by Lynn H. Nelson.

Sometime around 10,000 BC, some hunting and gathering clans in the Middle East began to abandon hunting because they had learned to control animals to the point where they could keep them close, work to keep their numbers as great as possible, and kill some when they needed meat. This activity is generally known as "husbandry," and really has nothing to do with married life as one might suspect. These groups also learned how to prepare the soil so that they could take the seeds of the plants that they had been gathering, plant them, water them, keep them free from weeds, and harvest them when they were mature. Agriculture of this sort was a difficult and laborious process, because -- not having the means to preserve most succulent plants such as spinach, cabbage, onion and the like - so that they remained edible throughout the fall and winter seasons -- they had to rely on the seeds of certain grasses -- wheat, rye, barley, millet, and spelt -- because these seeds could be dried and preserved for a considerable length of time.

The process of developing agriculture took a long time. The seeds of these grasses were quite small in their original wild state, and it has taken thousands of years of selective breeding and hybridization to bring them to the size that they now are. Also, the growing of these cereals exhausts the fertility of the soil, and the early agriculturalists knew little or nothing of fertilization, or crop rotation. Some peoples practiced what is called slash and burn cultivation. In this system, the trees and bushes on a piece of land are slashed and, when they are dead and dry, are burned to open up a field for cultivation. When the yield from that land begins to diminish, another tract is slashed and burned, and the people move to the new field.

One might suppose that this pattern of activity also provided the early Neolithic groups with a means of adjusting to a new way of life. The lands that they prepared for future cultivate were, in the meantime, excellent places for hunting small animals and gathering food and textile plants. Thus the traditional activities of Paleolithic life were not completely abandoned. The groups still wandered, but their movements were now much less frequent and for far shorter distances. One can look at matters a bit differently, though. Since they were more or less fixed in place, these early groups were dependent on inconstant Nature. Drought, floods, plant or animal diseases, changing climate, or any of a number of other things could greatly diminish the potential of entire regions to support slash and burn agriculture. The early Neolithic groups were vulnerable to the vagaries of nature and, in order to survive or flourish, needed some way in which to improve their potential of their resources - to water their crops and flocks when the rains failed, to drain their fields when the rains came in super-abundance, to maintain the capacity of their land to bear the needed supply of food, etc. Such things were beyond the power of the early Neolithic groups, however. Their semi-nomadic pattern of life made it impossible for them peoples to develop the level of organization and sophistication necessary to modify or control their environment to any significant degree. Until they could do so, human societies could not become completely sedentary and begin to realize the advantages that agricultural life offered. In the meantime, they sought those areas in which natural resources they needed were both great and constant. Consequently, the earliest evidence of established Neolithic communities are found in river valleys where Spring floods regularly replenish the soil's fertility with a layer of fresh silt.

Even so, Neolithic farmers required much more land to feed themselves than is necessary today. Since their animals had to be fed with the products of the soil, that these animals were in competition with their masters for essentially the same limited supply of food. Early Neolithic agriculture was, in a sense, a rival of early Neolithic husbandry. Their agricultural needs demanded that the early Neolithic farmers clear wild animals from their fields and limited the number of domesticated stock they could keep. This meant that the amount of protein in their diet was less than that of the Paleolithic hunters and gatherers, and that they had to work harder and longer to secure a sufficient amount of food to eat. It also meant that various communities competed for the same limited amount of suitable land, and warfare became a regular fact of human life.

There was progress of a sort, however. Agriculture could support more people, and the world's population of humans grew to fifty million or more. Agriculture also made larger communities possible, and, about 3500 BC, the Neolithic peoples of western Europe were able to build structures out of massive stones called megaliths. This may simply have meant that the mass of the population has become subject to the commands of a warrior or priestly class, however. Whatever the case, the Agricultural Revolution spread slowly throughout the world, and some peoples never have accepted it but have remained, apparently by choice, hunters and gatherers.

The Agricultural Revolution raises a number of important questions.

  • Agriculture took more time and more energy than hunting and gathering, and yielded a less satisfying diet, a loss of equality between sexes and among individuals, and made war a permanent feature of human life. Why would any people have chosen such an exchange?
  • Some scholars believe that agriculture originated in the Middle East and gradually spread throughout the world in a process of diffusion, while others point to the different staple plants that were developed in various parts of the world and suggest that agriculture appeared through independent development in several places around the globe. What significance does this dispute have for our understanding of human beings and human society?
  • It may well be that a memory of their more pleasant existence as hunters and gatherers led people to develop the idea of a Golden Age that is so common in the folklore and religions of the world. What examples of such Golden Age legends and myths can you think of, and how well do you think they might reflect the transition from Paleolithic savagery to Neolithic barbarism?