Agriculture, The Beginning Of

The Agrarian Revolution And The Birth Of Civilization, Part Two

The Neolithic Transition

With the development of agriculture, humans began to radically transform
the environments in which they lived. A growing portion of humans became
sedentary cultivators who cleared the lands around their settlements and
controlled the plants that grew and the animals that grazed on them. The
greater presence of humans was also apparent in the steadily growing size and
numbers of settlements. These were found both in areas that they had long
inhabited and in new regions that farming allowed them to settle. This great
increase in the number of sedentary farmers is primarily responsible for the
leap in human population during the Neolithic transition. For tens of
thousands of years before agriculture was developed, the total number of
humans had fluctuated between an estimated five and eight million persons. By
4000 B.C., after four or five millennia of farming, their number had risen to
60 or 70 million. Hunting-and-gathering bands managed to subsist in the zones
between cultivated areas and continued to war and trade with sedentary
peoples. But villages and cultivated fields became the dominant features of
human habitation over much of the globe.

The Transformation Of Material Life

The growth of sedentary farming communities in the Neolithic era greatly
accelerated the pace of technological and social change. The relatively sudden
surge in invention and social complexity in the Neolithic era marks one of the
great turning points in human history. Increased reliance on sedentary
cultivation led to the development of a wide variety of agricultural
implements, from digging sticks used to break up the soil and axes to clear
forested areas to the introduction of the plow. Techniques of seed selection,
planting, fertilization, and weeding improved steadily. By the end of the
Neolithic period, human societies in a number of areas had devised ways of
storing rainwater and rechanneling river water to irrigate plants. The
reservoirs and canals, dikes and sluices that permitted water storage and
control represented another major advance in the ability of humans to remake
their environment. These changes protected the thin and fragile soils of the
tropical or semitropical areas from the sun and torrential rains.

More and better tools and permanent settlements gave rise to larger, more
elaborate, and commodious housing and the construction of community ritual
centers. Building materials varied greatly by region, but sun-dried bricks,
wattle (interwoven branches, usually plastered with mud), and stone structures
were associated with early agricultural communities. Seasonal harvests made
improved techniques of food storage essential. At first, baskets and leather
containers were employed, but by the early Neolithic period pottery, which
protected stored foods better from moisture and dust, was known to a number of
cultures in the Middle East.

Houses in early agricultural settlements usually included special storage
areas, and most were centered on clay or stone hearths that were ventilated by
a hole in the roof. The presence of stored food in early villages made the
houses tempting targets for nomadic bands or rival settlements. For that
reason they were increasingly fortified. More dependable and varied food
supplies, walls, and sturdy houses greatly enhanced the security and comfort
of human groups. These conditions spurred higher rates of procreation and
lowered mortality rates, at least in times when crop yields were high.

By the end of the Neolithic period in the 6th millennium B.C., many of
the major food plants that humans cultivate today had been domesticated. In
addition to food crops, plants, such as flax and cotton whose fibers could be
woven into clothing, tents, and rugs, had begun to be cultivated in the Middle
East and other areas. New tools and ready supplies of hides also led to new
forms of water transport. Axes made possible the carving of paddles and
dug-out canoes capable of crossing large bodies of water. Skin-covered boats
and reed-and-log rafts were also surprisingly effective forms of water
transport. Even after the introduction of the wheel in Afroasia in the 4th
millennium B.C., water transport remained much more efficient than land,
particularly when bulk goods were involved. Not until railways revolutionized
land transport in the 19th century A.D. was this situation reversed.

Social Change

The surplus production that agriculture made possible was the key to the
social transformations that made up another dimension of the Neolithic
revolution. Surpluses meant that cultivators could exchange part of their
harvest for the specialized services and productions of noncultivators, such
as toolmakers and weavers. Human communities became differentiated on an
occupational basis. Political and religious leaders arose who eventually
formed elite classes that intermarried and became involved in ruling and
ceremonies on a full-time basis. But in the Neolithic period the specialized
production of stone tools, weapons, and perhaps pottery was a more important
consequence of the development of agriculture than the formation of elites.
Originally, each household crafted the tools and weapons it required, just as
it wove its own baskets and produced its own clothing. Over time, however,
families or individuals who proved particularly skilled in these tasks began
to manufacture implements beyond their own needs and exchange them for grain,
milk, or meat.

Villages in certain regions specialized in the production of materials in
demand in other areas. For example, flint, which was extremely hard, was the
preferred material for the blades of axes. Axes were needed for forest
clearing, which was essential to the extension of cultivation throughout much
of Europe. The demand was so great that villagers who lived near flint
deposits could support themselves either by mining the flint or by crafting
the flint heads that were then traded, often with peoples who lived far from
the sources of production. Exchanges such as these set precedents for regional
specialization and interregional trade. But the emergence of full-time
merchants appears to have been associated with the rise of cities in a later

It is difficult to know precisely what impact the shift to agriculture
had on the social structure of the communities that made the transition. It is
likely that social distinctions were heightened due to occupational
differences, but that well-defined social stratification, such as that which
produces class identity, was nonexistent. Leadership remained largely
communal, though village alliances may have existed in some areas. Judging by
research on peoples who still live at roughly Stone Age levels, such as in New
Guinea, property in Neolithic times was held in common by the community, or at
least all households in the community were given access to village lands and

By virtue of their key roles as plant gatherers in prefarming cultures,
it can be surmised that women played a critical part in the domestication of
plants. Nonetheless, there is evidence that their position declined in many
agricultural communities. They worked, and have continued to work the fields
in most cultures. But men took over tasks involving heavy labor, for example,
land clearing, hoeing, and plowing. Men monopolized the new tools and weapons
devised in the Neolithic era and later times, and they controlled the vital
irrigation systems that developed in most of the early centers of agriculture.
As far as we can tell, men also took the lead in taming, breeding, and raising
the large animals associated with both farming and pastoral communities. Thus,
though Neolithic art suggests that earth and fertility cults, which focused on
feminine deities, retained their appeal, the social and economic position of
women may have begun to decline with the shift to sedentary agriculture.

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