Key Concept 1.2 The Neolithic Revolution and Early Agricultural Societies

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A neolithic settlement in northern Scotland. When people learned to farm, they built permanent dwellings
Paleolithic man made one of the most important discoveries that humans have ever made: that every plant has the ability to reproduce itself. When the function of the seed was learned, humans became farmers. This sounds relatively simple, but not until the Industrial Revolution would there be as revolutionary a change in the social and economic organization of human beings. This transition from hunters and gatherers to farmers is called the Neolithic Revolution, and it made civilization itself possible. See short Video on the discovery of farming.

I. About 10,000 years ago, the Neolithic Revolution led to the development of new and more complex economic and social systems.
A. Thousands of years ago, drought came to the Middle East. The large animals hunters depended on died out or migrated, forcing some people to settle down wherever they found a secure source of water. The nomadic way of life ended and human beings became farmers. The practice of agriculture transformed the social and economic characteristics of human societies. It also changed the nature of the crops that were farmed. See a helpful video about this HERE. (Question: Which of the 5 AP World History Themes do you see involved in the above sentences? You should read everything with this basic question in mind.)
Agriculture was discovered independently at many different locations in the world. It then diffused into other areas as the practice was learned and adopted by others.

Agriculture seems to have been discovered independently at several locations in the world (see map), then diffused to different areas. It is important to note that not everyone adopted agriculture. Some societies remained hunter-gatherers and others remained pastoral.

B. Pastoral nomads were somewhat of a transitional group between hunter-gatherers and neolithic farmers. They depended on herds of animals which they kept and followed, a lifestyle known as Pastoralism. Because their migrations were connected to the needs of animal herds, pastoral nomads moved in patterns based on climate. Agriculture was probably discovered by pastoral nomads who, upon returning to a location from the previous year, found that spilled seeds they had gathered germinated into crops. Africa, Europe and Asia all had people who practiced pastoralism.
Cereal grains were more durable in storage than other agricultural products.
C. As you can see from the map above, agriculture was discovered at different times by different people. The crops people cultivated depended on what was indigenous to their location. Professor Jared Diamond has pointed out that the nature of edible plants that grew in individual places had a profound effect upon the development of human societies. For example, regions that grew cereal grains had an advantage over those that grew less durable or nutritious foods. Cereal grains (rice, barley, wheat and corn) produced a harvest rich in carbohydrates and other nutrients. They were easy to dry and store. In storage, cereal grains would not spoil as quickly as legumes or yams. As a result, societies that cultivated these crops were more likely to produce surpluses of food.
Irrigation diverts and accelerates the natural flow of water across land. It necessarily causes erosion.

Watch a VIDEO here about the importance of maze (corn) in the Americas and how human cultivation of maze changed the plant itself.

D. Farming is hard work. Land must be cleared of trees, rocks, and other impediments to sowing seeds. The soil needs to be broken up and, in many cases, water must be diverted to irrigate crops when rain becomes scarce. These needs drove human beings to learn to work together in more goal oriented ways than hunter-gatherers had. Cooperation proved to be an advantage in survival.
E. With agriculture, human beings arrange and concentrate plants in ways they would never exist in nature. They borrow crops from other regions and import them to their farms. Such practices intensify and accelerate the natural processes of erosion and environmental diversification. You can read a scholarly article on this topic HERE. Pastoralism likewise concentrated animals to a repetitive cycle of grazing lands. As grasslands were stripped of plants, erosion accelerated.
Pastoralism: its intense and repetitive grazing thins the ground of plants, increasing erosion and desertification.

II. Agriculture and pastoralism began to transform human societies.
A. The ability to acquire food on a regular basis drastically changed life; there was more stability and order. Life developed according to special patterns, as people had to follow seasons for planting and harvest. The dependence upon nature was evident in religious practices that came to worship reproduction, fertility, and the natural elements upon which agriculture depended. Probably the most significant change that took place with the Neolithic revolution was a dramatic increase in population. More food could sustain more people living together. Small bands of people developed into villages.
B. At its most basic element, civilization is based on the food supply. In hunting/gathering societies, most all of the people were engaged in acquiring and processing food. For this reason, as we have seen, there was a higher degree of equality. There were no significant differences that distinguished certain people from others. However, in communities that practiced agriculture this basic equality began to break down. The surpluses of food produced by farming created the conditions for the rise of social inequality.

The ability to produce a surplus freed some people from having to spend all their time producing food; individuals could now specialize in other skills. Artisans crafted weapons, jewelry, and other specialty products that could not be produced as readily by nomadic people. Moreover, surpluses of food created the need for a warrior class to emerge. The stores of grain kept by neolithic people were the perfect targets for raiding groups of nomadic people. Some members of the village thus were trained in the skills of defense to protect the fruit of their labor; the first militaries were born. With these divisions of people came inequality. Some groups gained more prestige and status than others. Priests who presided over rituals that were believed necessary for harvests gained elite positions and authority. Warriors were essential for the protection of food. Highly skilled craftsman who could work with metals or produce tools became highly valued. Thus social hierarchies emerged in societies that were able to produce surpluses of food.
C. As groups of craftsmen and artisans arose in societies, tools and technology became more efficient and complex. Agricultural production increased, societies began to trade, and transportation improved. Some examples of these advancements are:
  • Pottery Agriculture created the need for storage containers and cooking pots. In response to this need, craftsmen learned to make pots from clay and other materials, and they became essential for storing food, wine, and other goods. They could also be used for religious or ceremonial purposes. Pottery became a medium for group identity and artistic expression as people came to etch designs on the exterior of pots.
These pots excavated at the Banpo village in China show the craftsmanship of neolithic people in creating pots. Over 400 of these pots were unearthed at Banpo. Many had the remains of infants inside. The holes on top are thought by some to indicate the peoples' belief in the afterlife, as the souls of the dead children inside could escape through the top.

  • Plows Tools permit the same amount of work to be done by fewer people. In agriculture, perhaps the most important early tool was the plow. Plows break up the compacted earth and turn the soil to prepare for the sowing of seeds. The more efficient the plow, the fewer number of workers are needed to prepare for planting. More efficiency in agriculture led to greater surpluses, which in turn allowed for more social stratification and specialization.
  • Woven textiles In 1991 two hikers in the Italian Alps discovered a neolithic man whose body had been preserved in a glacier for over 5000 years. "Iceman," as he came to be called, provided modern researchers with much information about the diet, clothing, and skills of European neolithic people. This was particularly important because textiles decay quickly in most instances leaving us with little evidence about this skill of early man. Two of iceman's possessions were items that had been woven. This craft is known as textiles. Early textiles were made of dried plants and fibers, and were woven by hand. Later, people made looms to speed up the process of textile production. In villages and cities, textile production became another skilled craft, another example of the specialization of labor.

  • Metallurgy Another area of craftsmanship that neolithic people developed was metallurgy, the knowledge of working with metal. This technology is very important because it provides the tools for many other areas of labor, such as farming, textiles, and the forging of weapons.
The earliest metallurgists worked with copper, a metal that can be hammered into shape directly from the ground. As new metals were found and alloys discovered, metallurgy became a highly skilled practice. Metals have different densities, grains, and characteristics that must be learned. A major break-though in metallurgy was Bronze. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. It required these base metals to be heated and mixed together, but the result is a product that is harder and more useful than the softer copper, which cannot hold a cutting edge for long. Bronze would transform human societies by producing larger surpluses of agriculture and allowing for the creation of superior weapons. (See the The Bronze Age).
  • Wheels and wheeled vehicles The wheel was invented in the late neolithic period in Mesopotamia and in the northern Caucasus region of Central Europe. In its most obvious application, the wheel can be used in vehicles to facilitate the movement of goods. Moreover, the Hittites developed the chariot, a wheeled vehicle used in battle. When the Hyksos gained chariots they were able to successfully invade Egypt. Wheels
    also contributed to the advancement of other crafts. Pottery could be turned on a horizontal wheel, and they could be used for spinning yard. Later, the power of moving water could be harnessed with a water wheel. Numerous toys have been found with wheels.

D. As societies became more established and generated more wealth inequalities became wider. Merchants, the priestly class, or military elites gained high honor and status than ordinary people. The organization of people into hierarchical groups from highest to lowest is called stratification. Another way in which inequality expanded was across genders. Sometime after the Neolithic Revolution patriarchy emerged. Patriarchy refers to a social system in which males have more respect, authority, or control than females. It is hard to isolate a single cause or event that led to this form of gender inequality, but several theories have been advanced.

Key Concept 1.3 The Development and Interaction of Early Agricultural, Pastoral and Urban Societies