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The Neolithic Revolution

The most important technological development ever to occur in human history was the domestication of plants (agriculture) and animals (pastoralism). Together these developments are called the Neolithic Revolution and they allowed the development of urban centers (towns and, later, cities), trade and most of the other things we consider to be components of "civilization." When and how did this most important event occur?

The Neolithic Revolution occurred first in the so-called "Fertile Crescent" or Mesopotamia in what is now modern Iraq. It also occurred independently (probably) at later dates in China, the Americas and possibly in parts of Africa and New Guinea. Agriculture and pastoralism diffused from Mesopotamia to Egypt, Western Europe and the Indus Valley (modern Pakistan).

To understand how the Neolithic Revolution occurred it is necessary to understand the economic system it replaced. Until the Neolithic, and in most areas for a long time after, all humans engaged in an economic activity called "hunting and gathering" which is exactly what it sounds likeóthe acquiring of food by hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants. This system is called "food extraction" as opposed to "food production" by agriculture and pastoralism. Hunting and gathering is actually a very efficient system that much of the time produces ample food. The main disadvantages are an inability to maintain surpluses against bad times or for supplying non-food producers (craftsmen, leaders, etc) and the fact that it can only maintain (in most areas) a very low population density.

By comparison, agriculture and pastoralism, even in fairly primitive forms, provide large surpluses and can supply a much larger population per square mile. This allows a growth in population, an ability to store food against bad times and the maintenance of non-food producers who can specialize as craftsmen, warriors and leaders. These developments, in turn, allow for a more complex society and the possibility of urbanization. There are, however, drawbacks. Farmers, especially in ancient and medieval times, had to work much harder and thus had less leisure than hunter-gatherers. In essence, agriculture is much more labor intensive than hunting and gathering. Agriculture also led to a much greater dependence on a smaller range of foods, so there is evidence that early farmers were more malnourished than hunter-gatherers. So farmers could produce far more food (and thus could have more children) but the food was of lower nutritional quality.

The Neolithic revolution was actually a gradual event. It probably developed from the practice that some hunter-gathering societies have of encouraging their favorite plants to grow by clearing away competing plants (weeding or burning) and saving the seeds and planting them. In other words, you donít have to actually be a farmer to know that if you give your favorite plants a little bit of help, then next time to pass through that area you may find more of your favorite food available. Many hunter-gatherers practice this to some degree. From this practice probably came the idea of clearing a whole area (by fire, for example) and planting the WHOLE area with several of your favorite foods. Then you move on to hunt and gather elsewhere and, hopefully, when you come back to that area you will find lots of your favorite foods growing. The only step that is left to take is for the hunter-gatherers practicing this technique to settle down next to the cleared area and tend it more systematically. Once they do this, they become farmers, even though they may very well still hunt and gather to some degree to supplement their farming. So agriculture (and by an analogous method, pastoralism) developed directly from already existing practices among hunter-gatherers.

Given that both economic systems (food extraction and food production) have advantages and disadvantages, why has agriculture essentially taken over the world and hunting and gathering is now found only in very marginal and supposedly "backwards" area like New Guinea and the Australian outback? There seems to be a tradeoff between having more leisure and better nutrition versus simply being able to feed more mouths. Any given person may well choose to have a more varied and interesting diet and more free time than to be able to feed more people but otherwise be more miserable. Why, then, did the latter option win out in the end?

Simply put, it is an evolutionary process. As with the development of a species, the development of cultures is greatly determined by what strategies produce the most offspring. In any evolutionary competition, the strategy that produces the most children generation after generation will eventually win over strategies that allow the production of fewer children no matter how happy or unhappy those children are. So agricultural societies simply fed more people, allowed for larger families and so could push out, absorb or slaughter the hunter-gathering societies in the long run.

For a brilliant discussion of when, why and how the Neolithic Revolution occurred, as well as its consequences for the development of human societies, I highly recommend the book Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jered Diamond.

A pretty good reference for the development of early technology is Technology in the Ancient World, by Henry Hodges. (may be out of print)

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