Origins of agriculture
This article discusses the various centres of domestication out of which todays modern civilizations were formed; also the relative advantages and disadvantages of the hunter-gatherer, pastoralist, and farming modes of existence.
The article Agraria investigates the wider context of the emergence of civilization that was part of the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution.
Origins of agriculture
There is another, more subtle, distinction between ‘cultivated plants’, as simply ‘plants in cultivation’ and ‘domesticated plants’ as ‘plants in cultivation that have been genetically altered in some way by humans’. For clarity it needs pointing out that there are degrees of domestication and that most early agricultural crops probably began as ‘cultivated wild plants – little altered, if at all, by humans’ up to modern cultivars (cultivated varieties) that cannot exist without human attention.
If food is plentiful in nature then there is no need to adopt any form of plant cultivation. Small-scale horticulture may provide food nearby and involve simple tools and small plots for local use, perhaps within a family or small community. There is no intention to accumulate a surplus as a way of earning a living through trade are engaging in the organised mass-production of food under a central control. In forests swidden agriculture (slash or clear and burn). work-based agriculture which requires other pressures such as food shortages maybe resulting from rapid population growth. Pastoralists may be sedentary or nomadic, the latter sometimes following seasonal pasture.
Though agriculture is sometimes discussed as though it arose all at once, in the form we recognize today. However, it is now considered more likely that agriculture, and its practices, followed many different historical paths. Food plants would have been grown near dwellings in tilled and irrigated enclosed areas protected from wandering animals. Maybe the seed of food plants brought to the camps and discarded grew into plantations on waste heaps suggesting that plants could be deliberately grown together.
Worldwide it seems there were many kinds of proto-farming before the arrival of the fields and pastures that we are familiar with today. No doubt plant harvesting took forms appropriate to the local ecology . . . in riparian regions, forest, woodland, savannah and so forth.
Forms of social organization and environmental management would have been diverse, even after cities had become established. Tribal nomadic herders like the Israelites of the Hebrew bible were itinerant pastoralists who wandered with their herds, trading with the settled farmers. In the jungles of New Guinea shifting agriculture was practised, sites were cleared and worked until plant disease and nutrient impoverishment prompted a move to a new site. There is archaeological evidence that Kalahari bushmen grew crops (sorghum, millet, melons and cowpeas) at different times in their history. In Australia, food plants were managed by burning of natural vegetation to flush out animals and induce succulent new shoots, now known as ‘firestick farming’  but this wasn’t the only way. Wild cereals were sometimes harvested in situ.  and yams and other plants propagated and managed in a horticulture-like manner.
With different forms of social organization came different methods of agriculture, plant cultivation, and land management. Knowledge of the origins of farming inevitably rests on archaeological evidence. Unfortunately archaeological sites are like fossils in that they provide single and possibly misrepresentative snapshots of structures and artefacts from a single place and time in the past. Because nomadic communities left little or no archaeological evidence, it is easy to assume that farming arose suddenly and spontaneously in its various centres of origin to be eagerly grasped and pursued (according to the Enlightenment perception) as a major and inevitable step marking social, cultural and economic progress. But there is archaeological evidence that Kalahari bushmen, for example, grew crops (sorghum, millet, melons and cowpeas) at some times and not at others. If food was abundant then there was no incentive to undergo change: in such cases nature provided and minimal physical effort was involved while farming always involved toil.
The controlling use of fire is assumed to have emerged 1-2 million years ago. It would seem likely that the emergence of farming was just one approach to environmental management.
Early material culture includes querns (cereal grinding stones) that have been dated from 18,000 BP. Dogs may have been domesticated up to 100,000 years ago, and plants may have been ‘cultivated’ or ‘gardened’ for thousands of years before physical evidence of a selection process became evident. We may never have answers to these questions, but a process of gradual change is more plausible than an abrupt transition.
Centres of domestication
Scholars are uncertain about the degree of independence of the worlds early agricultural centres. As climatic conditions suitable for plant cultivation arose in the ‘lucky latitudes’, it is probable that agriculture arose independently in four major geographic zones: the Near East, where communities of Mesopotamia and Egypt traded through the Fertile Crescent along the river valleys of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates, linked to other cultures using metals and, further eastwards, the Indus Valley civilization; in the Americas were two regions, the Meso-American one we associate with the Aztecs, and the South American one we associate with the Andean culture of the Incas; in Australasia there was irrigated farming in Papua-New Guinea, and rudimentary plant husbandry in Australia; in the Pacific there was the domestication developed by settlers from southeast Asia; in Far Eastern China there were the Yangtze and Yellow River basins.
Dating the origins of agriculture is still imprecise. Querns (cereal grinding stones) have been dated from 18,000 BP and the controlling use of fire is assumed to have emerged 1-2 million years ago. Dogs may have been domesticated up to 100,000 years ago and plants ‘cultivated’ or ‘gardened’ for thousands of years before physical evidence of a selection process became evident. We may never know, but a process of gradual change appears more plausible than an abrupt transition.
Current archaeological evidence indicates that agricultural societies arose independently in, at most, nine areas of the world: Near Eastern Mesopotamia (9,500 BP) and spreading to Egypt, Mesoamerica including Central Mexico (9,000 BP), the E USA (4,500 BP), Southern and Central Andes (7,000 BP), Southern China (Yangtze) (8,500 BP) and North China (Huang Ho or Yellow River) (7,900 BP), and Sub-saharan Africa (4,000 BP), Sahel, tropica West Africa and Ethiopia, and New Guinea. Most of these cultures were based on nutritious cereal grasses whose seed could be easily stored: wheat in Europe, rice in Asia, maize in the Americas, and sorghum in Africa.
The main eastern centre in China arose about 2,000 years after that in Mesopotamia and it established a geographic divide between perhaps the world’s two major centres of domestication, one across the Fertile Crescent in SW Asia, the other in Asia between the Yellow and Yangtzi rivers, this marking a historically significant cultural divide between East and West that remains today.
Six zones of agrarian innovation
Near East (Fertile Crescent), Eastern America, Mesoamerica, South America, Australasia, and China. From these six zones emerged further centres of domestication
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Accessed 12 October 2020
PLANT DOMESTICATION BP
Neolithic Agricultural Revolution
From about 10,000 to 4,000 years ago hunter-gatherers began a major transition in mode of living, changing from nomadic hunter-gatherers dependent on seasonal food sources, to permanently settled communities producing and storing food by farming domesticated animals and plants. This is a change that appears to have taken place independently in five or more centres around the world.
The Agricultural Revolution, as it is known, was probably the single most momentous environmental, economic and social change in human history. By about 2,000 BP most of the world’s population had become dependent on agriculture.
Milking a Cow in Ancient Egypt
Scanned from 1000 Fragen an die Natur, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1948
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
For our purposes a domesticate is an animal or plant that has been altered genetically in some way by humans to increase its utility; it is therefore different from mere taming of animals or cultivation of plants. Plants altered in this way are called cultigens since, technically, the word ‘species’ is only appropriate for plants that have evolved freely in nature.
Archaeological evidence for the early human selection of emmer, einkorn wheat, and barley has been found in the Middle East from sites at Jericho in Palestine and Čatal Hüyük in Turkey. In the Jordan Valley, by 11,300 BP, there was already selection of higher yielding, large-grained varieties of wheat and barley, and in about 11,000 BP the world’s earliest known granaries were constructed.
Before 9,000 BP herders had selected plumper and more docile goats, wild aurochs were domesticated into animals akin to today’s cows, and wild boars into animals resembling today’s pigs. Apart from the meat they provided there were the additional advantages of wool, milk, structural materials, and muscle-power. Oxen could be harnessed to carts and, by 6,000 BP, the plough was in operation.
Researchers like Jared Diamond point out that here was a uniquely rich confluence of arable land and domesticable plants and animals and with such a rich resource base the Fertile Crescent was an obvious site to be among the first to take up domestication, cultivation and selection of new higher-yielding varieties of cereals in all likelihood being first carried out by women who were responsible for the food preparation.
Among the earliest and most researched are the early agrarian communities of Mesopotamia. Agricultural technology even at this time included elaborate irrigation systems and flood control, the plough, and plant selection. This civilisation thrived in a lush and productive land area known as the Fertile Crescent or Hilly Flanks which, most of the human settlements built on the rich sedimentary soils of the Tigris and Euphrates River Delta in what is present-day Iraq although permanent housing and grinding stones indicating village life have been found at ‘Ain Mallaha in Israel dating back 14,500 years. Though still cultivated in places, much of this land is now impoverished due to saltation produced by overwatering. Current research is based on several key archaeological sites:
Neolithic Agriculture arises first in the hilly flanks, moving into the fertile river valleys of the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates and the eastern Mediterranean coast
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Nafsadh – Accessed 16 Nov. 2015
Göbekli Tepe is a Neolithic (stone-age) hilltop sanctuary. It is the world’s oldest known religious structure, dating to about 10,000 BCE and was erected at the top of a mountain ridge in southeastern Anatolia (Asia Minor, Turkey) with stone pillars decorated with carved reliefs of animals and undeciphered pictograms. Excavation began in 1994. When constructed the surrounding countryside was quite lush and capable of supporting a range of wildlife although the area today is extremely dry after millennia of settlement and cultivation. With no evidence of domesticated plants or animals the builders are presumed to have been sedentary hunter-gatherers who probably lived in villages for some of the year. It is perhaps significant that in the nearby mountains is a wild einchorn wheat whose heads of seeds remain fused together unlike most forms of wheat whose seeds were scattered independently suggesting the Göbekli Tepe region as a possible site of wheat domestication. Here 7000 years before stonehenge was built was a community that commanded a massive labour force and an ideology that would make them submit.
Nevalı Çori was another early Neolithic settlement on the middle Euphrates of modern-day eastern Turkey where some of the world’s oldest temples and monumental sculpture has been found. In northern Israel another site at ‘Ain Mallaha was built and settled circa 12,000–10,000 BP, with a semi-sedentary population: here also were stone monuments, buildings with roofs and hearths and a burial site containing both a human and domestic dog – the first known archeological evidence of dog domestication. Hand mortars found at the site would have been used for grinding wild nuts and grain and stone sickles used to crop plants from wild stands, probably wheat and barley. Surrounded by hills and near the ancient Lake Huleh it would have been part of a forest of oak, almond, and pistachio trees. Perhaps here were the ancestors of the first Neolithic builders. Also here is some evidence for the deliberate cultivation of cereals, specifically rye, at the Tell Abu Hureyra site, this being the earliest evidence for agriculture in the world although it is known that the culture usually used wild cereals. Villagers here were part of the Natufian culture of sedentary hunter-gatherers who lived from 10,000-13,000 BP partly in villages in the Levant (Israel, Syria, Lebanon), their diet including large and small mammals, fish and cereals (broad-spectrum revolution). They built hillside terraces and permanent structures, having a commensal fauna of sparrows, rats and mice and a proto-hierarchical social structure.
Sites like Göbekli Tepe and Nevalı Çori indicate a possible intermediate phase in the transition from sedentary hunter-forager to agriculture that took perhaps thousands of years. The DNA of modern domesticated wheat is closest in sequence to wild wheat found on Mount Karaca Dağ about 32 km away from the site so this is possibly a region where wheat was first domesticated as there are several neolithic sites in the vicinity.
Another early settlement gaining archaeological attention is Tell Brak (Nagar, Nawar), an ancient holy city in today’s Syria and dating back to the 7th century BCE. Aerial photogrammetry indicates early roads and the intensive cultivation of wheat and barley. Among the city inhabitants have been Halafians,Semites and Hurrians, its location ideal for trade between Anatolia, the Levant and southern Mesopotamia. In southern Mesopotamia the original Ubaid culture evolved into the Uruk period of expanding civilization. In Northern Mesopotamia, the post Ubaid period is known as the Late Chalcolithic/Northern Uruk period, considered a period of major expansiom for Tell Brak.[WP]
Contact between the Indus Valley civilization and Mesopotamia would have occurred after 9000 BCE by the diffusion of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution. The prehistoric agriculture of South Asia probably combined local resources, such as humped cattle, with agricultural resources from the Near East around the 8th–7th millennium BCE and then, from about the 3rd millennium BCE, later additions from Africa and East Asia. Mehrgarh (a site on the Kacchi Plain of Balochistan,Pakistan dated to about 7000 BCE) is one of the earliest sites with evidence of farming and herding in South Asia associated with Near Eastern agricultural material culture that including wheat, barley, goats, sheep and cattle. Rectangular houses and female figurines also resembled those of the Near East.
However, the Near-Eastern origin of South Asian agriculture may be complicated as the early domestication of plant and animal species could have occurred as rapidly shared ideas passing between the Mediterranean to the Indus although wild wheat has never been found in South Asia, not even exctinct species, indicating a Near East origin.
Trade between the Indus Valley civilization and Mesopotamia is thought to have developed during the second half of 3rd millennium BCE, ceasing with the extinction of the Indus valley civilization beginning around 1900 BCE. Mesopotamia had served as intermediary in the trade of lapis lazuli between South Asia and Egypt from at least 3200 BCE.
Eight Neolithic founder crops, the first known domesticated plants in the world, have been isolated in the Fertile Crescent of southwest Asia, and it was these that have formed the core of today’s Western crops (and therefore those grown in Australia today) as well as those of India, Persia and North Africa. They were the cereals Emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum, descended from the wild T. dicoccoides), Einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum, descended from the wild T. boeoticum) and hulled Barley (Hordeum vulgare/sativum, descended from the wild H. spontaneum); the pulses Lentil (Lens culinaris), Pea (Pisum sativum), Chickpea (Cicer arietinum) and Bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia), also the clothing plant Flax (Linum usitatissimum).
Rye (Secale cereale) has been found in the final epi-Palaeolithic strata at Tell Abu Hureyra> in the Euphrates valley of Syria and is the earliest instance of a domesticated plant dating back to about 11,050 BP. it was an insignificant in the Neolithic Period of southwest Asia and only became common with the spread of farming into northern Europe several millennia later.
Cereals were mostly grown in more temperate climates and involved work tilling, weeding, watering, burning and so on. In more tropical climes like South America and New Guinea it was mostly root and fruit crops that were grown: yam, taro, potato, avocado, mango, and banana.
NEAR-EASTERN FOUNDER CROPS
The basin of the Yellow River (Huang He) in today’s northern China was the birthplace of ancient Chinese civilization. It is the second-longest river in China, after the Yangtze, and the sixth-longest in the world. Tools used for the hunter-gatherer grinding of wild plants date back 23,000–19,500 years, these tools were later used to grind millet and rice.
Domesticated millet has been found in northern sites at Xinglonggou, Yuezhang, Dadiwan, Cishan, and Peiligang covering the period around 7250-6050 BCE although millet was only a small proportion of the diet, at Xinglonggou making up c. 15% of all plant remains around 7200-6400 BCE, but 99% by 2050-1550 BCE.
The earliest known Neolithic site in eastern China is Kuahuqiao where rice cultivation dates back to 7,700 BP. About half the plant remains were the domesticated rice Oryza. It is possible that the people at Kuahuqiao also cultivated the wild type. Finds at sites of the Hemudu Culture (c.5500-3300 BCE) in Yuyao and Banpo near Xi’an include millet and spade-like tools made of stone and bone. Evidence of settled rice agriculture has been found at the Hemudu site of Tianluoshan (5000-4500 BCE), with rice becoming the backbone of the agricultural economy by the Majiabang culture in southern China. According to the Records of the Grand Historian some female prisoners in historic times were given the punishment to be “grain pounders” (Chinese: 刑舂) as an alternative to more severe corporal punishment like tattooing or cutting off a foot. Some scholars believe the four or five year limits on these hard labor sentences began with Emperor Wen’s legal reforms. There is also a long tradition involving agriculture in Chinese mythology.
The nativity of wild rice is debated although it was discovered growing naturally in the Yangtze Valley in 1984 and scientific evidence from phytoliths confirm its natural occurrence in this region.
Rice cultivation commences in the Yangtze Valley around 8000 to 7500 BCE and by the 5th millennium BCE, the lower Yangtze was a major population center occupied by the Hemudu and Majiabang cultures who were among the earliest cultivators of rice. By the 3rd millennium BCE, the successor Liangzhu culture included aspects of the Longshan peoples of the North China Plain. What is now thought of as Chinese culture developed along the more fertile Yellow River basin. The ‘Yue’ people of the lower Yangtze were a very different tradition, considered a barbarous people by their northern neighbours, noted for blackening their teeth, cutting hair short, tattooing their bodies, and living in small settlements among bamboo groves.
The Central Yangtze valley developed more sophisticated Neolithic cultures and was the first portion of the Yangtze valley to be accepted by cultures in the north.
Archaeological research in the Kuk Swamp region of the Wahgi Valley in the highlands of Papua New Guinea show that agriculture began around 7,000 – 10,000 years ago. Unequivocal evidence for the planting and tending of crops in mounds including banana, taro, and yam is dated to 6590–6440 BP, and water control supporting agricultural fields was instituted between 4350–3980 BP. Cultivation involved the digging, staking, and irrigation of plants that included taro, banana, sago and yam. In a wave of plant introduction in the 17th to 19th centuries sweet potato, cassava and tobacco arrived from the Americas. Brought by Europeans to Indonesia they then spread to New Guinea. In the 19th century, after 1870, another wave of European introductions included beans, coffee, corn, durian, lemon, lime, pumpkin, mangosteen, orange, guava, papaya, and watermelon. Today’s cash crops, by value, are coffee, oil, cocoa, copra, tea, rubber, and sugar. [WP]
STAPLE CARBOHYDRATE FOODS
* Crops domesticated in New Guinea area Unmarked names have an uncertain domestication history or are ancient introductions. Table adapted from .
Around 8200 BCE cultivation had begun in the Americas: squash in the Nanchoc Valley of Peru, and around 7500-6000 in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico.
Incas of Peru
Incan civilization emerged out of the Timanaku, Wari, and Chimu cultures. Incan scientific agricultural expertise, building on that of its predecessors, is demonstrated in the Cuzco Valley where, at Moray in terrain at an altitude of 3500 m, they terraced the mountain-side with retaining walls, a stone base and gritty substrate covered with fertile topsoil.
Using the resultant elevational microclimates it was possible to grow a range of plants from top to bottom of these terraced crop amphitheatres where they cultivated tomato, squash, pumpkin and tobacco.
Between 8000 and 3000 BCE there was the domestication of Llamas, alpacas, potato, corn, beans, peanuts, squashes, quinoa, coca, and ceviche. Cultivated forms of squash had emerged in Peru’s Nanchoc Valley by 8200 BCE and peanuts were in cultivation by 6500 BCE.
Aztecs of Mexico
The Aztecs of Central America were a sophisticated culture that used both terraced farming in the highlands and chinampas (floating islands) inherited from the Tolmec culture. Fertile canal mud was layered on a base of branches in the shallow lowland lakes of the Oaxaca Valley and secured with trees. Removal of mud created canals or channels. Here the staples of corn, squash, and beans were grown together as the ‘Three Sisters’. Crop rotation, growing crops together, and leaving land fallow for a period helped maintain soil fertility. Terraced farming like that of the Incas was also practiced and homes would often include orchards and vegetable patches.
Maize (corn) was the most important crop, easily stored and milled into flour. Squash came in many forms including the pumpkin, which contained protein-rich seed, and bottle gourd.
The Aztec diet also included avocados, tomatoes, and guavas while cotton and rubber provided for other needs.
The Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was taken and claimed by Spain in the name of conquistador Hernán Cortés in August 1521 and immediately new crops and agricultural practices were introduced, notably the cultivation of wheat.
Mayans of Central America
Mayan civilization, which was centred on the Yucatan Peninsula in Meso-America, peaked around 250-900 CE. It was a civilization with maths, calendars, and writing along with advanced hydraulic engineering that included aqueducts, dams, and drains that addressed the sanitation and hygiene needs of their cities as well as the irrigation of their crops. Corn (maize), was the major crop together with beans and squash, their use dating back to about 1500 BCE. By 600 CE cassava (sweet manioc) was also being used as a source of carbohydrate.
The land farmed included rainforest, swamps, and mountain hillsides. Techniques included slash-and-burn (clearing, burning, planting in ash, then when nutrients are depleted, moving on), terracing and, like the Aztecs, they used raised reed-based muddy islands in low swampy areas (bajos) that could produce three crops a year. The forest was also ‘gardened’ for wild edible tubers, roots and berries while cacao and gum trees were also harvested.
Why agriculture began
Archaeological and biological research has now revealed much about where and how agriculture emerged. There is, however, keen discussion about, first, why it happened at all and, second, whether it was, overall, for the better. The perception that farming arose suddenly, spontaneously, and inevitably in several sites across the world simply because it was ‘better’ has, in recent times, received much criticism.
It can no longer be assumed that people turned to agriculture when it became practical, or when they were forced to do so, there may have been multiple reasons and each particular locality may have presented its own challenges.
But by the 1960s this assumption was under challenge. Some researchers maintained that agriculture was adopted, not as a fortuitous discovery but as a last resort. Famous anthropologist Jared Diamond has described agriculture as ‘the worst mistake in the history of the human race‘. Civilised lifestyles had generated costs as well as benefits. Modern research has revealed that even though levels of violence were high, traditional peoples were not necessarily deprived. Many accessed ample supplies of food relatively easily, allowing leisure time for cultural and religious activities.
Civilization & moral improvement
Through most of the 18th century Enlightenment, and during the 19th century period of European colonial expansion it was assumed that agriculture was a natural and inevitable step on the path of human progress, bringing civilization with it – the cities, technology, and many advantages that urban living had to offer. Indeed, agriculture was associated with moral improvement, one factor used to justify the subjugation, enslavement, and Europeanization of indigenous peoples around the world: it was ‘for their own good’.
Even into the 20th century 1940s and 50s it was presumed that agriculture was ‘. . . a highly desirable and welcome invention providing security and leisure time . . . ‘
Apart from the constraints of kinship relations the nomadic lifestyle offered a high degree of social freedom and equality. Sedentism meant constraints on movement, adherence to work schedules, and obedience to the dictates of social superiors. Workers who maintained city metabolism became locked into highly regulated and arduous lives. Hierarchical societies produced new social dictinctions between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, masters and slaves, kings and priests.
Extra food did not mean improved diets. Luxury foods and objects passed mostly to pampered social elites – as was the case in the early days of salt, spices, sugar, tea and coffee. Hunter-gatherer diets were varied with a multitude of different meats and plants while early city dwellers probably lived on a monotonous diet of porridge and gruel.
Hunter-gatherers, rather than living on the brink of starvation, frequently enjoyed diets that included a variety of meats and plants. In contrast, workers in the cities were fed sa monotonous diet of porridge and gruel while the social elite were pampered with luxury foods.
With a steady food (energy) supply, populations would rapidly increase and this would result in a heavy toll on the resources of the immediate surroundings – its animals, trees, water, building materials etc. In some cases this was sufficient to threaten the very existence of the community which would have to move on, probably by raiding adjacent land and peoples.
Certainly violence appears to have been greater in hunter-gatherer societies with agrarian communities, protected by law, engaging in warfare at the state rather than local level.
Even when life was going well, flourishing agricultural communities and their material possessions might attract the military attentions of less fortunate surrounding communities. Being restricted to a single location meant vulnerability to attack and this increased the sense of ownership especially to land because it provided their food. Because land needed protection, armies were assembled and those civilizations with the most soldiers and superior weaponry would generally prevail.
In an extended treatise on violence through the ages, Harvard professor of psychology Stephen Pinker concludes that: “Across time and space, the more peaceable societies also tend to be richer, healthier, better educated, better governed, more respectful of their women, and more likely to engage in trade” and he notes that as far as violence itself is concerned we are, at present, probably more peaceful than ever before in history (although we are also capable of greater destruction than ever before). Philosopher Thomas Hobbes had pointed out that without an external controlling power (the state or a legal system) independent human groups (tribes) have no recourse to justice with frequent violence the result. Pinker firmly believes that human nature definitely veers to the Hobbesian rather than Rousseau’s idea of the innocent and noble savage (see Human nature): that there is an unspoken acceptance of loss of indicidual freedom in exchange for the security of a group. In absolute terms it seems that death rates from conflict were extremely high in hunter-gather communities. Even so, the new city-states could be run ruthlessly with the abusive imposed peace of despots, priests and ruling elites even though the absolute death rate may have been lower on average.
People living in ancient cities were prone to epidemic disease just as we are today; they were mostly less healthy with smaller stature and greater incidence of tooth decay than their nomadic counterparts. The work was harder and there was a heavier burden of disease. Milling wheat with grinding stones is attributed to the arthritis that has been found in the bones of ancient Egyptians along with abscesses around the roots of the teeth, probably the result of eating cereals containing large quantities of sand.
Famine & pestilence
Crops were vulnerable to pests, diseases, trampling by stock, drought, extreme weather events and long-term climate change. Stored seed too could deteriorate, be subject to plagues of insects or rodents while the irrigated land used for the crops could become salty through overwatering, or depleted of nutrients.
The power of numbers combined with military technology and the control trade and land meant that agricuturists meant that hunter-gatherers were generally forced to the periphery, returning occasionally for a moment of glory. Until recent times cultures like the Inuit, Kalahari Bushmen and Australian Desert Aborigines persisted in climates unsuited to agriculture, but even these peoples have succumbed in the twentieth century.
There is little evidence that agriculture is more efficient than farming in the sense of having a higher energy yield per unit of labour, its main advantage being that it yields more food per unit of land.
It may be assumed that in general hunter-gatherers worked harder in the face of an unreliable food supply. However, the contarary may have been the case.
in such cases nature was generous, so the need for the backbreaking toil of farming would seem unnecessary. Perhaps the emergence of farming was just one approach to environmental management among many.
The Neolithic Revolution forces us to confront the origins of our own world and to ask several major questions. Was this a direction taken by humanity that has turned out well? Was it an inevitable path of social development? With the benefit of hindsight, how would we do things differently now, that is, what are the lessons to be learned from the Neolithic Revolution that can help us improve our future management of planet Earth?
Our views about the Neolithic Revolution are a litmus test for our perceptions of the present – about which we may be optimistic or pessimistic (see world views).
Over the long term civilization has brought with it social hierarchies, the existential threat of modern nuclear warfare, and the environmental degradation created by technologically sophisticated populations. Farming has converted more than half of the Earth’s landscape from a wild state of nature into artificial man-made cultural landscapes specializing in the production of crops for its resource-hungry and still growing population. This has been done by ploughing native grasslands in land-grabs across the world as, for example, the North American prairie, clearing forests, and draining swamps. Vast Northern European forests of birch, oak, pine, and ash that flourishing after the last Ice Age have gone, felled partly for fuel and timber but more for farming.
In spite of all this, the advantages of modern civilisation seem self-evident and compelling: long-distance trade in all kinds of products; development of complex technology through applied science; sophisticated systems of education, government and law; increased physical comfort and reduced physical toil; flourishing of arts, science, and architecture; increased political stability; reduced deaths from violence and much more. Very few people would choose to return to a world without today’s medicine, arts, literature, intellectual diversity, communication technology, and material comforts.
In terms of simple happiness it is possible that hunter-gatherers were, in general, a happy and free people rather than the miserable and savage brutes European intellectuals took them to be. For many hunter-gatherers food was plentiful, lives relatively healthy and baseline happiness much like that of today. Aboriginals in Australia were known for ‘going walkabout’, avoiding the unnecessary drudgery of the European farming existence. Perhaps it was the farmers who were the unhappy ones being, in effect, a subjugated people, tied to a regime of relentless and monotonous toil. In any event, broad-scale adoption of agriculture is now a fact. Then, as now, material success, happiness, and mode of social organization are not necessarily correlated. Clearly farming, as a form of social organization ‘worked’ – questions about work commitment, happiness, destiny, progress, and moral or spiritual uplift were secondary.
The transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer in the wild to agrarian citizens in cities and empires help us to think about the impacts of two key factors: social cooperation and social scale.
The particular interests of this web site in the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution relate, first, to the role of plants themselves in this momentous human transition and, second, to the impact of agriculture on human sustainability as the synergistic interaction of the three pillars of environment, society, and economics.
There is little doubt that communities were stablished in environmentally suitable situations. One key factor was the availability of plants and animals suitable for domestication. Cereals, as seeds, were not only highly nutritious per unit volume but could be stored for long periods and were relatively easy to propagate. Farming communities may sometimes have formed natural spatial units with limiting boundaries, possibly physical (like desert of poor land) or cultural (like unfriendly neighbours commandeering resources). Water was needed for irrigation so river valleys with fertile soils were ideal sites.
At least in the Near East, S Sahara and E United States the farming communities were relatively large and semi-permanent hunter-gatherer settlements located near wetlands and rivers which provided an ample local food supply and a future water source for irrigation. The Its advantages and disadvantages will be considered later but in general terms the effect of farming on living standards is uncertain: a nomadic lifestyle restricted population size and was possibly violent: in many instances the opportunity to increase food production probably resulted in a decline in consumption, leisure and life-expectancy. When we look at the disadvantages of farming we might well ask why people adopted a lifestyle likely to involve more work and poor health?
Climate & environmental change
Did agriculture arise as a consequence of the much more conducive climate and conditions that arose towards the end of the Pleistocene? Prior to the Holocene (the last 12,000 years) climatic change had been more abrupt with mean annual swings in temperature of 10F fairly common with a generally drier, colder climate. Such conditions may have been a contributing factor but many hold that there were other forces at work.
After the height of the last Ice Age (the Last Glacial Maximum or LGM) about 20,000 years ago global warming began and glaciers melted until about 14,700 years ago when, within a space of about 50 years, the world warmed a staggering 30C to be within a couple of degrees of present-day temperatures. By 14,500 BP Britain was covered with an ice-age tundra and inhabited by creatures like the reindeer, snowy owl and arctic hare. With warming by 10,000 BP this community had changed to woodland with red deer and wild boar, remnants of this time remaining up to 1950s before being swallowed up by industrial agriculture. With the warming came a rise in sea level, a burst of plant growth that provided food for animals to multiply and humans to prosper. Two zones opened up in the northern hemisphere where conditions were particularly suited to human survival: the first was between 20–35o N in the Old World, the second between 15-20o S in the New World and it is here that we see the first evidence of settled villages and buildings on the Hilly Flanks, the elevated ground flanking the Tigris, Euphrates and Jordan rivers.
From 12,800 to 11,600 BP another brief cooling (known as the Younger Dryas) occurred before temperatures like those of today returned and villages reappeared, this time with pots and other personal possessions.
When population numbers have grown sufficiently to cause food scarcity then at that point farming becomes an increasingly attractive option as finding food consumes ever greater quantities of body energy. But why did population pressure become significant through this particular period?
Archaeological and biological research has now revealed much about where and how agriculture emerged but the reasons why it happened at all are more speculative. In very general terms it may be that in some cases the land could no longer support the numbers, or that living in a large group provided greater safety. However, each particular locality may have presented its own challenges and causes. At least in the Near East, S Sahara and E United States the farming communities were relatively large and semi-permanent hunter-gatherer settlements located near wetlands and rivers which provided an ample local food supply and a future water source for irrigation. The key plant domesticates were generally cereals (seeds): not only were these relatively easily propagated and cared for but they were highly nutritious per unit and could be stored for long periods. The immediate area around the community had limiting boundaries, either physical (like desert of poor land) or cultural (like unfriendly neighbours commandeering resources). Taken collectively factors like these would have encouraged sedentism. [population pressure, environmental change, co-evolution of plants and people]
With the Neolithic Revolution the physical surroundings that shape the path of our evolution (the environment of evolutionary adaptedness) began to change as the natural world of hunter-gatherers with its wild animals and plants was steadily replaced by a world of intensified social interaction in concentrated urban communities, living in buildings, and eating domesticated plants and animals. An environment of nature was being replaced by an environment of culture. Humans had created their own ‘artificial’ environments and food systems. Whether this is in any way a matter for concern will be discussed later but the physical dislocation is beyond dispute. With the advent of permanent dwellings and the domestication of plants and animals began a process of separation from wild nature that has continued to the present.
Ecology: Exceptionally fertile land combined with a water supply allowed the development of food and irrigation systems that could provide a stored surplus acting as a protection against famine and also as the basis for trade as part of a centralised distributive economy. It was this food surplus that supported the new economic division of labour and access to a water supply was critical.
An increase in population could have stimulated intensive agriculture and social stratification. Trade and security might be increased by tapping into the different resources produced in other ecological and geographic zones.
Technology and trade: social development is often associated with advances in technology and improvements in trade indicated, for instance, by the recognition of the importance of metals in the Bronze Age and Iron Age and it seems that from systems of barter and redistribution developed more complex methods involving fixed prices and currencies and the long-distance trade of both basic commodities and luxury goods all of which resulted in the division of labour and the essentials needed to live more varied material lives. Even so, trade is affected by many variables: the extent of the network, the transport vehicles and items traded, the particular social and political situation. All-in-all appears that, like large-scale irrigation, technology and trade are more consequences of rather than causes of civilization.
Warfare: as populations grew, conflict arose over diminishing land and resources resulting in strong and ambitious leaders who concentrated both wealth and power leading to the early authoritarian city-states.
Evidence indicates that this too is more a consequence than a cause of civilization.
Complex systems: in the face of the difficulties of finding a single or even a limited combination of causes for the emergence of civilization many scholars now treat individual civilizations as complex integrated systems, rather like an organism. Asking which part of an organism determined the others does not really make sense as all parts are mutually interdependent. Even though the brain seems to be guiding our actions it could not exist without a heart – or indeed any other major organ of the body.
Views on why the Neolithic Revolution took place at all have changed substantially over time but at least four schools of thought can be isolated:
In some cases it may be that for a particular group the limited availability of land and increasing population led to a search for other means of survival, and certainly there was safety in numbers for what we assume to be generally violent communities.
Among the first cities of brick and stone to be built in the Near East was Jericho in the Jordan Valley c. 11,000 BP but it would be some time before the establishment of formally administered city-states.
Large numbers of people living together in communities based around domesticated plants and animals required a new kind of social organization. Cities with populations in excess of 10,000 people enabled the construction of monuments and buildings on a scale never seen before. But to survive and prosper these large communities needed rigid social organization that included sophisticated government and administration, strong rulers mediated with a religious priestly class, soldiers to defend the settlement and a substratum of artisans and workers. religion and ideology inspired cooperation, acting as the glue to hold large numbers of people together when this did not seem to come naturally to hunter-gatherers.
The oldest-known list of titles and occupations (c.3,200 BCE) is the cuneiform Standard Professions List for the city of Uruk in Mesopotamia which lists 129 professions with the most important always at the top grading down to those of least status. These clay tablet lists were used to teach scribes so are repeated many times.
History, culture, writing, science & technology
With the first development of a written language and systems of measurement in Mesopotamia about 3,500 BP a formal historical record was established for future generations which reduced the need for oral tradition. In Mesopotamia cuneiform script was first used by Sumerians followed by Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hittites. What began as day-to-day accounts of taxation and other commercial transactions they eventually encompassed all the abstractions of scholarship from mathematics, religion, and philosophy to the early flowering of the arts and science managed by a literate bureaucracy and academic elite. There were codes of law as well as communally-accepted rules of behaviour and, for the rulers, an accepted path of land ownership and inheritance.
In these city-states populations increased to the point where it simply would not have been possible for the entire community to returned to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the land could not have supported their numbers: it was a revolution that made a giant step towards the urban living we know today.
The division of labour
With sufficient food it was possible to create a hierarchical division of labour with specialised groups of people dedicated to specific social, religious, cultural, economic, and bureaucratic administrative tasks. Craftsmen and artisans could form their own guilds in the construction and maintainance of buildings and infrastructure. The dedication of people to specific tasks led to the invention of ever more complex technologies and the standardisation of measurements.
This was the point of origin of much of our modern world – monumental architecture, coined money, taxation, armies and, eventually, empires that would compete with one-another for political and economic supremacy.
Food surplus produced by peasant farmers allowed the development of a division of labour within the cities where there was a centralised system of production, distribution and taxation and social hierarchy of classes. Urbanisation involved the emergence of a specialised class of artisans fed by food surplus provided by peasant farmers. Improved agricultural and irrigation technology led to a centralised system of production, distribution and taxation, along with a new hierarchical system of social classes based on economic relations rather than kinship.Though such factors would have supported urbanisation it is not clear how agricultural surplus arose in the first place.
Social complexity is often the result of changes in technology and trade. Certainly in the new cities we see a change from simple barter to fixed prices and currencies, and long-distance trade tapping into new resources, all leading to increased social complexity. Perhaps an initial increase in population stimulated the adoption of agriculture before these other factors came into operation?
Perhaps the warfare that resulted from conflict over diminishing land and resources produced highly authoritarian leaders anxious to create security by building up wealth and power?
The Big History of Civilizations|Origins of Agriculture|The Great Courses
The Great Courses Plus – 2016 – 30:50
Neolithic China and Ancient Culture
The Study of Antiquity and the Middle Ages – 2020 – 34:22
Gobekli Tepe And The People Who Built It: A Conversation With Archaeologist Jens Notroff
Stefan Milo – 2020 – 58:41
Chinampas – Floating Island Gardens and Self Watering Farmland
Sustainability Theory – 2018 – 2:33
Evolution of Human Genes and The Origin of Agriculture
Ancient History Lover – 2020 – 21:38
- Acceptance of agriculture encouraged by: development of a more condusive climate in the lucky latitudes after the last ice age; the tendency towards sedentism as populations grew in regions of abundance (affluent foraging); presence of animals and plants amenable to domestication
- The development of agriculture followed a largely similar pattern in the East as it had followed about two millennia earlier in the West after its first appearance in the Hilly Flanks of Mesopotamia.
First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . substantial revision 14 October 2020
Paintings in the tomb of Menna of Thebes
Scribe to the pharaohs Tuthmosis IV and Amenhotep III in 18th dynasty c. 1419-1380 BCE
Wall paintings here and elsewhere depict farming techniques including reaping of cereals with scythes, ploughing with a ploughshare pulled by oxen, winnowing, and transport of grain by ship
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons