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The Human Story – From Hunter-Gatherers to Farmers

Updated on January 11, 2016
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Since the emergence of Homo erectus 2 million years ago, humans remained hunter-gatherers till 10,000 years ago. During this long period of 2 million years, humans learned to tame fire, hunt, make better stone tools, and explore new territories. Homo erectus originated in Africa and scattered around other continents. The dispersal of Homo erectus was not a result of mass migrations, it was a slow process which happened over thousands of years as small bands shifted to new territories. It must have taken such a band to reach China from Africa 20,000 years. Homo erectus evolved into various other Homo species at different places, for example, it evolved into Neanderthals in Europe. In Africa, it evolved into Homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago.

A second migration from Africa took place between 125,000 years ago to 60,000 years ago. Many groups of Homo sapiens reached other parts of the world. In Europe, they encountered Neanderthals. Sapiens were smarter than their other human counterparts; they had better weapons, they hunted and fought in groups according to a plan that required greater cooperation. They conquered the whole world and vanquished other human species. All the human species went extinct except the Homo sapiens.

Around 70,000 years ago cognitive revolution took place. Homo sapiens started communicating in complex languages. With the newly acquired mode of communication, they became more social and cooperative. They became spiritual too; they started seeing a divine scheme in nature and natural phenomena. With better teamwork they started Mass hunting which provided them ample food. They became more creative and imaginative and started painting on cave walls. Despite having evolved into smarter, social, and creative beings, they remained hunter gatherers for thousands of years. They hunted and foraged for food. All of this changed around 10,000 years ago.

Site at Jericho

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The Neolithic Revolution – from hunter gatherers to farmers

The last ice age ended around 10,000 BC. Till the final phase of the ice age humans had become adept in making tools that could kill big games, even mammoths by setting stratagems. Making sophisticated tools was not the most significant change that happened in the lives of humans though. The greatest revolution of the Neolithic age was the advent of farming – in just a few thousand years humans shed their hunter gatherers life which they had been carrying on for millions of years and adopted a new way of living.

Farming started 10,000 years ago all around the world. How did it start throughout the world independently and at the same time is still a mystery. Whatever be the reason humans were able to make it out that keeping flocks of animals was more advantageous than hunting them. When meat was required few animals in the flock could be butchered and the rest could be kept for later times. All it required to herd the animals and feed them. To herd animals it was necessary to relinquish the nomadic life and settle down. It was necessary to settle down at a place where enough land was available for the animals to graze and to corral them. So people left jungles and caves and settled down in valleys and grasslands. They built mud huts and fenced them so that the animals could not escape and also to protect them from stealers and predators. They trained their dogs to herd goats and sheeps. That was how the hunters turned into herders.

They select the less fleshy and woolly ones to butcher and keep the better ones alive for breeding. Due to this selective breeding, after a few generations, all the animals acquire useful traits. Sheeps acquire thicker furs, goats and cows yield more milk, and pigs become more fleshy. Big wild animals such as cows and buffalos grow more docile and they keep on giving milk long after they stop suckling their calves. Dogs turn out to be more faithful and become man’s best friends.

When People were hunter gatherers it was the women who usually did the gathering. Those living near the sea collected snails and molluscs. Generally they collected fruits, nuts, and figs. There were also special kinds of grasses which grew untended on planes and swamps. These grasses had seeds which required to be collected, chafed, ground, and cooked in order to make it edible. These grasses were the ancestors of modern wheat, rice, maize, and barley. People realized that the grains were seeds which could be sowed to grow into plants, and reaped when the harvest season arrived. Though it was a long process it promised an abundance of food . Thus, plants were domesticated. The valleys and planes were now filled with cereal crops. The farmers lived nearby their fields in huts with their herds of animals. This was how the first villages appeared.

There is a place called Jericho in the west bank where archeologists have discovered remains of old settlements. The oldest settlement is 13000 years old. The first settlement was formed by the Natufian hunter-gatherers who were going through a transition phase towards becoming farmers. They had settled near a spring and hunted gazelles. It took them about one thousand years to turn into full time farmers. The Jericho remains were uncovered by the British archeologist Dorothy Gorrod in 1932. Gorrod asserted that Natufians were the earliest farmers; now it is a well established fact.

With the advent of farming and settlements of villages, not everyone was required to do work in the fields. Slowly a society emerged where lived people of various livelihoods. People started selling and buying their products at markets and the seeds of first civilizations were sown.

The agricultural revolution brought prosperity, but at a cost. The world saw an unprecedented explosion in human population. The population of villages increased which led to conflicts and it became difficult to organize such vast number of people. The populace was heavily dependent on cereal crops which could be spoilt by drought or flood. The simple life of hunter-gatherers was gone and superseded by a more stressful life. The new life style started taking its toll on the human body which had evolved especially for hunting. Ailments such as slip-discs and arthritis became common. With so many people and animals living in close proximity new infectious diseases such as small pox and various types of flu appeared.

The agricultural revolution was one of the most significant events in the history of mankind. Before it humans were completely dependent on nature and they were helpless against its forces. The first farmers were the pioneers of modern society. Instead of being totally controlled by nature, they started controlling it. It showed that they could formulate long term plans; they could tame wild beasts and exploit natural resources. The hunter-gatherer was an animal with a big brain and nice stone tools, but it was still an animal. The farmer had cast off his animal soul and marched on the way to modernity.

Was the life of hunter-gatherers less stressful than the modern humans?

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