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Development Domestication - Neolithic Revolution

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Pre-Pottery Neolithic A

Pre-Pottery Neolithic B

Pottery Neolithic

Tell Halaf
Ubaid period
Linear Pottery
Vinča culture
South Asia


Uruk period
Yamna culture
Corded Ware

farming, animal husbandry
pottery, metallurgy, wheel
circular ditches, henges, megaliths
Neolithic religion

Bronze Age

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 7-8 separate locales worldwide, with the earliest known developments taking place in the Middle East around 10,000 BCE or earlier.[1]

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 cultivation and storage technologies (e.g. irrigation) that allowed extensive surplus production. These developments provided the basis for high population densities, complex labor diversification, trading economies, centralized administrations and political structures, hiearchical 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.[2][3]

 Agricultural transition

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.

Knap of Howar farmstead occupied from 3500 BC to 3100 BC
Knap of Howar farmstead occupied from 3500 BC to 3100 BC

The beginning of this process in different regions has been  dated from perhaps 10,000 years ago in Melanesia[4][5] 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 plants and of a number of animal species.

There are several competing theories as to what drove populations to take up agriculture. These are:

In contrast to the Paleolithic, in which more than one human species existed, only one human species (Homo sapiens) reached the Neolithic.

 Domestication of plants

Neolithic grind stone for processing grain
Neolithic grind stone for processing grain

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.[12] 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.[12] 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.

A Sumerian Harvester's sickle dated to 3000 BC
A Sumerian Harvester's sickle dated to 3000 BC

Figs, barley and, most likely, oats were cultivated in the Jordan Valley, represented by the early Neolithic site of Gilgal, where in 2006[13] 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 which 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.

 Agriculture in Asia

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 which 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 which 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, there were a number of factors which contributed to the early onset of agriculture in Neolithic human societies.

 Agriculture in the Fertile Crescent

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.

 Agriculture in Africa

Nile River Valley, Egypt
Nile River Valley, Egypt

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. [14]

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. [14]

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.[14]

Prof. Fred Wendorf and Dr. Romuald Schild, of the Department of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University, have 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. Carbon-14 dates range from 15,000 to 16,300 BC, showing that this early grain harvesting preceded that of the Middle East by about 5,000 years.

The archaeologists state that "These are not the only Late Paleolithic sites which have been discovered in Egypt along the Nile, nor are they alone in containing stone artifact assemblages which seem to indicate the harvesting of grain. Among others are several sites at Wadi Tushka, near Abu Simbel, at Kom Ombo, north of Aswan, and a third group (a whole series of sites) near Esna. All these are in the Nile Valley." The Egyptian Esna culture shows "extensive use of cereals," date from 13,000 to 14,500 years ago.[citation needed]

They continue: "While the flaked stone industries from them are different from those found at Kubbaniya, the Tushka site yielded several pieces of stone with lustrous edges, indicating that they were used as sickles in harvesting grain."

Many such grinding stones are found with the early Egyptian Sebilian and Mechian cultures dating 10,000-13,000 BC. Smith[citation needed] 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 4,500 BC with the Tasian and Badarian cultures and the arrival of crops and animals from the Near East.

 Agriculture in the Americas

Corn, beans and squash were domesticated in Mesoamerica around 3500 BCE. 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 BCE. [14]

 Domestication of animals

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 sheep, goats, cows, and pigs. Out of the thousands of species of animals only fourteen eventually became domesticated for agricultural purposes.

 Domestication of animals in the Middle East

Dromedary Camel caravan in Algeria
Dromedary Camel caravan in Algeria

The Middle East served as the source for many domesticable animals, 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 where similarly separated by the narrow tropical Isthmus of Panama, that prevented the andes llama to be exported to the Mexican plateau.

 Domestication of animals in China's Yellow River valley

The agricultural revolution was inspired, in part, by the spreading of domesticated plants and animals and the growth of complex societies.

 Causes of the Neolithic Revolution

Harlan, examining the causes for the Neolithic Revolution, suggests 6 principal reasons which can be summarized to 3 principal categories:

  1. Domestication for religious reasons
  2. Domestication by crowding and as a consequence of stress
  3. Domestication resulting from discovery, based upon the perceptions of food gatherers

With regard to the first explanation, Ian Hodder, who directs the excavations at Çatalhöyük, 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" which led to new beliefs about the world and shared community rituals embodied in corpulent female figurines and the methodical assembly of aurochs horns.

An alternative explanation for the origin of agriculture is propounded by 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 in which it was possible 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.

 Consequences of the Neolithic Revolution

 Social change

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. 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.

The Neolithic Revolution had many results socially and economically. Socially people could have more children and social classes emerged. Economically a surplus of food meant that people could also specialize in different things. The Neolithic Revolution was clearly the start of our society as we know it today. About twelve thousand to six thousand years ago humans started to notice changes of season and when and how to grow food. The slow process of learning how to use the land brought about many changes in the world socially. The ability to know where food was, how to grow it and when you could eat it gave humans enough security to start settling and replace their nomadic hunter gatherer ways with agriculture and villages. As humans grew better and better at farming, there became a surplus of food. This resulted in an explosion of population as demonstrated in this chart:

Social evolution of humans
Period years ago Society type Number of individuals
100,000-10,000 Bands 10s-100s
10,000-5000 tribes 100s-1,000s
5,000-3,000 Chiefdoms 1,000s-10,000s
3,000-1,000 States 10,000s-100,000s
1,000-Present Empires 100,000-1,000,000s
Year Human Population
3000 B.C. 14 million
2000 B.C. 27 million
1000 B.C. 50 million
500 B.C. 100 million

The population nearly doubles every millennium as humans get better with agriculture and then from 1000 B.C. to 500 B.C. (only 500 years as compared to the 1000 years of the previous set) the population doubles in half the time. Agriculture also changed economics entirely. When humans were still nomadic hunter gatherers they had no time during the day to teach their children things other than how to hunt and gather. Finally, when the people could settle in villages and have a steady source of food do they really have time to take up special labor, “The concentration of large numbers of people in villages encouraged specialization of labor” (Traditions and Encounters textbook, p. 24). The best known Neolithic settlement that demonstrates this is Çatal Hüyük. At this Neolithic village archeologists have found “pots, baskets, textiles, leather, stone and metal, wood carvings, carpets, beads, and jewelry…” (Traditions and Encounters textbook, p. 24). Pottery, metallurgy, and textile production were the main three industries that started at that time. After people started to settle and specialize and have more children the egalitarian society of the hunter gatherers also changed. Social classes emerged as familial wealth gets passed from one generation to the next. At Çatal Hüyük archeologists have found differences in interior decoration of one house to another, which clearly shows one family’s wealth as compared to another’s. The Neolithic Revolution has even shaped our society into what it is today. If humans before us had not learned to farm humans today would probably be extinct or there would be just as few humans today as there were twelve thousand years ago.

 Subsequent revolutions

Domesticated cow being milked in Ancient Egypt
Domesticated cow being milked in Ancient Egypt

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 and so it is likely that populations which 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.


Llama overlooking the ruins of the Inca city of Machu Picchu
Llama overlooking the ruins of the Inca city of Machu Picchu

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 from disease, 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 any European set foot within sight of entire civilisations like the Mississippi river cultures. 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 domesticed. 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 susceptable 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.[15]

In recent years, proximity with different domesticated animals in certain parts of south-east Asia and China is also a highly potent source of diseases like the common flu, SARS or the possible transmission to humans of the avian influenza. The source of many other recent diseases has been traced to wild animals for example non-human primates in the case of ebola and HIV/AIDS.


In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond argues that Europeans and East Asians benefited from an advantageous geographical location which 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. Due in part to their head start in the Neolithic Revolution, the Europeans were able to use their technology and endemic diseases, to which indigenous populations had never been exposed, to colonize most of the globe[citation needed].

 See also


  1. ^ "Origin of agriculture and domestication of plants and animals linked to early Holocene climate amelioration", Anil K. Gupta*, Current Science, Vol. 87, No. 1, 10 July 2004
  2. ^ "The Slow Birth of Agriculture", Heather Pringle*
  3. ^ [http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/archaeology/sites/middle_east/zawichemishanidar.html "Zawi Chemi Shanidar", EMuseum, Minnesota State University]
  4. ^ Denham, Tim P.; et al. (2003). "Origins of Agriculture at Kuk Swamp in the Highlands of New Guinea". Science 301 (5630): 189–193. doi:10.1126/science.1085255. PMID 12817084.
  5. ^ The Kuk Early Agricultural Site
  6. ^ Gordon Childe (1936). Man Makes Himself. Oxford university press.
  7. ^ Charles E. Redman (1978). Rise of Civilization: From Early Hunters to Urban Society in the Ancient Near East. San Francisco: Freeman.
  8. ^ Hayden, Brian (1992). "Models of Domestication", in Anne Birgitte Gebauer and T. Douglas Price: Transitions to Agriculture in Prehistory. Madison: Prehistory Press, 11-18.
  9. ^ Sauer, Carl, O (1952). Agricultural origins and dispersals.
  10. ^ Binford, Lewis R. (1968). "Post-Pleistocene Adaptations", in Sally R. Binford and Lewis R. Binford: New Perspectives in Archaeology. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 313-342.
  11. ^ Rindos, David (Dec 1987). The Origins of Agriculture: An Evolutionary Perspective. Academic Press. ISBN 978-0125892810).
  12. ^ a b Weiss, Ehud; Kislev, Mordechai E.; Hartmann, Anat (2006). "Autonomous Cultivation Before Domestication". Science 312 (5780): 1608–1610. doi:10.1126/science.1127235. PMID 16778044.
  13. ^ Tamed 11,400 Years Ago, Figs Were Likely First Domesticated Crop, <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/06/060602074522.htm>
  14. ^ a b c d Diamond, Jared (1999). "How Africa became black", Guns, Germs, and Steel. ISBN 0-393-31755-2.
  15. ^ Marshall, P. J. Ed. (1996), Cambridge illustrated History: British Empire, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-00254-0, p. 142