Neolithic Transition, Civilizations Past And Present

World Civilizations: The Origins Of Civilizations

The Agrarian Revolution And The Birth Of Civilization

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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