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Neolithic Revolution: A Turning Point in Human History

Matthew's interests include writing, gaming, movies, and pretending to be Irish despite only having one Irish Great Grandparent.

Around 10,000 BC, humanity emerged from the Ice Age, a perilous period marked by hostile environments and fearsome predators such as the sabretooth tiger.

We were not the strongest or the fastest, but we had the gift of fire and the ability to forge weapons—and so we survived against the odds.

Our reward was the agricultural revolution, the most significant turning point in human history. Our way of life would be forever changed.

Humanity survived the Ice Age, and was able to found agriculture due to warming temperatures.

Humanity survived the Ice Age, and was able to found agriculture due to warming temperatures.

Causes of the Agricultural Revolution

The most significant factor was climate change. The Ice Age (2.4 million to 11,000 years ago) was followed by warming temperatures, which in turn allowed for the growth of wild wheat, barley, and other plant species that homo sapiens would learn to cultivate.

Another possible factor was the development of the human brain. This is not widely considered but has been suggested by some, as more sophisticated art and spiritual practices began to emerge around the same time as the earliest agricultural sites.

Animal domestication began under hunter-gatherer societies, which trained dogs to protect their camps and help them hunt. It eventually advanced to a point where agriculture and the keeping of livestock became possible.

Humans had learned to survive the harsh conditions of the Ice Age, and the skills and tools they developed during this period probably made the post-Ice Age a breeze in comparison, like switching from hard to easy mode in a video game. This, in turn, would have enabled populations to grow, leading to increased competition for food, driving home sapiens to find more efficient ways of growing their food supply.

The Fertile Crescent, where agriculture began.

The Fertile Crescent, where agriculture began.

Where Did Agriculture Begin?

Whatever the reasons for the neolithic revolution, agricultural societies started to emerge worldwide around the same period. Historians are befuddled as to how human societies separated by such vast distances were able to develop the same techniques simultaneously.

It began in the Fertile Crescent, the name for a region in the Middle East spanning modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, together with the northern region of Kuwait, the southeastern region of Turkey, and the western portion of Iran. This is also where the first livestock was farmed, including pigs, cattle, goats, and sheep.

The earliest crops were emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, and barley. There's also evidence for the domestication of lentils, chickpeas, peas, and flax.

A map showing the spread of agriculture across the prehistoric world.

A map showing the spread of agriculture across the prehistoric world.

Agriculture in Ancient Egypt dates back to 8,000 BC, about two thousand years after it emerged in the Fertile Crescent. It is unclear whether the Ancient Egyptians learned the practice from their Middle Eastern neighbours or discovered it themselves.

The earliest cultivation of crops in China seems to have occurred around 9,000 to 8,000 BC. At first, they grew millet, a type of seeded grass. Rice production began in South China soon after. The oldest rice field yet discovered contained evidence of sophisticated agricultural techniques such as flooding and fire prevention.

Around 7,000 BC, Mesoamerica's inhabitants began cultivating crops such as maize, beans and squash. Since they were located on a different landmass, they unlikely learned the practice through contact with the Middle East. Their agricultural revolution was made all the more impressive because they had to clear hostile jungles to plant their crops.

Agriculture emerged in certain regions in Africa, including modern-day Ethiopia, around 5000 BC. Archaeological evidence suggests the cultivation of Sorghum and millet.

Old Egyptian hieroglyphic painting showing an early instance of a domesticated animal

Old Egyptian hieroglyphic painting showing an early instance of a domesticated animal

Early Agricultural Methods

Early farmers employed the "slash and burn" method, which is still in use today. This involved clearing the land of vegetation and burning it so the ashes would fertilize the ground.

Early irrigation systems seem to have emerged around 6,000 BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Small canals were dug to divert water from the river to the fields. By 3,000 BC, Ancient Egyptians were engaging in advanced irrigation projects such as the construction of large dams and canals.

The Earliest Agricultural Sites

Çatalhöyük in southern Turkey is a major archaeological site, providing a wealth of information on what an early agricultural settlement would have looked like.

It's believed to have had a population of around 8,000, sizeable for an early settlement and indicative of the population spurts that resulted from agricultural development. Houses were tightly packed together and had to be entered through the roofs. The bodies of the dead were buried underneath the houses.

The walls of the site bear ancient paintings of cattle and other livestock, as well as depictions of hunting. Religious artifacts are present, providing evidence of emerging spirituality.

Stones used to grind grain during the neolithic era.

Stones used to grind grain during the neolithic era.

Another major site is Tell Abu Hureyra in Syria. Inhabitants of this settlement initially hunted gazelle and other game but began to harvest wheat around 9,700 BC.

Ain Ghazal is a 10,000-year-old village in Jordan. The collection of stone huts hosted a population of several hundred, some of whom farmed barley, wheat, chickpeas, and lentils, while others herded goats in the surrounding mountains.

An archeological site referred to as Ohalo II lies on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Here, evidence suggests that agriculture may have begun even earlier than previously believed. The site dates back 23,000 years and consists of only a few brush huts, but one of them contained the charred remains of seeds and fruits, and stone blades were found that may have been used as sickles.

Monuments like Stonehenge were erected by early agricultural societies.

Monuments like Stonehenge were erected by early agricultural societies.

Consequences of the Agricultural Revolution

  • Villages: Agriculture allowed humans to settle in one place and form larger communities.
  • Religion: Farming relied on seasonal cycles, and the success of the harvest seemed to depend on the will of higher forces. Thus many communities began to pray and sacrifice to gods (representing natural forces) in order to ensure good harvests.
  • Art: Our hunter-gatherer ancestors produced mesmerising cave art, but art became more sophisticated as larger communities formed and spread ideas. Villages also provided security, allowing greater opportunities for people to express themselves creatively.
  • Pottery: Containers were created for the purpose of carrying crops and water.
  • Monuments: A large community concentrated in a single location provided the workforce to build mighty monuments such as Stonehenge.
  • War: Control of land became more important, and thus the need to defend or conquer.
  • Diseases: Illnesses such as smallpox, influenza and measles spread from domesticated animals to humans.

Was the Agricultural Revolution a Good Thing?

Yuval Noah Harari argues in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind that the agricultural revolution was a major misstep for humanity.

  • It condemned us to backbreaking labour in the fields.
  • Our diet became less varied. Agriculture led to high consumption of wheat and other crops.
  • It led to conflict over land.
  • Economic and social stratification.
  • Destruction of the environment.
  • Enslavement of humans and animals.

On the other hand, you could argue that agriculture allowed for:

  • Cultural development.
  • Social development.
  • Better technology.
  • Writing.
  • Security.

Ultimately it depends on your point of view, but certainly, for humans of the time, bountiful crops and security must have made a nice change from the scarcity and danger that defined the Ice Age.

References

Erin Blakemore. 2019, April 5. What was the Neolithic Revolution? National Geographic.

General information. North Arizona University.

Dr. Senta German. The Neolithic Revolution. Khan Academy.

Carl Zimmer. October 17, 2016. How the First Farmers Changed History. New York Times.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.