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How Agriculture was Invented During the Stone Age

Updated on November 18, 2016
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Katie graduated with both a BA in Chemistry from BYU and a BA in Spanish from UVU in 2016. She graduated from medical school in 2020.

The Stone Age

Although its name doesn't suggest it, the Stone Age was an important time of development for mankind.

In order to simplify discussing this lengthy period of time and its significant developments, the Stone Age has been divided into two parts: the Old Stone age and the New Stone Age. We'll follow this convention and begin our discussion with the Old Stone Age.

Lucy: the Oldest Human Skeleton

This is a modern reconstruction of an Australopithecus.  It is based off of Lucy, the oldest, best preserved hominid skeleton found to date.
This is a modern reconstruction of an Australopithecus. It is based off of Lucy, the oldest, best preserved hominid skeleton found to date.

Gender Inequality Didn't Exist Among our Prehistoric Ancestors

Although we often see our prehistoric ancestors as less intelligent or refined than their modern day descendants, gender inequality didn't exist among them.
Although we often see our prehistoric ancestors as less intelligent or refined than their modern day descendants, gender inequality didn't exist among them.

Old Stone Age

The Old-stone age, also known as the Paleolithic era, occurred from about 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago.

It began when Australopithecus, a human ancestor, made the first stone tool and ended with the agricultural revolution.

During this time, people were hunter-gatherers or foragers. They lived a nomadic lifestyle and followed big game and other sources of food.

We know basic forms of communication must have been possible, because the men worked together to hunt large animals and bring their carcasses back to their families.

While the men were responsible for hunting, women were responsible for gathering. They gathered nuts, seeds, berries, and insects. Towards the end of the Stone Age, they also gathered sea food when it was available.

Although we believe that these nomads followed specific gender roles, gender inequality seems to be a concept of more modern invent. While meat from the hunt was the most coveted food, the gathered food may have consisted of up to 80% of these peoples’ diets. It also sustained the community when the hunt was unsuccessful.

Their populations were limited by their lifestyle. These people stayed with extended family for hunting and protection, but had to stay in small enough groups that the land could support them. Luckily, pregnancy and nursing would take 3-4 years with each child, which meant there were 3-4 years between subsequent births. Unfortunately, there is evidence that these peoples resorted to infanticide as a means of population control.

Tools of the New Stone Age

These sewing needles were made out of animal bone during the stone age.
These sewing needles were made out of animal bone during the stone age.

New Stone Age

A number of peoples began transitioning from the nomadic foraging lifestyle, to an agrarian lifestyle between 10,000-15,000 years ago.

It is believed that women were the “inventors” of agriculture, as they began applying observations to their gathering in order to maximize their returns. Plant varieties were chosen for their nutritional value and ease of production, and locations were chosen based on their favorable growing conditions.

During this same period, men began domesticating animals, either becoming nomadic herdsmen, or stationary husbandmen.

The change from the nomadic to agrarian lifestyle was facilitated by climate and driven by population. As the earth warmed after the zenith of the ice age, the land was especially fertile. When the nomadic lifestyle became threatened by population increase, this change is climate aided our ancestors in making the change to an agrarian lifestyle.

These important lifestyle changes mark the beginning of the Neolithic or New Stone Age.

Women began to make textiles that provided warmth and clothing with sewing needles were fashioned out of animal bones.

People learned to work with copper to make jewelry and tools. And, pottery and cave paintings became larger and more common as peoples stayed in one place longer.

Agriculture was much more profitable than foraging had been, which meant fewer people had to devote their time to food production. As fewer people had to work to produce food, more people were able to specialize in other professions.

As a result, people began congregating in groups that allowed them to trade and work together. This led to the construction of the first cities and the origins of urban life.

Where Agriculture was "Invented"

Middle East:
Middle East

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Yangzi River:
Yangtze River, China

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East Asia:
East Asia

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Yellow River:
Yellow River, Madoi, Golog, China

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Southeast Asia:
South East Asia

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Agriculture Invented and Re-invented

The "invention of agriculture" did not occur in one place and spread. Agriculture was actually developed in a number of places before spreading. Some of these places include:

  • 9000 BCE peoples of modern-day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey cultivated wheat and barley and domesticated sheep, goats, pigs and cattle.
  • Between 9000 and 7000 BCE people in present day Sudan cultivated Sorghum and domesticated cattle, sheep and goats.
  • Between 8000 and 6000 BCE people near modern Nigeria cultivated yams, okra and black-eyed peas.
  • As early as 6500 BCE people in the Yangzi River valley cultivated rice.
  • Perhaps as early as 6000 BCE people in Eastern Asia domesticated pigs and chickens. They later added water buffalo to their stock.
  • By 5500 BCE people in the Yellow River Valley cultivated millet and soybeans.
  • As early as 4000 BCE people in present day Mexico cultivated maize.
  • As of 3000 BCE people in South East Asia were cultivating Taro, Yams, Coconut, breadfruit, bananas, and citrus fruits and people in modern Peru cultivated potatoes


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