The Neolithic Revolution was the first agricultural revolution—the transition from hunting and gathering communities and bands, to agriculture and settlement. Archaeological data indicate that various forms of domestication of plants and animals arose independently in at least seven or eight separate locales worldwide, with the earliest known developments taking place in the Middle East around 10,000 BC or earlier.
However, the Neolithic Revolution involved far more than the adoption of a limited set of food-producing techniques. During the next millennia it would transform the small, mobile and fairly egalitarian groups of hunter-gatherers that had hitherto dominated human history, into sedentary societies based in built-up villages and towns, which radically modified their natural environment by means of specialized food-crop cultivation (e.g., irrigation and food storage technologies) that allowed extensive surplus food production. These developments provided the basis for concentrated high population densities settlements, specialized and complex labor diversification, trading economies, the development of non-portable art, architecture, and culture, centralized administrations and political structures, hierarchical ideologies and depersonalized systems of knowledge (e.g., property regimes and writing). The first full-blown manifestation of the entire Neolithic complex is seen in the Middle Eastern Sumerian cities (ca. 5,300 BC), whose emergence also inaugurates the end of the prehistoric Neolithic and the beginning of historical time.
The relationship of the above-mentioned Neolithic characteristics to the onset of agriculture, their sequence of emergence and empirical relation to each other at various Neolithic sites remains the subject of academic debate, and seems to vary from place to place, rather than being the outcome of universal laws of social evolution.
The term Neolithic Revolution was coined in the 1920s by Vere Gordon Childe to describe the first in a series of agricultural revolutions in Middle Eastern history. The period is described as a "revolution" to denote its importance, and the great significance and degree of change affecting the communities in which new agricultural practices were gradually adopted and refined.
The beginning of this process in different regions has been dated from perhaps 10,000 years ago in Melanesia to 2,500 BC in Subsaharan Africa, with some considering the developments of 9000-7000 BC in the Fertile Crescent to be the most important. This transition everywhere seems associated with a change from a largely nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life to a more settled, agrarian-based one, with the inception of the domestication of various plant and animal species—depending on the species locally available, and probably also influenced by local culture.
There are several competing (but not mutually exclusive) theories as to the factors that drove populations to take up agriculture. The most prominent of these are:
In contrast to the Paleolithic, in which (only as postulated) more than one hominid species existed, only one (Homo sapiens) reached the Neolithic.
Once agriculture started gaining momentum, cereal grasses (beginning with emmer, einkorn and barley), and not simply those that would favour greater caloric returns through larger seeds, were selectively bred. Plants that possessed traits such as small seeds or bitter taste would have been seen as undesirable. Plants that rapidly shed their seeds on maturity tended not to be gathered at harvest, thus not stored and not seeded the following season; years of harvesting selected for strains that retained their edible seeds longer. Several plant species, the "pioneer crops" or Neolithic founder crops, were the earliest plants successfully manipulated by humans. Some of these pioneering attempts failed at first and crops were abandoned, sometimes to be taken up again and successfully domesticated thousands of years later: rye, tried and abandoned in Neolithic Anatolia, made its way to Europe as weed seeds and was successfully domesticated in Europe, thousands of years after the earliest agriculture. Wild lentils present a different challenge that needed to be overcome: most of the wild seeds do not germinate in the first year; the first evidence of lentil domestication, breaking dormancy in their first year, was found in the early Neolithic at Jerf el-Ahmar, (in modern Syria), and quickly spread south to the Netiv HaGdud site in the Jordan Valley. This process of domestication allowed the founder crops to adapt and eventually become larger, more easily harvested, more dependable in storage and more useful to the human population.
Figs, barley and, most likely, oats were cultivated in the Jordan Valley, represented by the early Neolithic site of Gilgal, where in 2006 archaeologists found caches of seeds of each in quantities too large to be accounted for even by intensive gathering, at strata dateable c. 11,000 years ago. Some of the plants tried and then abandoned during the Neolithic period in the Ancient Near East, at sites like Gilgal, were later successfully domesticated in other parts of the world.
Once early farmers perfected their agricultural techniques, their crops would yield surpluses that needed storage. Most hunter gatherers could not easily store food for long due to their migratory lifestyle, whereas those with a sedentary dwelling could store their surplus grain. Eventually granaries were developed that allowed villages to store their seeds for longer periods of time. So with more food, the population expanded and communities developed specialized workers and more advanced tools.
The process was not as linear as was once thought, but a more complicated effort, which was undertaken by different human populations in different regions in many different ways.
The Neolithic Revolution is believed to have become widespread in southwest Asia around 8000 BC–7000 BC, though earlier individual sites have been identified. Although archaeological evidence provides scant evidence as to which of the genders performed what task in Neolithic cultures, by comparison with historical and contemporary hunter-gatherer communities it is generally supposed that hunting was typically performed by the men, whereas women had a more significant role in the gathering. By extension, it may be theorised that women were largely responsible for the observations and initial activities that began the Neolithic Revolution, insofar as the gradual selection and refinement of edible plant species was concerned.
The precise nature of these initial observations and (later) purposeful activities that would give rise to the changes in subsistence methods brought about by the Neolithic Revolution are not known; specific evidence is lacking. However, several reasonable speculations have been put forward; for example, it might be expected that the common practice of discarding food refuse in middens would result in the regrowth of plants from the discarded seeds in the (fertilizer-enriched) soils. In all likelihood, a number of factors contributed to the early onset of agriculture in Neolithic human societies.
Generalised agriculture apparently first arose in the Fertile Crescent because of many factors. The Mediterranean climate has a long dry season with a short period of rain, which made it suitable for small plants with large seeds, like wheat and barley. These were the most suitable for domestication because of the ease of harvest and storage and the wide availability. In addition, the domesticated plants had especially high protein content. The Fertile Crescent had a large area of varied geographical settings and altitudes. The variety given made agriculture more profitable for former hunter-gatherers. Other areas with a similar climate were less suitable for agriculture because of the lack of geographic variation within the region and the lack of availability of plants for domestication.
The Revolution developed independently in different parts of the world, not just in the Fertile Crescent. On the African continent, three areas have been identified as independently developing agriculture: the Ethiopian highlands, the Sahel and West Africa.
The most famous crop domesticated in the Ethiopian highlands is coffee. In addition, Khat, Ensete, Noog, teff and finger millet were also domesticated in the Ethiopian highlands. Crops domesticated in the Sahel region include sorghum and pearl millet. The Kola nut, extracts from which became an ingredient in Coca Cola, was first domesticated in West Africa. Other crops domesticated in West Africa include African rice, African yams and the oil palm.
A number of crops that have been cultivated in Africa for millennia came after their domestication elsewhere. Agriculture in the Nile River Valley developed from crops domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. Bananas and plantains, which were first domesticated in Southeast Asia, most likely Papua New Guinea, were re-domesticated in Africa possibly as early as 5,000 years ago. Asian yams and taro were also cultivated in Africa.
Prof. Fred Wendorf and Dr. Romuald Schild, of the Department of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University, originally thought to have found evidence of early agriculture in Upper Paleolithic times at Wadi Kubbaniya, on the Kom Ombos plateau, of Egypt, including a mortar and pestle, grinding stones, several harvesting implements and charred wheat and barley grains—which may have been introduced from outside the region. AMS dating since their first reports has invalidated their hypothesis.
Many such grinding stones are found with the early Egyptian Sebilian and Mechian cultures and evidence has been found of a neolithic domesticated crop-based economy dating around 5000 BC. Smith writes: "With the benefit of hindsight we can now see that many Late Paleolithic peoples in the Old World were poised on the brink of plant cultivation and animal husbandry as an alternative to the hunter-gatherer's way of life". Unlike the Middle East, this evidence appears as a "false dawn" to agriculture, as the sites were later abandoned, and permanent farming then was delayed until 4500 BC with the Tasian and Badarian cultures and the arrival of crops and animals from the Near East.
Corn, beans and squash were domesticated in Mesoamerica around 3500 BC. Potatoes and manioc were domesticated in South America. In what is now the eastern United States, Native Americans domesticated sunflower, sumpweed and goosefoot around 2500 BC.
When hunter-gathering began to be replaced by sedentary food production it became more profitable to keep animals close at hand. Therefore, it became necessary to bring animals permanently to their settlements, although in many cases there was a distinction between relatively sedentary farmers and nomadic herders. The animals' size, temperament, diet, mating patterns, and life span were factors in the desire and success in domesticating animals. Animals that provided milk, such as cows and goats, offered a source of protein that was renewable and therefore quite valuable. The animal’s ability as a worker (for example ploughing or towing), as well as a food source, also had to be taken into account. Besides being a direct source of food, certain animals could provide leather, wool, hides, and fertilizer. Some of the earliest domesticated animals included dogs (about 15,000 years ago), sheep, goats, cows, and pigs.
The Middle East served as the source for many animals that could be domesticated, such as goats and pigs. This area was also the first region to domesticate the Dromedary Camel. The presence of these animals gave the region a large advantage in cultural and economic development. As the climate in the Middle East changed, and became drier, many of the farmers were forced to leave, taking their domesticated animals with them. It was this massive emigration from the Middle East that would later help distribute these animals to the rest of Afroeurasia. This emigration was mainly on an east-west axis of similar climates, as crops usually have a narrow optimal climatic range outside of which they cannot grow for reasons of light or rain changes. For instance, wheat does not normally grow in tropical climates, just like tropical crops such as bananas do not grow in colder climates. Some authors like Jared Diamond postulated that this East-West axis is the main reason why plant and animal domestication spread so quickly from the Fertile Crescent to the rest of Eurasia and North Africa, while it did not reach through the North-South axis of Africa to reach the Mediterranean climates of South Africa, where temperate crops were successfully imported by ships in the last 500 years. The African Zebu is a separate breed of cattle that was better suited to the hotter climates of central Africa than the fertile-crescent domesticated bovines. North and South America were similarly separated by the narrow tropical Isthmus of Panama, that prevented the andes llama to be exported to the Mexican plateau.
Jack Harlan, examining the causes for the Neolithic Revolution, suggests 6 principal reasons, which can be summarized to three principal categories:
With regard to the first explanation, Ian Hodder, who directs the excavations at Çatalhöyük (Turkey), has said that the earliest settled communities, and the Neolithic revolution they represent, actually preceded the development of agriculture. He has been developing the ideas first expressed by Jacques Cauvin, the excavator of the Natufian settlement at Mureybet in northern Syria. Hodder believes that the Neolithic revolution was the result of a revolutionary change in the human psychology, a "revolution of symbols" that led to new beliefs about the world and shared community rituals embodied in corpulent female figurines (see Venus of Willendorf) and the methodical assembly of aurochs horns.
An alternative explanation for the origin of agriculture has been advanced by anthropologist Mark Nathan Cohen. Cohen believes that following the widespread extinctions of large mammals in the late Palaeolithic, the human population had expanded to the limits of the available territory and a population explosion led to a food crisis. Agriculture was the only way to support the increasing population on the available area of land. This view has come under criticism due to the obvious problem of how a population explosion would occur without already having a surplus of food.
Food gatherers (not the hunters) caring for children, keeping the fires alive, and foraging near the base camp, led the way in developing language and culture, in knowledge of plants, and increasingly semi-domesticated animals who travelled with the nomads from camp to camp.
It is often argued that agriculture gave humans more control over their food supply, but this has been disputed by the finding that nutritional standards of Neolithic populations were generally inferior to that of hunter gatherers, and life expectancy may in fact have been shorter, in part due to diseases. Average height, for example, went down from 5' 10" (178 cm) for men and 5' 6" (168 cm) for women to 5' 3" (165 cm) and 5' 1" (155 cm), respectively and it took until the twentieth century for average human height to come back to the pre-Neolithic Revolution levels. Actually, by reducing the necessity for the carrying of children, Neolithic societies had a major impact upon the spacing of children (carrying more than one child at a time is impossible for hunter-gatherers, which leads to children being spaced four or more years apart). This increase in the birth rate was required to offset increases in death rates and required settled occupation of territory and encouraged larger social groups. These sedentary groups were able to reproduce at a faster rate due to the possibilities of sharing the raising of children in such societies. The children accounted for a denser population, and encouraged the introduction of specialization by providing diverse forms of new labor. The development of larger societies seemed to have led to the development of different means of decision making and to governmental organization. Food surpluses made possible the development of a social elite who were not otherwise engaged in agriculture, industry or commerce, but dominated their communities by other means and monopolized decision-making.
Andrew Sherratt has argued that following upon the Neolithic Revolution was a second phase of discovery that he refers to as the secondary products revolution. Animals, it appears were first domesticated purely as a source of meat. The Secondary Products Revolution occurred when it was recognised that animals also provided a number of other useful products. These included:
Sherratt argues that this phase in agricultural development enabled humans to make use of the energy possibilities of their animals in new ways, and permitted permanent intensive subsistence farming and crop production, and the opening up heavier soils for farming. It also made possible nomadic pastoralism in semi arid areas, along the margins of deserts, and eventually led to the domestication of both the dromedary and bactrian camel. Overgrazing of these areas, particularly by herds of goats, greatly extended the areal extent of deserts. Living in one spot would have more easily permitted the accrual of personal possessions and an attachment to certain areas of land. From such a position, it is argued, prehistoric people were able to stockpile food to survive lean times and trade unwanted surpluses with others. Once trade and a secure food supply were established, populations could grow, and society would have diversified into food producers and artisans, who could afford to develop their trade by virtue of the free time they enjoyed because of a surplus of food. The artisans, in turn, were able to develop technology such as metal weapons. Such relative complexity would have required some form of social organisation to work efficiently, so it is likely that populations that had such organisation, perhaps such as that provided by religion, were better prepared and more successful. In addition, the denser populations could form and support legions of professional soldiers. Also, during this time property ownership became increasingly important to all people. Ultimately, Childe argued that this growing social complexity, all rooted in the original decision to settle, led to a second Urban Revolution in which the first cities were built.
Throughout the development of sedentary societies, disease spread more rapidly than it had during the time in which hunter-gatherer societies existed. Inadequate sanitary practices and the domestication of animals may explain the rise in deaths and sickness during the Neolithic Revolution, as diseases jumped from the animal to the human population. Some examples of diseases spread from animals to humans are influenza, smallpox, and measles. In concordance with a process of natural selection, the humans who first domesticated the big mammals quickly built up immunities to the diseases as within each generation the individuals with better immunities had better chances of survival. In their approximately 10,000 years of shared proximity with animals, Eurasians and Africans became more resistant to those diseases compared with the indigenous populations encountered outside Eurasia and Africa. For instance, the population of most Caribbean and several Pacific Islands have been completely wiped out by diseases. According to the Population history of American indigenous peoples, 90% of the population of certain regions of North and South America were wiped out long before direct contact with Europeans. Some cultures like the Inca Empire did have one big mammal domesticated, the Llama, but the Inca did not drink its milk or live in a closed space with their herds, hence limiting the risk of contagion.
The causal link between the type or lack of agricultural development, disease and colonisation is not supported by colonization in other parts of the world. Disease increased after the establishment of British Colonial rule in Africa and India despite the areas having diseases that Europeans had no natural immunity to. In India agriculture developed during the Neolithic period with a wide range of animals domesticated. During colonial rule an estimated 23 million people died from cholera between 1865 and 1949, and millions more died from plague, malaria, influenza and tuberculosis. In Africa European colonisation was accompanied by great epidemics, including malaria and sleeping sickness and despite parts of colonised Africa having little or no agriculture Europeans were more susceptible than these Africans. The increase of disease has been attributed to increased mobility of people, increased population density, urbanisation, environmental deterioration and irrigation schemes that helped to spread malaria rather than the development of agriculture.
In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond argues that Europeans and East Asians benefited from an advantageous geographical location that afforded them a head start in the Neolithic Revolution. Both shared the temperate climate ideal for the first agricultural settings, both were near a number of easily domesticable plant and animal species, and both were safer from attacks of other people than civilizations in the middle part of the Eurasian continent. Being among the first to adopt agriculture and sedentary lifestyles, and neighboring other early agricultural societies with whom they could compete and trade, both Europeans and East Asians were also among the first to benefit from technologies such as firearms and steel swords. In addition, they developed resistances to infectious disease, such as smallpox, due to their close relationship with domesticated animals. Groups of people who had not lived in proximity with other large mammals, such as the Australian Aborigines and American indigenous peoples were more vulnerable to infection and largely wiped out by diseases.
During and after the Age of Discovery, European explorers, such as the Spanish conquistadors, encountered other groups of people who had never or only recently adopted agriculture, such as in the Pacific Islands, or lacked domesticated big mammals such as the highlands people of Papua New Guinea.
The dispersal of Neolithic culture from the Middle East has recently been associated with the distribution of human genetic markers. In Europe, the spread of the Neolithic technologies has been associated with distribution of the African haplogroup E1b1b lineages and the Middle Eastern Haplogroup J.. In Africa, the spread of farming, and notably the Bantu expansion, is associated with the dispersal of Y-chromosome haplogroup E1b1a from West Africa.
No. 4/5 (Oct - Dec., 1971) , pp. 447–477
The Neolithic Revolution was the first agricultural revolution—the transition from nomadic hunting and gathering communities and bands to agriculture and settlement. It occurred in different prehistoric human societies at different times. Most societies changed 9–7 thousand years ago.
The term refers to both the general time period over which these developments took place and the following changes to Neolithic human societies which are associated with, the adoption of early farming techniques, crop cultivation, and the domestication of animals. The Neolithic Revolution is important for developments in social organization and technology. The changes most often associated with the Neolithic Revolution include an increased tendency to live in permanent or semi-permanent settlements. Because of this fewer people led a nomadic lifestyle. To be able to know who the crops grown belonged to, the concept of land ownership needed to be developed. Modifications to the natural environment, the ability to sustain higher population densities, an increased reliance on vegetable and cereal foods in the total diet, the development of hierarchy in society and of "trading economies" that use surplus production from increasing crop yields are other changes often cited.
When humans started to domesticate crops, and certain animals such as dogs, goats, sheep, and cattle, human society changed. Because people now grew crops and raised livestock they no longer needed to move around that much. They could build better settlements. Their diet also changed. It included more oats and vegetables. People also started to keep and manage some foods - it was not advisable to eat all grain seeds, because then there would be no seeds left to plant the next year. Also, as there were surpluses in some years, these could be traded for other goods with other people.
These changes happened in several places of the world, independently. They did not happen in the same order though. The earliest farming societies in the Near East did not use pottery.It is still unclear, to what extent plants were domesticated in Britain, or if permanently settled communities existed at all. Early Japanese societies used pottery before developing agriculture.
There are different theroies why this transition could have happened:
According to Harland, there are three main categories of causes why the Paleolithic revolution happened: