The Neolithic Revolution, also termed the First Agricultural Revolution, marked a widespread shift in numerous human cultures during the Neolithic period in Afro-Eurasia. This transition, occurring approximately 11,700 years ago with the onset of the Holocene epoch following the last Ice Age, witnessed the transformation from a lifestyle centered on hunting and gathering to one rooted in agriculture and settlement. This shift facilitated the rise of larger populations as settled communities allowed humans to observe and experiment with plant cultivation, leading to the domestication of various plants into crops.Neolithic Revolution technology
Archaeological evidence indicates that the domestication of plants and animals occurred independently in different regions globally, constituting the world’s first historically verifiable agricultural revolution. While the Neolithic Revolution resulted in a reduction in the diversity of available foods, impacting the quality of human nutrition compared to foraging, it also increased food production efficiency. This efficiency, in turn, enabled humans to divert efforts toward other activities, proving essential to the development of modern civilization by laying the groundwork for subsequent industrialization and sustained economic growth.
These transformative developments, collectively known as the Neolithic package, formed the basis for centralized administrations, political structures, hierarchical ideologies, depersonalized systems of knowledge such as writing densely populated settlements, specialization, division of labor, increased trade, non-portable art and architecture, and expanded property ownership. The earliest known civilization emerged in Sumer in southern Mesopotamia around 6,500 years ago, marking the onset of the Bronze Age. The correlation between Neolithic characteristics, the advent of agriculture, their sequential emergence, and their empirical relationships at various Neolithic sites remains a subject of ongoing academic debate. This understanding is typically recognized as variable, contingent on regional specifics rather than being dictated by universal laws of social evolution.
Hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists exhibited distinct subsistence requirements and lifestyles. Hunter-gatherer communities, characterized by high mobility and migratory habits, resided in temporary shelters within small tribal groups, maintaining limited interactions with outsiders. Their diet was well-balanced, relying heavily on the seasonal offerings of the environment. Conversely, the surplus and predictable food supply afforded by agriculture facilitated the sustenance of larger populations. As a result, agriculturalists inhabited more permanent dwellings in densely populated settlements compared to the nomadic lifestyle of hunter-gatherers. The agricultural communities’ ability to plan and coordinate resources and manpower during different seasons fostered the division of labor. This division gradually led to the specialization of laborers and the emergence of complex societies. The subsequent establishment of trading networks, facilitating the exchange of surplus commodities and services, brought agriculturalists into contact with external groups. This interaction promoted cultural exchanges that played a pivotal role in the development of civilizations and technological advancements.
The term ‘Neolithic Revolution’ was coined by V. Gordon Childe in his 1936 book, “Man Makes Himself.” Childe introduced this concept as the inaugural episode in a series of agricultural revolutions in Middle Eastern history, using the term “revolution” to emphasize its significance and the profound changes it brought to communities adopting and refining agricultural practices.Neolithic Revolution technology
Several theories have been proposed to explain the origins of the Neolithic Revolution:
- Oasis Theory: Originally proposed by Raphael Pumpelly in 1908 and popularized by Childe in 1928, this theory suggests that, as the climate became drier due to northward shifts in Atlantic depressions, communities contracted to oases. In these oases, close association with animals forced domestication, coupled with the planting of seeds. However, contemporary climate data challenges this theory, indicating a wetter rather than drier region.
- Hilly Flanks Hypothesis: Proposed by Robert Braidwood in 1948, this hypothesis suggests that agriculture originated in the hilly flanks of the Taurus and Zagros mountains. Unlike Childe’s belief in a drier climate, the hilly flanks had fertile land that supported a variety of plants and animals suitable for domestication.
- Feasting Model: Brian Hayden’s model proposes that agriculture was driven by displays of power, such as feasts, which required assembling large quantities of food and, in turn, drove agricultural technology.
- Demographic Theories: Developed by Carl Sauer and adapted by Lewis Binford and Kent Flannery, these theories posit an increasingly sedentary population expanding to the local environment’s carrying capacity, necessitating more food than could be gathered. Various social and economic factors contributed to the need for increased food production.
- Evolutionary/Intentionality Theory: Developed by David Rindos and others, this theory views agriculture as an evolutionary adaptation of both plants and humans, starting with the protection of wild plants, leading to specialization of location, and eventually full-fledged domestication.
- Climate Stability Hypothesis: Peter Richerson, Robert Boyd, and Robert Bettinger argue that agriculture coincided with a more stable climate at the beginning of the Holocene, a hypothesis popularized by Ronald Wright’s book, “A Short History of Progress.”
- Environmental Determinism: Leonid Grinin argues that agriculture independently originated in special natural environments, such as South-East Asia, and dates the beginning of the agricultural revolution to the interval 12,000 to 9,000 BP.
- Levant-Origin Hypothesis: Andrew Moore suggests that the Neolithic Revolution had a protracted origin in the Levant, possibly commencing during the Epipaleolithic. Frank Hole, in “A Reassessment of the Neolithic Revolution,” expanded on the relationship between plant and animal domestication, proposing that these events might have occurred independently over different periods and locations, emphasizing the need for further exploration, particularly in the western margins of the Euphrates basin and the Arabian Peninsula.These diverse theories reflect ongoing debates among scholars attempting to elucidate the complex and multifaceted origins of the Neolithic Revolution.
Domestication of Plants
As agriculture gained momentum approximately 9,000 years before present (BP), human activities led to the selective breeding of cereal grasses. This process commenced with emmer, einkorn, and barley, focusing not only on those with larger seeds for greater caloric returns but also on desirable traits. Undesirable traits, such as small seeds or bitter taste, were disregarded. Plants that quickly shed their seeds upon maturity were less likely to be gathered during harvest, remaining unstored and unseeded in subsequent seasons. This unintentional selection process over successive harvests favored strains with seeds that retained their edibility for a more extended period. As early farmers refined agricultural techniques, including irrigation traced back to the 6th millennium BCE in Khuzistan, their yields generated surpluses requiring storage. Unlike hunter-gatherers with a migratory lifestyle, those with sedentary dwellings could effectively store surplus grain. The development of granaries allowed villages to store seeds for more extended periods, contributing to population growth, the emergence of specialized workers, and the development of more advanced tools. This process was intricate, varied across human populations in different regions, and did not follow a linear trajectory as once believed.
Spread of Crops: The Case of Barley
Barley, one of the world’s crucial crops, was domesticated in the Near East around 11,000 years ago (c. 9,000 BCE). Known for its resilience, barley can thrive in diverse and challenging environments, including high-altitude and high-latitude regions. Archaeobotanical evidence indicates that barley had spread across Eurasia by 2,000 BCE.
Beginnings in the Levant
Agriculture made its first appearance in Southwest Asia approximately 10,000–9,000 years ago, about 2,000 years later than its emergence in the Near East. The region served as the epicenter for the domestication of three cereals (einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, and barley) and four legumes (lentil, pea, bitter vetch, and chickpea), along with flax. Domestication unfolded gradually across diverse regions and was preceded by centuries, if not millennia, of pre-domestication cultivation. Jared Diamond, in his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” argues that the vast, continuous east–west stretch of temperate climatic zones in Eurasia and North Africa provided a highly advantageous geographical location. This advantageous setting gave peoples in these regions a head start in the Neolithic Revolution, sharing a temperate climate ideal for the first agricultural settings and proximity to easily domesticable plant and animal species. In contrast, continents aligned north–south, like the Americas and Africa, hindered the spread of crops and domesticated animals across tropical zones.
Archaeologists trace the emergence of food-producing societies in the Levantine region of southwest Asia at the close of the last glacial period around 12,000 BCE. These societies evolved into regionally distinctive cultures by the eighth millennium BCE. Carbon-dated remains of food-producing societies in the Aegean, such as Knossos, Franchthi Cave, and mainland sites in Thessaly, date back to approximately 6,500 BCE. Neolithic groups emerged soon after in the Balkans and south-central Europe, exhibiting some continuity with groups in southwest Asia and Anatolia, like Çatalhöyük.
Carbon 14 Evidence
The spread of the Neolithic from the Near East to Europe was quantitatively studied in the 1970s, utilizing a sufficient number of Carbon 14 age determinations for early Neolithic sites.
Analysis of Mitochondrial DNA
Since the initial human expansions from Africa 200,000 years ago, various prehistoric and historic migration events have occurred in Europe. Genetic analysis of human populations helps estimate the impact of these migrations, considering that the movement of people implies a corresponding movement of genes. Agriculture and husbandry practices, originating 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, rapidly expanded from these territories into Europe, as evidenced by the archaeological record.
The earliest Neolithic sites in South Asia include Bhirrana in Haryana, dated to 7570–6200 BCE, and Mehrgarh in the Kachi plain of Baluchistan, Pakistan, dated between 6500 and 5500 BP. The site provides evidence of farming wheat and barley and herding cattle, sheep, and goats. Strong evidence suggests causal connections between the Near-Eastern Neolithic and the Indus Valley.
In East Asia
Agriculture in Neolithic China is divided into two regions: Northern China and Southern China. The agricultural center in northern China, associated with the early Sino-Tibetan-speakers, was linked to the Houli, Peiligang, Cishan, and Xinglongwa cultures. It served as the domestication center for foxtail millet and broomcorn millet, with evidence of domestication around 8,000 years ago. Soybean was also domesticated in northern China 4,500 years ago. Orange and peach originated in China around 2500 BCE.
Three areas on the African continent—Ethiopian highlands, the Sahel, and West Africa—have been identified as independently developing agriculture. Agriculture in the Nile River Valley is believed to have originated from the original Neolithic Revolution in the Fertile Crescent.
In the Americas
Although the term “Neolithic” is not commonly used in describing cultures in the Americas, a broad similarity exists between Eastern Hemisphere cultures of the Neolithic and those in the Americas. Maize (corn), beans, and squash were among the earliest crops domesticated in Mesoamerica.
In New Guinea
Evidence from Kuk Swamp on the borders of the Western and Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea indicates the cultivation of taro and other crops dating back to 11,000 BP. Taro and yam have been identified dating back to at least 10,200 calibrated years before present (cal BP). Further evidence of bananas and sugarcane dates to 6,950 to 6,440 BCE.
Domestication of Animals
As the transition from hunter-gathering to sedentary food production unfolded, the efficient proximity of animals to human settlements became essential. This led to the permanent residence of animals in settlements, creating a distinction between relatively sedentary farmers and nomadic herders in many cases.
Domestication of Animals in the Middle East
The Middle East played a pivotal role as the source of numerous animals suitable for domestication, including sheep, goats, and pigs. Additionally, this region was the first to domesticate the dromedary. Henri Fleisch identified and termed the Shepherd Neolithic flint industry discovered in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. He suggested that this industry might have been utilized by the earliest nomadic shepherds and dated it to the Epipaleolithic or Pre-Pottery Neolithic periods, as it was evidently distinct from the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, or Pottery Neolithic eras. The presence of these domesticated animals conferred a substantial advantage on the region in terms of cultural and economic development.
Despite significant technological advancements, increased knowledge, developments in the arts and trade, the Neolithic Revolution did not immediately result in rapid population growth. Its benefits seemed to be counteracted by various adverse effects, primarily diseases and warfare.
While the introduction of agriculture brought about technological progress, it did not necessarily lead to unequivocal overall improvement. The nutritional standards of the growing Neolithic populations were found to be inferior to those of hunter-gatherers. Ethnological and archaeological studies indicate that the shift to cereal-based diets contributed to reduced life expectancy and stature, increased infant mortality, susceptibility to infectious diseases, and the development of chronic, inflammatory, or degenerative conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and various nutritional deficiencies, including vitamin deficiencies, iron deficiency anemia, and mineral disorders affecting bones such as osteoporosis and rickets, as well as dental issues.
Andrew Sherratt has proposed a second phase following the Neolithic Revolution, known as the secondary products revolution. Initially, animals were domesticated primarily as a source of meat, but this phase saw the exploitation of various secondary products:
- Hides and skins from undomesticated animals
- Manure for soil conditioning from all domesticated animals
- Wool from sheep, llamas, alpacas, and Angora goats
- Milk from goats, cattle, yaks, sheep, horses, and camels
- Traction from oxen, onagers, donkeys, horses, camels, and dogs
- Guarding and herding assistance dogs
Diet and Health
Compared to foragers, the diets of Neolithic farmers were higher in carbohydrates but lower in fiber, micronutrients, and protein. This dietary shift led to increased instances of dental cavities, slower childhood growth, higher body fat, and a consistent trend of reduced height in populations worldwide after the transition to agriculture. This trend may have been exacerbated by the greater seasonality of farming diets, increasing the risk of famine due to crop failure. Scholars like Jonathan C. K. Wells and Jay T. Stock argue that these dietary changes, coupled with increased pathogen exposure linked to agriculture, profoundly altered human biology and life history, favoring the allocation of resources toward reproduction over somatic effort.
Recent studies associate the dispersal of Neolithic culture from the Middle East with the distribution of human genetic markers. In Europe, the spread of Neolithic culture has been linked to the distribution of the E1b1b lineages and Haplogroup J, believed to have arrived in Europe from North Africa and the Near East, respectively.