societies and then to genuine farming communities.
Rather, human groups experimented with different strategies for survival.
Climatic changes, the availability of water for crop irrigation, dietary
preferences, and patterns of procreation affected the strategy a particular
group adopted. Only those groups involved in crop and animal domestication,
however, have proved capable of producing civilizations.
However successful a particular group proved to be at hunting and
gathering, few could support a band larger than 20 to 30 men, women, and
children. Dependence on migrating herds of game dictated that these bands were
nomadic, though many moved back and forth between the same forest and grazing
areas year after year. The migration patterns meant that small numbers of
humans needed an extensive land area to support themselves, and consequently
human population densities were very low.
Though we imagine Stone Age peoples living in caves, recent research
suggests that most preferred to live on open ground. The migratory peoples who
lived on hilltops or in forest clearings built temporary shelters of skins and
leaves or grass thatching. Their flimsy campsites were readily abandoned when
herd movements or threats from competing bands prompted migration. Though it
is likely that bands developed a sense of territoriality, boundaries were
vague and much interhuman strife focused on rival claims to sources of game
and wild foods.
Within each band, labor was divided on a gender basis. Males hunted and
fished in riverine or coastal areas. Because they became skilled in the use of
weapons in the hunt, it is also likely that males protected the band from
animal predators and raids by other human groups. Though women's roles were
less adventuresome and aggressive, they were arguably more critical to the
survival of the band. The foods women gathered provided the basic subsistence
of the band and permitted its survival in times when hunting parties were
unsuccessful. Women also became adept in the application of medicinal plants,
which were the only means that Paleolithic peoples had to ward off disease.
Because life expectancy was short - 20 years or less on the average - and
mortality rates for women in labor and infants were very high, women had to
give birth many times in order for the band to increase its numbers even
slightly. The early appearance (c. 25,000 B.C.) of figurines carved by Homo
sapiens sapiens that depict voluptuous and pregnant women suggest the
existence of cults devoted to earth and mother goddesses. The centrality of
feminine symbolism in early art and religion may also be indicative of the
considerable influence that women wielded within the band.
Settling Down: Dead Ends And Transitions
Though most humans lived in small hunting-and-gathering bands until well
into the era of the agrarian revolution between 8000 and 5000 B.C., some
prefarming peoples worked out a very different strategy of survival. They
managed to devise more intensive hunting-and-gathering patterns that permitted
them to establish semipermanent and even permanent settlements and support
larger and more complex forms of social organization. Among the most
spectacular of the Paleolithic settlements are those of central Russia.
Apparently there was an abundance of large but slow woolly mammoths in the
region some 20,000 years ago. The hunting techniques of the local peoples
produced a supply of meat that, when supplemented by wild plant foods gathered
in the area, made it possible for them to live in the same place throughout
much of the year. Their dependence on the mammoths is suggested by the bones
found in refuse pits at the settlement sites and by the bones of the larger
mammoths that were used extensively for the walls and roofing of dwellings.
The storage pits for food and the other materials found at the sites of the
central Russian settlements suggest that the mammoth-bone dwellers
participated in trading networks that involved groups in the Black Sea region
nearly 500 miles away. Burial patterns and differing degrees of bodily
decoration also indicate that there were clear status differences among the
groups that inhabited the settlements. Mammoth-bone communities lasted from
about 18,000 to 10,000 B.C., when they suddenly disappeared for reasons that
are still unknown.
Even more sophisticated than the central Russian settlements were those
of the Natufian complex, which extended over much of present-day Israel,
Jordan, and Lebanon. Climate changes that occurred between 12,000 and 11,000
B.C. enabled wild barley and wheat plants to spread over much of this area.
When supplemented with nuts and the meat of gazelles and other game, these
wild grains proved sufficient to support numerous and quite densely populated
settlements on a permanent basis. Between about 10,500 and 8000 B.C., the
Natufian culture flourished in this area. The population at Natufian
settlement sites reached as high as six to seven times that of other early
Neolithic communities. The Natufians developed quite sophisticated techniques
of storing grain, and they devised pestles and grinding slabs to prepare it to
eat. They built circular and oval dwellings of stone that were occupied
year-round for centuries.
The evidence we have from housing layout, burial sites, jewelry, and
other materials indicates that, like the mammoth-bone dwellers of central
Russia, Natufian society was stratified. Clothing appears to have been used to
distinguish a person's rank, and grand burial ceremonies marked the passing of
community chieftains. There is also evidence that Natufian society was
matrilocal - young men went to live with their wives' families - and
matrilineal - family descent and inheritance were traced through the female
line. The fact that women gathered food crops in the wild may explain the
importance of women and the power and influence they enjoyed in Natufian
The Natufian strategy for survival did not involve the development of new
tools or techniques for production. It rested primarily on the intensification
of gathering wild grains and the improvement of storage techniques. The
Natufians' concentration on a couple of grain staples, gazelle meat, and nuts
rendered the culture vulnerable through overspecialization. After 9000 B.C.
the climate of the region where the Natufian settlements were located grew
more and more arid. The grains and game on which they had grown dependent were
reduced or vanished from many locations. One thousand years later, all the
Natufian sites had been abandoned. Some villagers reverted to migratory
hunting and gathering in an effort to broaden the range of animals they could
hunt and the foods they could harvest from the wild. Other villagers - usually
those located near large and reliable sources of water - domesticated the
grains they had once gathered in the woodlands.
A Precarious Existence
Until the late Old Stone Age era around 12,000 B.C., advances in human
technology and social organization were remarkably slow when compared to the
advances that have occurred since about 8000 B.C. Millions of years of
evolution of the genus Homo had produced small numbers of humans mostly
scattered in tiny bands across six continents. On the average the lives of
members of these bands were - to paraphrase a cynical, 17th-century English
philosopher, Thomas Hobbes - violent and short. They crouched around their
campfires in constant fear of animal predators and human enemies. They were at
the mercy of the elements and helpless in the face of injury or disease. They
had a few crude tools and weapons; their nomadic existence reflected their
dependence on the feeding cycles of migrating animals.
The smaller numbers of human groups that lived in permanent settlements
had better shelters, a more secure supply of food, and larger communities on
which to draw in their relentless struggle for survival. But their life-styles
were precarious in that their specialized hunting-and-gathering practices
meant that shifts in grazing patterns or the climate could undermine their
carefully developed cultures. Late Paleolithic humans had considerably
improved on earlier and by then extinct versions of the species. But there was
little to suggest that within a few thousand years they would radically
transform the environments in which they lived and dominate all other forms of
The Agrarian Revolution And The Birth Of Civilization