The Neolithic Revolution - How Farming Changed the World
Created | Updated Feb 13, 2012
This is the story of a revolution. It's not as well known as the French Revolution, or the Industrial Revolution, or the Information Revolution. Neither did it take place quite so quickly. No records were kept, so there is still much we do not know about it. Even so, it stands alone as the greatest revolution in the history of mankind. Were it not for the Neolithic1 Revolution, society as we know it today would be vastly different, and none of these other revolutions mentioned would have ever taken place.
For most of our time on Earth2, we humans lived as hunter-gatherers. Every day, groups of people would trap and kill wild animals, while others collected and prepared wild plants, nuts, fungi, and berries. If they were lucky and food was abundant, they were able to provide enough food for themselves and their children. If they were unlucky, they starved and died. In order to stay close to their food sources, hunter-gatherers needed to be mobile. They set up temporary camps, lived there for a while, and moved on when the food supply began to dwindle. For mobility, tribal units were small – just a few families, all of whom worked hard to keep themselves and their children alive. Because of the vagaries of weather, animal migrations, and the long seasons3, starvation was always just one step away. People had precious little time to do anything other than find food, warmth, and shelter for themselves and their families4.
The Dawn of the Neolithic Age
Fourteen thousand years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, a new lifestyle, known to archeologists as the Natufian culture, began to emerge in the Middle East. The Ice Age was coming to an end and temperatures were warming very quickly. Food became available in relative abundance for the first time in thousands of years. Instead of having to travel long distances to find food, some groups were able to live in the same place all year round. People started to build permanent dwellings. By 10,000 BC, the end of the Younger Dryas period, they were discovering that certain animals, such as goats, sheep, cattle and pigs, had temperaments and dispositions that made them easy to manage within close proximity to their dwellings. They selected and cultivated certain grasses, such as oats, wheat and barley, which provided nourishment to larger groups of people. These plants became common anywhere there was human settlement, eclipsing all other plant-food sources. They discovered how to store and preserve food over the harsh winter months. Thus, farming began and a new age, the Neolithic Age, was ushered in.
The Effects of the Neolithic Revolution
The move from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary farming lifestyle did not take place overnight. Neither was it unique to the Middle East: Latin America and China experienced totally independent Neolithic Revolutions at later periods in time. In fact, it can be argued that in the beginning, it was in many ways an inferior lifestyle to hunter-gathering, since settled people were easier targets for attack, their nutrition undoubtedly suffered due to lack of a balanced diet, and they were more likely to suffer diseases. However, by 7000 BC, it was the dominant occupation in the Middle East, and it was already taking hold in Southern Europe and Northern Africa. For those people affected, the change that had taken place was enormous. The changes were so profound they live on with us today.
The changes brought about by farming can be distilled into two key concepts - a sedentary lifestyle, and a food surplus.
In hunter-gatherer societies, women need a gap of at least three to four years between children, as multiple, highly dependent babies are incompatible with a mobile lifestyle. No such limitation existed when people lived in permanent settlements, and so it became possible for women to have children much more frequently. Additionally, as the techniques of plant cultivation and animal husbandry became more refined, it was possible to feed entire groups of people from relatively small numbers of food-sources, and still have food left over for storage during the winter months. People in agricultural communities were less subject to the whims of nature than hunter gatherers and thus had a higher chance of survival. Thus, a population explosion occurred, and over time villages, then towns, and eventually cities, took shape.
Another effect of the food surplus was that not everybody needed to be involved almost solely in the activity of finding and preparing food. People now had more time to do other things and some people were at liberty to dedicate themselves entirely to other pursuits. New skilled professions were born such as tool-making, milling, pottery, weaving, and carpentry, to name a few. Thus, the Neolithic Revolution gave rise to rapid technological progress that continues unabated to the present day.
Trade was always a feature of hunter-gatherer societies; however, with the development of farming it increased greatly in scope and scale. With excess food and newly created specialist crafts available, societies had a greater capacity to produce goods of value to others. A new class of specialists emerged to facilitate the exchange of goods : the merchants. In many cases these people became enormously wealthy and powerful. Inequality had arrived, and a whole new set of systems and structures would be required to deal with this.
All this wealth, prosperity, and stability had a downside. There were lots of people around who greatly coveted it, and would stop at nothing to get hold of it themselves. New security measures were required to keep unwanted people away from other peoples' possessions. Barriers and walls were constructed, leading in time to forts and citadels. Yet another group of specialists, soldiers, emerged, either to defend the property of the rich, or to attack others in order to achieve greater enrichment. Rules governing the rights of property ownership had to be devised and enforced, leading much later to the legal system as we know it today. Security still remains one of our biggest concerns today, with huge armies of soldiers and lawyers a common feature of developed societies.
The problems of these new, complex societies were many and varied: Dramatic increases in population with pressing demands on housing and food supply; disputes flaring up regularly due to the close proximity of families to each other; crime and threats from both within and without, made strong leadership and organisational skills absolutely necessary to the survival of a community.
A new political class emerged, specialising in the skills of governance. These people were in a position to enforce laws, punish law-breakers, rule over internal disputes, fight wars, and commission public works. They surrounded themselves with close groups of advisors and experts to help maintain their position of privilege. They raised finance for their endeavours by demanding tribute, or taxes, from their subjects. Myths were often invented to guarantee their exalted position over many generations. The art of kingship was born.
The new sedentary lifestyle brought with it an unprecedented and enduring threat. For the first time in history, large groups of humans, animals, waste material, and rubbish were concentrated together in the same households5. This close proximity conferred advantages to select organisms who were quickly able to jump species, infecting the human population in large numbers for the very first time. Examples included smallpox, tuberculosis and measles, influenza and malaria. It was around this time also that the rat attached itself to human societies and has prospered ever since. Although medicine has played a major role in quelling many diseases in modern society, many of them continue to kill millions of people each year.
Additional direct effects of the Neolithic Revolution would include pet ownership (cats, dogs), selective breeding (all farm animals, cereal crops, fruit, and vegetables), the foods that we eat today (e.g. bread, milk, beef, chicken, eggs), the clothes that we wear (wool, cotton, leather), the landscapes of today (massively denuded of trees, and in the Middle East, arid desert caused to some extent by over-farming during the Neolithic Age) and even, as has been suggested, our histories, in that relative agricultural advantages often led to political domination of one society by another in many parts of the globe.
Although it is widely acknowledged that agriculture did not occur overnight and that the transition from hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society took a few thousand years to complete, it would be folly to underestimate the effects on society caused by its introduction. Fourteen thousand years on, the Neolithic revolution still dominates our everyday lives.
Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel : The Fates of Human Societies. Vintage. 1998.
Mithen, Steven. After the Ice : a Global Human History 20,000BC-5,000BC. Weidenfield & Nicholson, 2003