The Neolithic Revolution: How Farming Changed The World
The Founder Crops
Whenever we think of famous revolutions, the two that normally pop into our heads are the French and American Revolutions, mostly because they are responsible for the political and intellectual landscape that dominates the world today. Both of these revolutions are also credited for ensuring that every person enjoys comparative freedom and liberty. But neither of those two revolutions or indeed any other revolution would have been able to take place, if not for the one that truly changed the world beyond all reckoning, the Neolithic revolution.
Starting from around 12,000 years ago, human beings made their first conscious attempts to both control and adapt natural evolution to suit their own needs. It started with the beginnings of what we now call farming, the artificial breeding of animals and the intensive growing of particular plants, or crops, for food.
Natural selection has moulded and influenced life on Earth over billions of years, from simple single celled microbes into everything that we see around us today, from fruiting fungi to jumping jerboas, and slimy slugs to venomous vipers. These changes were initiated by small genetic differences between generations that increased a species’ chances of survival in the Earth’s many constantly changing environments and ecosystems. But from 12,000 years ago, when humans first started to cultivate the land and tame wild animals, they effectively hijacked the process. They set into motion, a process that is now known as artificial selection. Instead of nature selecting the most successful specimens in the wild, humans started to choose, breed, protect and grow those animals or plants that suited them best.
Artificial selection allowed people to give up the nomadic ways of the hunter gatherer, and to settle down permanently in one place, because all the food they needed could be sourced in one spot. The people started to build houses and to live in village communities all year round, which then morphed into towns, cities, and finally states and civilisations. The advent of farming saw the first appearance of the sedentary lifestyle and with that an exponential increase in the human population, the reshaping of the Earth’s landscapes to suit food production and the beginnings of modern diseases, almost all of which originate through humans living in close proximity to their newly domesticated animals.
The transition from hunting and gathering to farming also marks the beginnings of all those jobs that aren't associated with food production because, for the first time ever, there was enough food to support people who weren't directly involved in its production. Farming also meant that people were able to have more offspring, as they no longer needed to carry their children with them. They could store their food in granaries and afford to give birth as often as possible. There was the additional benefit that living in a village meant that there were more people around to assist in looking after young children, which thus encouraged families to grow.
As the populations of villages and towns increased, those not involved in farming could specialise in different trades, becoming skilled workers who made artefact's like pottery, jewellery and clothes for settled people. With their new found free time, they could explore new technologies such as wheels, chariots and armour made from pliable raw materials, which they learned to extract from the ground in the form of copper, bronze and iron.
With the development of skilled workers, came merchants, people who specialised in trading the products that the workers manufactured along with any surplus food left over from the farms. Trade, of course means the need to remain mobile and also the need to travel far and wide. Trade offers us the best explanation for the origins of things that we take for granted today, such as ships, writing, accounting and money. Other jobs for non food producers included making sure that a village or town stayed on the right side of whatever God they worshipped. By doing this, they ensured that the villagers remained faithful they would be blessed by things like good harvests, and that any evil stayed away. These early priests or holy men eventually helped give birth to many of the major religions of the world.
Growing numbers of settled populations required new forms of organisation and control. The world’s first kings and emperors emerged, with their associated aristocracies and bureaucracies, whose jobs were to collect taxes, issue laws and administer justice in full sight of the populace. Kings were able to afford to employ armies to protect their status of power. Thanks to the ability to farm both crops and animals, it was now possible to feed thousands of troops using stored grain to make bread. Also, tamed animals could now be harvested for their milk, as well as their meat. People also took advantage of their strength, using them to pull carts and carry soldiers into battle. The advent of farming saw the beginning of grand and bloody campaigns to glorify and expand these new burgeoning urban cultures, which soon came to cover virtually the entire ancient world.
Explaining The Neolithic/Agricultural Revolution
Was Adopting Agriculture Our Biggest Ever Mistake?
- The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race
A very thought provoking article from Jared Diamond highlighting the drawbacks of agriculture, when compared to hunting and gathering.
Two Highly Recommended Books
This book explains how agriculture and all its by-products helped people of European origin to conquer the world so effectively.
Another great book by Jared Diamond that explores the various reasons why agricultural societies collapse. Interestingly he also provides examples of agricultural societies who have stood the test of time.
The Farming Experiment
Human beings very likely didn’t take up farming because they wanted to, if they had the ability of foresight, then they would have surely remained hunter gatherers. Hunter gatherers have a relatively easy life, when one draws a comparison with the farming lifestyle. If there’s plenty of game around, then just one decent kill can feed an entire family for a whole week, while the life of a crop farmer is, and in many parts of the world still painful and arduous. For a start, crops could only be harvested at certain times of the year, so arable farming was certainly no substitute for the traditional life of easy meat on the hoof.
Planting, weeding, digging and harvesting were just a few of the miserable, backbreaking tasks that had to be endured before a single loaf of bread could be baked. Seeds from barley, wheat and rye, which were the first crops cultivated by man, had to be collected by hand from the stalks of the grasses and ground up into flour using the most primitive of food processors, a pestle and mortar.
Moreover these weren’t the seeds that we use today. They were natural and wild, not the product of thousands of years of artificial selection. For good reason, mother nature had designed them to be as light as possible, loosely attached to the stalk so that wind power had the best chance of blowing them far and wide, spreading them to other areas, where they could germinate and reproduce. But, as any arable farmer will tell you, small seeds that fall easily from the stalk is a harvesters’ worst nightmare. A large quantity of this type of wheat is needed to make bread, not to mention the back breaking task of picking up all the loose seeds that tumble irritatingly to the ground. It was an unpredictable and unpleasant lifestyle filled with endless hard work. The skeletons of early farmers are a testimony to this, revealing people who suffered from twisted toes, buckled arthritic knees and in some cases the lower back is completely deformed through performing the exhausting task of grinding grain into flour between huge slabs of stone.
Explaining the Younger Dryas
Another Highly Recommended Book
This excellent book dispels the myth that civilisation has halted human evolution, if anything it's accelerated the process to the point where we are evolving faster than ever.
Where The Natufian People Lived
Just a single word can be used to explain why humans ever adopted such an unpleasant lifestyle, and that’s stress. In fact in many parts of the world today, that same stress factor explains why many hunter gatherers abandon their traditional lifestyle to grow crops, and it’s likely that stress will continue to be the main factor for many generations to come.
The most recent Ice Age was at its most extreme some 22,000 years ago. After this point, global temperatures slowly began to rise, resulting in the gradual melting of glaciers over thousands of years. The result was a huge rise in sea levels and widespread flooding right across the world. The big melt increased temperatures by 7 degrees Celsius and was probably caused by periodic changes in the Earth’s orbital rotation. The melt reached its peak around 14,000 years ago, with the oceans rising by a massive 80 feet in just 500 years after a huge ice sheet collapsed into the rising seas. By about 8000 years ago the big melt was all but over, and the seas were at nearly the same level as they are today. One of the last areas to flood was the English Channel, cutting off the British Isles from Europe for the first time in more than 100,000 years.
Such dramatic and rapid changes in the natural environment were bound to have profound effects on living things. For mankind it meant the loss of many traditional hunting grounds, as they had simply sunk beneath the waves. Parts of the world that were once rich forest, abound with game were reduced to barren, lifeless deserts, which made hunting and gathering impossible. These changes occurred due to the rapid changes of the rainfall and weather systems. In many parts of the world people were forced to move up into the hills or closer to freshwater lakes and rivers. In some areas the traditional lifestyle of moving from place to place became far too risky. There was either too little suitable hunting ground, or the land was too dry to support any sufficient vegetation.
One example of how climate changes forced people into a new lifestyle can be seen in what is called the Fertile Crescent, the area that extends from upper Egypt, down to the Nile to lower Egypt, Israel and Syria as far north as central Turkey, and then down towards the Gulf along the Euphrates Valley, through the ancient land of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and Iran). 14,000 years ago this was a rich land, with vast forests of oak and pistachio trees, plentiful rainfall and nutritious vegetation. It was completely different to the dry and barren landscape that we are familiar with today.
At about that time people called the Natufians settled near the water’s edge around modern day Lebanon, because the sea provided them with a good supply of fish for food. Others went higher up into the hills, where the soil was richer and where wild grasses grew. In fact, they found that this land was so rich in resources they no longer had to move around all of the time. In some seasons they would hunt wild animals such as gazelles, whilst in others they would settle in small villages, where they lived in round mud and clay huts. Several Natufian sites have recently been uncovered in Lebanon, Syria and northern Israel.
What happened next can only be described as a freak of nature. It’s one that scientists predict could happen again, perhaps very soon. Instead of temperatures continuing to rise as they had for the previous 8000 years, the climate suddenly swung back to Ice Age conditions. In less than fifty years most of the world reverted to a state of deep freeze. This spell is known as the Younger Dryas, and lasted around 1300 years beginning 12,700 years ago. Such dramatic and rapid climate is probably unprecedented in all human history, and makes the climate changes taking place now seen negligible.
A Natufian House
An Early Farming Tool
More On Abu Hureyra
- Abu Hureyra - Early Evidence of Agriculture in the Euphrates Valley
A very detailed article on Abu Hureyra, one of the earliest known permanent settlements in the world.
A Female Revolution
The effect, particularly on people living in Europe and the Mediterranean was catastrophic. For those living in the Fertile Crescent, not only had their hunting grounds been drowned by rising sea levels following the Ice Age melt, but now, thank to this sudden and dramatic shift in climate, a severe drought set in and much of their remaining rich and fertile woodland was transformed into barren scrub.
Wild grasses were an important part of the staple Natufian diet, but in the now sweltering scrub-land they simply withered away. Some experts think that this is what may have led Natufian women to experiment with sowing seeds themselves and deliberately clearing the land to make it suitable for cultivating grasses such as wheat, rye and barley. Faced with starvation, these women had no choice but to store the best seeds they could find, the biggest, sweetest and the easiest to harvest, to sow on specially prepared land as a crop for the following year.
Was it their handiwork- an agricultural insurance policy against the problems the future that triggered a chain of events that eventually led to the spread of crop farming all over the Middle East, Europe and northern Africa? Seeds are very easy to store and transport. Natufian crop cultivation seems to be the earliest known in human history. Evidence of their inventiveness comes from the discovery by modern archaeologists of farming tools, in the form of picks and sickle blades, which were used primarily for harvesting cereal crops. Alongside these ancient farming implements are pestles, mortars and bowls, all essential instruments for gathering and grinding seeds.
Archaeologists have meticulously sifted through material unearthed from one Natufian site called Abu Hureyra in modern day Syria. The evidence they uncovered suggests that already a human culture had developed the skills necessary to domesticate wild crops by selectively sowing the best looking seeds. As the wild grasses that people relied on for food died out, they were forced to start cultivating the most easily grown seeds in order to survive. From the location of seed finds, it seems they planted them on slopes where moisture collected naturally. Then they actively managed these hillsides by keeping the weeds and scrub at bay, so giving their crops the best possible chance.
Two Of The Earliest Domestications
The Egyptians And Cows
Taming Wild Animals
The Natufians were also among the first people known to have started domesticating animals, in their case grey wolves. They chose the tamest wolves and eventually bred them into fully domesticated dogs, which could help them hunt other animals that lived in the regions nearby, in particular wild sheep, boar, goats and horses. With the help of their new companions it was a relatively small step to tame these other wild animals and breed them in one location for their meat, milk and strength.
The Natufians loved their dogs in the same that most of us do today. Graves have been found in which they and their dogs are buried side by side. Their graves also reveal another possible tell-tale sign of early animal domestication; a high infant mortality rate. Nearly one third of all Natufian graves discovered so far contain the skeletons of children under the age of eight. Were these the victims of the very first diseases to mutate from domestic animals and jump across to humans? If this is the case, then it marks the beginnings of a new kind of human selection, a process where people more naturally susceptible to new diseases died more often than others who possessed stronger immune systems. As generations passed, people who lived in closer proximity to domesticated animals gained a greater immunity from the diseases they spread.
Once the Younger Dryas period ended, around 11,400 years ago, the climate returned to its previous balminess, and within the space of just a few years people in the Fertile Crescent were once again living in a land of plenty, with enough rainfall to support rich, diverse vegetation. But now there was one major difference. These people were equipped with a wide range of powerful new technologies, in the form of breeds and seeds, which gave them the opportunity to live life in a radically new way.
A Glass Arrowhead
The Origin Of Cities
From about 9000 BC permanent new human settlements began to crop up throughout the Middle East. These Neolithic farming people were now able to live in larger communities thanks to an abundance of stored food, gained from a wide knowledge of farming and the benefits of domesticating animals for their meat, milk and strength. Hunting and gathering was fast becoming an extinct lifestyle.
The ancient city of Jericho is one of the oldest of these ‘new’ Neolithic settlements and is up to eight times larger than any of the Natufian sites. It’s also thought to be one of the first settlements on Earth to have protective walls. Excavations have revealed rounded houses, many with more than one room, and open spaces for domestic activities such as cooking and washing. These early buildings possessed stone foundations, cobbled floors and had walls made out of mud or clay bricks. Every site has its own stone or clay granary store, which may have been used for storing other kinds of food too. The uncovering of granary stores is the clearest indication that these people had totally abandoned the nomadic ways of the hunter gatherer. Sheer necessity had forced them to adapt nature to suit their own needs, resulting in a backbreaking and very painful new way of life.
The protective walls were erected on Jericho’s western side, not, as once believed to protect the city from attack by jealous neighbours, but as a means of protecting it from mud flows and the flash floods that frequently swept in from the still rising seas. This was another very clear sign that humanity’s perception of the landscape had changed, instead of just thinking that they were part of the landscape, they regarded it as something they needed to control.
These people were undoubtedly in regular contact with other emerging cultures. The evidence for this comes in the form of obsidian, which is a type of natural glass which forms when volcanic lava cools really quickly. It was a highly sought after material because it made the sharpest and most effective arrowheads. Obsidian doesn’t occur naturally anywhere near Jericho, the nearest natural source is in the rocky hills of central Turkey several hundred miles away. So it's clear that already long distance trade routes had been established. Once farming was able to take off, it’s not hard to understand why it flourished. Precious seeds already moulded by the hand of artificial selection could be exchanged for other precious materials like obsidian. The wheels of motion were set, soon agricultural know how, seed supplies and domesticated animals spread beyond the Middle East, into Europe and northern Africa. The age of civilisation had begun.