Agriculture And The Origins Of Civilization

Agriculture And The Origins Of Civilization: The Neolithic Revolution

Edited By: Robert Guisepi

There was nothing natural or inevitable about the development of

agriculture. Because cultivation of plants requires more labor than hunting

and gathering, we can assume that Stone Age humans gave up their former ways

of life reluctantly and slowly. In fact, peoples such as the Bushmen of

Southwest Africa still follow them today. But between about 8000 and 3500

B.C., increasing numbers of humans shifted to dependence on cultivated crops

and domesticated animals for their subsistence. By about 7000 B.C., their

tools and skills had advanced sufficiently for cultivating peoples to support

towns with over one thousand people, such as Jericho in the valley of the

Jordan River and Catal Huyuk in present-day Turkey. By 3500 B.C., agricultural

peoples in the Middle East could support sufficient numbers of non-cultivating

specialists to give rise to the first civilizations. As this pattern spread to

or developed independently in other centers across the globe, the character of

most human lives and the history of the species as a whole were fundamentally


Causes Of The Agrarian Transformation

Because there are no written records of the transition period between

8000 and 5000 B.C. when many animals were first domesticated and plants were

cultivated on a regular basis, we cannot be certain why and how some peoples

adopted these new ways of producing food and other necessities of life.

Climatic changes associated with the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the

last Ice Age (about 12,000 B.C.), may have played an important role. These

climatic shifts prompted the migration of many big game animals to new

pasturelands in northern areas. They also left a dwindling supply of game for

human hunters in areas such as the Middle East, where agriculture first arose

and many animals were first domesticated. Climatic shifts also led to changes

in the distribution and growing patterns of wild grains and other crops on

which hunters and gatherers depended. In addition, it is likely that the shift

to sedentary farming was prompted in part by an increase in human populations

in certain areas. It is possible that the population growth was caused by

changes in the climate and plant and animal life, forcing hunting bands to

move into the territories where these shifts had been minimal. It is also

possible that population growth occurred within these unaffected regions,

because the hunting-and-gathering pattern reached higher levels of

productivity. Peoples like the Natufians found their human communities could

grow significantly by intensively harvesting grains that grew in the wild. As

the population grew, more and more attention was given to the grain harvest,

which eventually led to the conscious and systematic cultivation of plants and

thus the agrarian revolution.

The Domestication Of Plants And Animals

The peoples who first cultivated cereal grains had long observed them

growing in the wild and gleaned their seeds as they gathered other plants for

their leaves and roots. In Late Paleolithic times both wild barley and wheat

grew over large areas in present-day Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and

Israel. Hunting-and-gathering bands in these areas may have consciously

experimented with planting and nurturing seeds taken from the wilds or they

may have accidentally discovered the principles of domestication by observing

the growth of seeds dropped near their campsites. However it began, the

practice of agriculture caught on only gradually. Archeological evidence

suggests that the first agriculturists retained their hunting-and-gathering

activities as a hedge against the ever-present threat of starvation. But as

Stone Age peoples became more adept at cultivating a growing range of crops,

including protein-rich legumes such as peas and beans, various fruits, and

olives, the effort they expended on activities outside agriculture diminished.

It is probable that the earliest farmers broadcast wild seeds, a practice

that cut down on labor but sharply reduced the potential yield. Over the

centuries, more and more care was taken to select the best grain for seed and

to mix different strains in ways that improved both crop yields and resistance

to plant diseases. As the time required to tend growing plants and the

dependence on agricultural production for subsistence increased, some roving

bands chose to settle down while others practiced a mix of hunting and

shifting cultivation that allowed them to continue to move about.

Though several animals may have been domesticated before the discovery of

agriculture, the two processes combined to make up the critical transformation

in human culture called the Neolithic (New Stone Age) revolution. Different

animal species were tamed in different ways that reflected both their own

natures and the ways in which they interacted with humans. Dogs, for example,

were originally wolves that hunted humans or scavenged at their campsites. As

early as 12,000 B.C., Stone Age peoples found that wolf pups could be tamed

and trained to track and corner game. The strains of dogs that gradually

developed proved adept at controlling herd animals like sheep. Relatively

docile and defenseless herds of sheep could be controlled once their leaders

had been captured and tamed. Sheep, goats, and pigs (which also were

scavengers at human campsites) were first domesticated in the Middle East

between 8500 and 7000 B.C. Horned cattle, which were faster and better able to

defend themselves than wild sheep, were not tamed until about 6500 B.C. The

central place of bull and cattle symbolism in the sacrificial and fertility

cults of many early peoples has led some archeologists to argue that their

domestication was originally motivated by religious sentiments rather than a

desire for new sources of food and clothing.

Domesticated animals such as cattle and sheep provided New Stone Age

humans with additional sources of protein-rich meat and in some cases milk.

Animal hides and wool greatly expanded the materials from which clothes,

containers, shelters, and crude boats could be crafted. Animal horns and bones

could be carved or used for needles and other utensils. Because plows and

wheels did not come into use until the Bronze Age (c. 4000-3500 B.C.), most

Neolithic peoples made little use of animal power for farming, transportation,

or travel. There is evidence, however, that peoples in northern areas used

tamed reindeer to pull sledges, and those farther South used camels for

transporting goods. More importantly, the Neolithic peoples used domesticated

herd animals as a steady source of manure to enrich the soil and thus improve

the yield of the crops that were gradually becoming the basis of their


The Spread Of The Neolithic Revolution

The greater labor involved in cultivation and the fact that it did not at

first greatly enhance the peoples' security or living standards caused many

bands to stay with long-tested subsistence strategies. Through most of the

Neolithic period, sedentary agricultural communities coexisted with more

numerous bands of hunters and gatherers, migratory cultivators, and hunters

and fishers. Even after sedentary agriculture became the basis for the

livelihood of the majority of humans, hunters and gatherers and shifting

cultivators held out in many areas of the globe. For example, due to the

absence of the horse and most herd animals in the Americas, nomadic hunting

cultures became the main alternatives there.

The domestication of animals gave rise to pastoralism which has proven

the strongest competitor to sedentary agriculture throughout most of the

world. Pastoralism has thrived in semiarid areas such as central Asia, the

Sudanic belt south of the Sahara desert in Africa, and the savanna zone of

East and South Africa. These areas were incapable of supporting dense or large

populations. The nomadic, herding way of life has tended to produce

independent and hardy peoples, well-versed in the military skills needed not

only for their survival but also to challenge more heavily populated agrarian

societies. Horse-riding nomads who herd sheep or cattle have destroyed

powerful kingdoms and laid the foundations for vast empires. The camel nomads

of Arabia played critical roles in the rise of Islamic civilization. The

cattle-herding peoples of central, East, and South Africa produced some of the

most formidable pre-industrial military organizations. Only with the rather

recent period of the Industrial Revolution has the power of nomadic peoples

been irreparably broken and the continuation of their cultures threatened by

the steady encroachment of sedentary peoples.

In the era of the Neolithic revolution (roughly 8000-5000 B.C.),

agriculture was far from the dominant mode of support for human societies. But

those who adopted it survived and increased, and passed their techniques of

production to other peoples. The cultivation of wheat and barley spread

throughout the Middle East and eastward to India. These crops also spread

northward to Europe, where oats and rye were added later. From Egypt, the

cultivation of grain crops and fibers, such as flax and cotton that were used

for clothing, spread to peoples along the Nile in the interior of Africa,

along the North African coast, and across the vast savanna zone south of the

Sahara desert.

Agriculture in the African rain forest zone farther south evolved

independently in the 2d millennium B.C., and was based on root crops such as

cassava and tree crops such as bananas and palm nuts. In northern China during

the Neolithic period, a millet-based agricultural system developed along the

Huanghe or Yellow River basin. From this core region, it spread in the last

millennia B.C. east toward the North China Sea and southward toward the

Yangtze basin. A later, but independent, agricultural revolution based on rice

began in mainland Southeast Asia sometime before 5000 B.C. and slowly spread

into South China and India and to the islands of Southeast Asia. In the

Americas maize- (or corn), manioc-, and sweet potato-based agrarian systems

arose in Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America today) and present-day Peru.

Long before the arrival of Columbus in the Americas in A.D. 1492, these and

other crops had spread through large portions of the continents of the Western

Hemisphere, from the temperate woodlands of the North Atlantic coast to the

rain forests of the Amazon region. Thus, varying patterns of agricultural

production were disseminated on all the inhabited continents except Australia,

to virtually all the regions of the globe where there were sufficient rainfall

and suitable temperatures.

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