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Neolithic Revolution Challenged! Are These The Real Roots of Civilization?

Neolithic Revolution Challenged! Are These The Real Roots of Civilization?

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Conventional wisdom tells us that civilization began with the so-called agricultural revolution - AKA the invention of farming, but I suggest a different story. From my perspective, the roots of civilization spring from specialized tool makers whose crafts attracted others and thus created trade.  The roots of civilization and the domestication of humans is really a story of control, wealth and power.

Billionaire Nomads

Scholars once thought hunters and gatherers lived as scavengers, on the edge of starvation - as most modern men would if they had to survive on their own - and that the “invention” of farming created a surplus of food which allowed our ancestors to choose priests and rulers to lead them. This ignores the fact that most priests and rulers are more of a burden than a help to the people they “lead” and that we are more intelligent and more adaptable than our cousins the great apes, who live well where their territory has not been usurped by humans.

Most of our ancient ancestors were probably nomadic, but that doesn’t mean they were homeless. In fact, most nomads, like kings and billionaires, had many homes.

In my early teens I used to go on canoe trips with friends. We might go out for a week or more but most nights we stopped at familiar campsites with fire pits, prepared tent-sites and sometimes latrines, left over from our and others’ previous canoe trips. If one campsite was occupied, we could move on to the next, but we seldom had to make a new camp.

When I travelled with a couple of RCMP Mounties on a long patrol in Canada's North West Territories, about fifty years ago, we spent a couple of nights in a tent that had been left empty at a popular campsite. One night we stopped at a campsite that was already occupied by a half-dozen or so traveling Gwitchen Indians.

When I travelled with some Inuit friends from Rankin Inlet in Nunavut to Churchill, Manitoba, we spent one night in an old Hudson’s Bay Company trading post that had been abandoned years before but one room had been fixed up and maintained by and for travelers.

Travelling in Bombardier snowmobiles from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut to Churchill Manitoba. (Image courtesy Andy Turnbull)

Travelling in Bombardier snowmobiles from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut to Churchill Manitoba. (Image courtesy Andy Turnbull)

In fact, most nomads are like kings and billionaires, moving from one property to another for pleasure or convenience. They moved from one established camp to another and often into camps or shelters they had made and used before because game moves, seasons change, and different plants ripen at different times in different areas.

And they probably had an easy life even when conditions were harsh. Farmers depend on a few crops and when those crops fail, farmers starve. Hunters and gatherers use many food sources. Across North America, archaeologists have identified about 1,200 plants used as food by natives in different areas and an average of about 75 in a single campsite - and they don’t all fail at the same time.

The !Kung San people of the Kalahari desert or Kalahari bushmen worked very little and played a lot! (franco lucato / Adobe Stock)

The !Kung San people of the Kalahari desert or Kalahari bushmen worked very little and played a lot! (franco lucato / Adobe Stock)

The Easy Life of Survival

In the 1960ʼs anthropologist Richard Lee studied the hunting and gathering !Kung San people of the Kalahari desert in the third year of a disastrous drought, while about 180,000 farmers of the Herero and Tswana tribes in the surrounding area had to depend on the United Nationsʼ World Food Program for emergency relief.

Despite the drought, even though some Herero and Tswana gathered wild food in competition with them, the !Kung lived in comfort and plenty, and did very little work to survive. Lee found that “a woman gathers in one day enough food to feed her family for three days and spends the rest of her time resting in camp, doing embroidery, visiting other camps or entertaining people from other camps. In a day spent at home kitchen routines such as cooking, nut cracking, collecting firewood and fetching water occupy one to three hours of her time.”

Men worked longer hours than women, but their schedule was uneven. It was not unusual for a man to hunt for a week and then not hunt for two or three weeks.

If our ancestors did not want to move about, they could probably have stayed in the same camp for months at a time, because both hunting and gathering would have been better near campsites than away from them. Even now, primitive villages and camps around the world are surrounded by clumps of fruit trees and berry bushes because people who eat fruits and berries also eat some of the seeds. If they do not walk away from the camp to defecate, they do to empty their chamber pots. People who do not eat the seeds throw them out and their garbage midden becomes an orchard or a berry patch or both.

Some campsites are more convenient than others. In my canoe tripping days, we often camped at portages, where we had to land and unload the canoes to carry them from one lake to another or to pass a waterfall. Traveling with the Mounties I found that most campsites were at spots where the trail branched or where there was an obstacle to be negotiated.

In fact, we now know that hunting and gathering people lived better than most of the farmers of history. Paleoanthropologists who study ancient skeletons find that most pre-agricultural people were bigger, healthier and lived longer than early farmers.

Hunters and gatherers ate some meat and a lot of vegetable foods. (nicolasprimola / Adobe Stock)

Hunters and gatherers ate some meat and a lot of vegetable foods. (nicolasprimola / Adobe Stock)

That was partly because hunters and gatherers eat a wide variety of vegetable foods. Archaeologists find evidence of about 75 vegetable foods and an assortment of meats in ancient campsites and, because they didn’t store food and they moved from camp to camp regularly, they had fewer parasites. They also had less hard work and more rest than farmers, who worked hard and ate the crops they grow. So, if you grow wheat, you eat mostly, or, perhaps, only wheat. Farmers also store food which attracts rats and other pests, and both garbage and human waste accumulate around their homes.

Why Change From Hunting And Gathering To Farming?

So why did our ancient ancestors settle down and adopt the civilized lifestyle of what we call civilization? Probably the first step was when some of them developed and refined their mechanical skills to become artisans. We have seen this in modern times in the Fish Creek band of Australian Aboriginals. This was a group of six adult men and three adult women in Northern Australia who lived much as pre-historic humans seem to have lived. When studied in 1948, they maintained one man as a full-time craftsman who made and repaired spears and spear-throwers, smoking pipes and drone tubes, but did no hunting or gathering himself. Other members of this and other bands in the area “worked” from three to about five hours a day to collect all the food they could eat but they did not work continuously. They would stop to rest, or for a diversion, whenever they felt like it.

Australian Aboriginals also didn’t have to work very hard to survive as hunters and gatherers. (rnl / Adobe Stock)

Australian Aboriginals also didn’t have to work very hard to survive as hunters and gatherers. (rnl / Adobe Stock)

“It is a mistake,” explorer Sir George Grey wrote, “to suppose that the native Australians have small means of subsistence or are at times greatly pressed for want of food. Many and almost ludicrous are the errors travelers have fallen into in this regard.”

To illustrate "the ignorance that has prevailed with regard to the habits and customs of this people when in their wild state," Grey cites explorer Captain Stuart, who saw a group of Aboriginals engaged in gathering large quantities of mimosa gum and deduced that the "unfortunate creatures were reduced to the last extremity, and, being unable to procure any other nourishment, had been obliged to collect this mucilaginous."

“But,” Sir George observes, “the gum in question is a favorite article of food in the area, and when in season it affords the opportunity for large numbers of people to assemble and camp together, which otherwise they are unable to do.”

If we see American children gathered around an ice-cream truck, it does not mean they are starving.

The Great Divide Between Movers and Settlers

But while hunters and gatherers tend to move from camp to camp as game migrates and different vegetable foods ripen, artisans are more likely to settle near sources of raw materials or near the racks where they season wood to make bows, or dry reeds to make arrows, or the kilns where they fire pottery. And, as their skills became known trade developed.

Obsidian flints and other things made by early tool makers that eventually resulted in the first forms of trade. (W.Scott McGill / Adobe Stock)

Obsidian flints and other things made by early tool makers that eventually resulted in the first forms of trade. (W.Scott McGill / Adobe Stock)

Again, we have evidence of this in modern times. Siassi Islanders live on and around a group of islands in the Vitiaz Straits between the islands of New Britain and Umboi, near New Guinea. They do some fishing, but they live mostly by trade.

The areas only source of obsidian is on a peninsula of New Britain, more than 100 miles (161 km) east of the Siassi Islands, and the best potters in the area live in New Guinea, about 50 miles to the west. We don’t know how far the islanders’ trade extended but obsidian axes from quarries on New Britain are found from Fiji, about 2,000 miles (3,219 km) southeast of New Britain, to Borneo, about 2,000 miles (3,219 km) to the west.

Early Romans traded with ancient Asians over the “Silk Road” that connected the Eastern Mediterranean with China and, through a branch route, to India.

Because they carried wealth, traders attracted robbers. And because traders formed caravans and hired guards, robbers amalgamated into bands or small armies. Eventually, the armies became strong enough to capture and enslave the villages of artisans that produced the wealth that trade created.

The artisans probably did not build defenses but, after they took over, the robbers did. And through most of history, villages, towns and cities have been surrounded by walls and defended by armies. In ancient times the armies were the robbers who had taken over.

Before the robbers came, some of the villagers lived by hunting and gathering, and members of surrounding bands brought food to the village to trade for the artisans’ products. After the robbers took over, villagers were allowed to gather only in fields surrounding the village and only under the watchful eyes of the guards. When they realized how productive the fields were, the head robbers claimed ownership and the villagers became their serfs.

Illustrative of prehistoric campsite. (Fibs.Z / Adobe Stock)

Illustrative of prehistoric campsite. (Fibs.Z / Adobe Stock)

Origins Of The Village

Conventional wisdom says that the first villages were established to service the first farms. However, modern archaeology finds that, in fact, some of the first villages were established thousands of years before the development of farming. We also know that most hunters and gatherers know enough about plants that they could have farmed at any time, and in fact many did have vegetable gardens, but they had no need to farm. Even now, primitive villages and camps around the world are surrounded by clumps of fruit trees and berry bushes.

Archaeologists in Southern Ontario, where I live, know that they can often find the sites of prehistoric villages or camps near groves of a variety of sumac trees that produce berries that can be used to make a refreshing drink. It is generally considered more likely that the groves grew near camps than that camps were established near groves, but it could work both ways.

The Seeds Of Serfdom

Hunters and gatherers could also carry seeds, to establish useful plants near favorite campsites. Modern Australian Aborigines are not farmers, but they are known to carry seeds with them, to plant near popular campsites.

Surrounding tribes would have avoided the occupied village at first but in time they would return to trade and I suggest that it was trade, rather than farming, that developed the kind of grains that we call ‘domesticated.’

One difference between wild ‘einkorn’ wheat and modern domesticated wheat is that while einkorn has one seed per plant, domesticated wheat has many. We eat the seeds of grain, not the stalk, and people who collect wild grains would naturally choose varieties that have more seeds. If they brought the grain they collected to a village to trade, then, by accident, some of the seeds might have been spilled or dropped near the village. If farmers domesticated grain they would have harvested and eaten the plants that produce the most seeds. Therefore, single-seed grains would be left to spread and dominate.

Another characteristic of domesticated grains is that wild grains “shatter” (drop their seeds) as soon as they are ripe. The seeds of “domesticated” grains stay on the stalk until they are threshed. Conventional wisdom tells us that this characteristic was deliberately bred into grains for the convenience of farmers, but in a domesticated field grains that did not shatter would soon die out because they would be collected and eaten, while grains that did shatter were left to seed the field.

In the evolution scenario, it would be the grains that did not shatter that were collected and taken to the village to trade, and the seeds that were lost in the fields around the village would grow there. Sooner or later, varieties of grain that do not shatter would predominate around villages.

As more and better grain grew around the village, grain-eating animals would move into the area. And, even if some were killed, animals that lived near a village eventually lost their fear of man. Some might even have lived in the village, because people sometimes adopted young animals as pets.

Fields around the village were very much like farms but the people of a craft village probably did not take the final steps to land ownership and cultivation because they didn’t have to and because grain farming offers questionable benefits to the farmer. In a good year, a farmer can produce more food than a hunter or gatherer, but he has to work much harder to do it. So, why work harder when you didn’t have to?

The change came when the bandits who occupied the village realized how valuable these fields were and claimed them for their own. In time the slaves became serfs and the bandits landowners. Farming is hard work for serfs, but not for landowners.

Conventional wisdom assumes that agriculture is a human triumph, but modern science knows that leaf-cutter ants have been farming fungus for millions of years. Tools aren’t all that special either: chimpanzees use twigs to ‘fish’ for termites, and some birds use thorns to pick insect larvae out of cracks they can’t reach into. But humans took the making of tools to new and unmatched heights.

I argue that the roots of civilization are the development of toolmaking and the trade opportunities it produced. Even now, “industrial” countries are much better off than countries without industry. Switzerland is a small country with few natural resources but lots of skilled artisans, and it is one of the richest in the world.

I make this argument in more detail, and with scholarly references, in my book Past, Present and Future, which is available as a free pdf download from my website,

Top image: The roots of civilization: from hunters and gatherers to farmers. But how and why did this change occur? These are the key questions!             Source: Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock

By Andy Turnbull



Read also: Against the Grain, by James C. Scott. Very similar theory!

Hi Cataibh,

There is actually plenty of first hand evidence in the journals of colonial explorers of farms of differing types, and stored rice, wheat, root vegetables, dried meat, and protein breads. Most of this was pillaged by these explorers as they made their way inland from their settlements on the coasts of Australia as they were completely under prepared for travel through the land.


This is a good article, however it should be clarified that the Australian Aboriginal practice of carrying seeds to plant was usually allied to ceremonies rather than actual plantings in any practical sense.

There is a concerted effort in some sections of Australian society today to portray Aboriginal society as an agricultural one. It was not. However, neither was it one of starvation or lack of success. Hunting and gathering is not, in any way, worthy of disdain.

The traditional increase ceremonies, performed for the religious maintenance of individual resources in a very conservative, religious and relatively unchanging society, might have made the adoption of agriculture all but impossible, but the constant use of fire was the relatively untold Australian success story. Indeed, the fire-managed landscape needs to be rediscovered, for the sake of modern Australia.

Much is made of threats to Australian flora and fauna, but antipathy towards natural resource management, including fire management, is by far the greatest threat of all.

Interesting article, thanks for posting.


Andy Turnbull's picture

good point about the banks, but they were established because Switzerland was (and is) a manufacturing center. They make a lot more than watches!


Andy Turnbull's picture


Andy Turnbull has worked as reporter, photographer and desk-man on several daily newspapers, has been editor of two weekly papers and of three trade magazines and is the author of a couple of books by commercial publishers. His free-lance articles... Read More

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