anthropology

The Neolithic Revolution: How did societies around the world come into existence?

Are you an anthropology nerd? If you’re anything like me, you might have pondered the origins of humankind over a bowl of cereal, absorbed in episodes of Civilizations. How did our society come to be? This very question has intrigued historians for centuries. Sure, we evolved from our primate ancestors into the Homo sapiens of today (read our previous post about this), but what happened in between? Understanding exactly how primitive societies formed has been vital to uncovering the rich history of our species.

This question can be answered with a practice that’s common today: agriculture.

Before farming existed some 12,000 years ago, nomadic bands of hunter-gatherer tribes roamed the jungles, deserts, and safaris of the planet. Their lifestyles were fraught with hazard from hostile predators, overexposure, and starvation. Therefore, their needs were simple—food and water—and seldom extended beyond the immediate need to survive. This unending need to survive quenched the progression of society at the time, as little else could be done when 14 of every 24 hours were consumed by the search for food.

Then, a miracle happened. About 10,000 years ago, bands of hunter-gatherer tribes in the Fertile Crescent (a region in the Middle East) discovered by chance that if they left leftovers of a plant on the ground, it would sometimes grow into another plant. This novel finding came with a unique set of quirks. For whatever reason, plants would only grow near water. Some had to be covered with additional soil before they sprouted. Counterintuitively, some types of plants only grew in the dry season. Through generations of experimentation, these nuances were mastered, and for the first time, humans purposefully grew food on farms they had established. Soon thereafter, animals like oxen and cattle were domesticated to assist with the heavy labor involved with plowing. During those birthing years, the practice of agriculture was born.

Fulfilling a need as simple as the need for a supply of food had effects that rippled across societies of the time. No longer driven by the constant need for food, people adopted sedentary lifestyles along river valleys and alluvial plains, where they would farm staple crops for day-to-day consumption. Large formerly-nomadic groups began to permanently settle in these regions, primarily the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley, the Indus River Valley, the Nile River Valley, and the Yangtze River Valley. As the first cities thrived, society was no longer exclusively a population of food providers. Because a small percentage of farmers could provide for the rest of the population, the others took up jobs as craftsmen, merchants, and servants. For the first time, society was no longer entirely egalitarian, but composed of different classes of rulers, warriors, and workers—a phenomenon known as social stratification.  

Interestingly, as people began to ask questions that couldn’t be answered in the prehistoric age, they began to piece together primordial laws by which to explain the intricacies of our universe. Although grounded in observations, these beliefs were not entirely scientific; instead, they would evolve to become the most primitive form of religion. For example, an extended drought resulting in crop failures could be explained by the resentment of an almighty being, inflicting his wrath by depriving the heavens of water. In fact, the Egyptian gods were created through belief systems that traced their roots to civilizations of the Nile River Valley. This revolutionary change encompassing almost every aspect of society, today known as the Neolithic Revolution, occurred around the world, from continent to continent, at roughly the same time period in history (~5,000 to ~10,000 years ago).

The hearths of civilization around the world
Image courtesy of https://images.slideplayer.com/22/6415239/slides/slide_4.jpg

The succeeding millennia of human history were filled with the establishment and disintegration of empire upon empire, with the creation of the religions that billions follow to this day, and with the scientific discoveries our modern understanding of the world would be incomplete without.

Today, one may question the ulterior existence of the human species, which consumes precious resources, taints the air with smog, and drives animal species to extinction. Yet, acknowledging these criticisms, one should also recognize the tremendous progress that we have made as a species, all attributed to the fundamental revolution that separated Homo sapiens from the animal kingdom—a revolution which enabled us to escape the throes of Mother Nature, of life and death, of predator and prey, and instead enter a world of our own.

Further reading:

  1. Abercrombie, Thomas J, and James L Stanfield. “What Was the Neolithic Revolution?” The Neolithic Revolution-Facts and Information, National Geographic, 5 Apr. 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/topics/reference/neolithic-agricultural-revolution/.
  2. Davis, Josh. “Neolithic Britain: Where Did the First Farmers Come from?” Natural History Museum, Natural History Museum, 25 Apr. 2019, www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2019/april/neolithic-britain-where-did-the-first-farmers-come-from.html.
  3. Jeselohn, Sura. “Without Agricultural Revolution, Today’s Society Wouldn’t Exist.” The Riverdale Press, The Riverdale Press, 4 Aug. 2019, riverdalepress.com/stories/A-cultural-center-for-generations,48746?page=2.

Featured image courtesy of https://www.ancienthistorylists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/The-Incas-Civilization.jpg

Tagged , ,

Leave a Reply