From Hunters to Settlers: How the Neolithic Revolution Changed the World
The archaeological understanding of the Neolithic Revolution (or First Agricultural Revolution) has changed significantly since research on the subject first began in the early 20th century. This change from hunter-gatherer groups to agrarian communities seems to have occurred around 12,000 years ago, and with it came huge population growth. But it is still not clear exactly what initiated this change, or whether agriculture led to larger communities or the reverse.
It is now known that humans were already living in permanent settlements as hunter-gatherers before the emergence of true plant and animal domestication. However, the reason for the shift to agriculture is not entirely understood. An increasingly popular suggestion is that pressure to adopt agriculture came from the prior existence of relatively large permanent settlements, which contradicts the traditional view that agriculture led to large permanent settlements in the ancient Near East.
It is now known that humans were already living in permanent settlements as hunter-gatherers before the emergence of true plant and animal domestication. (earthchangesmedia.com)
Did Climate Change Prompt the First Agricultural Revolution?
One of the earliest explanations for why agriculture developed when it did was climate change. An early hypothesis, proposed by V. Gordon Child, was that desiccation of the Levant created a scarcity of food requiring humans to learn to grow their own food to survive.
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One problem with climate change being the main cause is that the development of agriculture was already underway before the climate began to change significantly at the end of the Pleistocene around 11,000 BP. Just before the rise of true plant and animal domestication, humans in the Levant were practicing a form of “proto-agriculture” as early as 11,500 BP. These proto-agriculturalists were harvesting wild grain and managing wild animals prior to their domestication, which is required for true agriculture and animal husbandry. It is at least unclear that domestication of plants and animals was mainly in response to climate change rather than some other factor.
A Neolithic grinding stone for grain. (José-Manuel Benito Álvarez/ CC BY SA 2.5 )
Agriculture was already in development before the climate changed in the Levant. It is possible that the primary factors in the rise of agriculture may have been social instead of environmental. Recent archaeological evidence reveals the existence of settled villages as early as 23,000 BP. These early settlements were not true farming communities, but small villages of hunter-gatherers consisting of just a handful of huts. They were nonetheless at least semi-permanent and larger than settlements that had come before them.
Chicken or Egg?
Recent archaeological research shows the slow development of semi-permanent to permanent settled communities over the past 15,000 to 20,000 years. This suggests that rather than agriculture leading to large permanent settlements, it may have been the other way around. The emergence of increasingly larger settled communities may have led to the necessity of agriculture.
Climate probably did still play a role. For example, the shift from the Pleistocene to the Holocene did result in climatic changes, which may have made the environment less abundant, forcing Levantine communities to adopt full scale farming and animal husbandry because foraging and proto-agriculture could no longer sustain their settled way of life. The reason for the rise of agriculture, however, may have been to preserve large settled communities that were already existing - as opposed to allowing for the emergence of large settled communities that had not previously existed.
Early farmers. (Out of the Woods)
A Cultural Cause
This brings up another question: if an agricultural revolution was not what initially led to densely populated settlements and social complexity, then what did? Why didn’t agriculture arise earlier in the 100,000 years since the emergence of behaviorally modern humans? One possibility that has been suggested by some archaeologists is that something happened in human cultural evolution that made larger permanent communities easier to form and this prompted the Neolithic revolution.
Population Increase and Social Complexity
Increase in population necessarily results in an increase in social complexity. For example, in slightly more modern times, once there is a large population of people living together who are not related, it is necessary for courthouses, police forces, and other third parties to ease conflict resolution since it is less likely that there will be someone related to one or both parties who can mediate the conflict.
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As a result, greater social complexity, such as third-party institutions, is required for groups beyond a certain size to be sustainable. It is possible that large densely populated settlements didn’t exist before about 15,000 years ago because humans had not yet developed third party institutions not based on kinship to mediate conflicts between unrelated individuals that could cause the group to disintegrate.
‘The dawn of civilization - Egypt and Chaldaea’ (1897). ( Public Domain ) Third party institutions are necessary to make the various aspects of a civilization work and to mediate conflicts.
Around 70,000-100,000 BP, the earliest art emerged in Africa and then spread to Eurasia and eventually to Australia and the Americas. It is not clear what caused this, but one hypothesis is that a rewiring of the human brain occurred without changing the physical appearance of Homo sapiens - that made Homo sapiens capable of producing art and advanced tools which do not appear earlier in the archaeological record.
It is possible that something comparable happened 15,000-20,000 years ago that allowed humans to gather into larger social groups and, therefore, allowed for large, permanent settlements. It may have been the invention of third-party social institutions not based on the family which were able to mediate conflicts within large groups of unrelated individuals. It could also have been some sort of advance in cognition enabled by cultural adaptation. Whatever it was, it appears that the increase in settlement size and social complexity were already well underway when true agriculture and animal husbandry appeared in human prehistory.
Egyptians with domesticated cattle and corn circa 1422-1411 BC. (Public Domain)
Top Image: Ancient farmers. Source: Heritage of Japan
By Caleb Strom
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