The Neolithic Revolution also referred to as the Agricultural Revolution is thought to have begun about 12,000 years ago. It coincided with the end of the last ice age and the beginning of the current geological epoch, the Holocene. And it forever changed how humans live, eat, and interact, paving the way for modern civilization.
The Neolithic Revolution marked the transition in human history from small, nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers to larger, agricultural settlements and early civilization. In another view, it is estimated that the Neolithic Revolution started around 10,000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent, a boomerang-shaped region of the Middle East where humans first took up farming. Shortly after, Stone Age humans in other parts of the world also began to practice agriculture. Civilizations and cities grew out of the innovations of the Neolithic Revolution.
The Neolithic Age is sometimes called the New Stone Age. Neolithic humans used stone tools like their earlier Stone Age ancestors, who eked out a marginal existence in small bands of hunter-gatherers during the last Ice Age.
Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe coined the term “Neolithic Revolution” in 1935 to describe the radical and important period of change in which humans began cultivating plants, breeding animals for food, and forming permanent settlements. The advent of agriculture separated Neolithic people from their Paleolithic ancestors.
Many facets of modern civilization can be traced to this moment in history when people started living together in communities.
Why settle down?
Though the exact dates and reasons for the transition are debated, evidence of a move away from hunting and gathering and toward agriculture has been documented worldwide. Farming is thought to have happened first in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, where multiple groups of people developed the practice independently. Thus, the “agricultural revolution” was likely a series of revolutions that occurred at different times in different places.
There are a variety of hypotheses as to why humans stopped foraging and started farming. Population pressure may have caused increased competition for food and the need to cultivate new foods; people may have shifted to farming in order to involve elders and children in food production; humans may have learned to depend on plants they modified in early domestication attempts and in turn, those plants may have become dependent on humans. With new technology come new and ever-evolving theories about how and why the agricultural revolution began.
Regardless of how and why humans began to move away from hunting and foraging, they continued to become more settled. This was in part due to their increasing domestication of plants. Humans are thought to have gathered plants and their seeds as early as 23,000 years ago, and to have started farming cereal grains like barley as early as 11,000 years ago.
Afterward, they moved on to protein-rich foods like peas and lentils. As these early farmers became better at cultivating food, they may have produced surplus seeds and crops that required storage. This would have both spurred population growth because of more consistent food availability and required a more settled way of life with the need to store seeds and tend crops.
Causes Of The Neolithic Revolution
There was no single factor that led humans to begin farming roughly 12,000 years ago. The causes of the Neolithic Revolution may have varied from region to region.
The Earth entered a warming trend around 14,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. Some scientists theorize that climate changes drove the Agricultural Revolution.
In the Fertile Crescent, bounded on the west by the Mediterranean Sea and on the east by the Persian Gulf, wild wheat and barley began to grow as it got warmer. Pre-Neolithic people called Natufians started building permanent houses in the region.
Other scientists suggest that intellectual advances in the human brain may have caused people to settle down. Religious artifacts and artistic imagery—progenitors of human civilization—have been uncovered at the earliest Neolithic settlements.
The Neolithic Era began when some groups of humans gave up the nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle completely to begin farming. It may have taken humans hundreds or even thousands of years to transition fully from a lifestyle of subsisting on wild plants to keeping small gardens and later tending large crop fields.
The archaeological site of Çatalhöyük in southern Turkey is one of the best-preserved Neolithic settlements. Studying Çatalhöyük has given researchers a better understanding of the transition from a nomadic life of hunting and gathering to an agricultural lifestyle.
Archaeologists have unearthed more than a dozen mud-brick dwellings at the 9,500-year-old Çatalhöyük. They estimate that as many as 8,000 people may have lived here at one time. The houses were clustered so closely back-to-back that residents had to enter the homes through a hole in the roof.
The inhabitants of Çatalhöyük appear to have valued art and spirituality. They buried their dead under the floors of their houses. The walls of the homes are covered with murals of men hunting, cattle, and female goddesses.
Some of the earliest evidence of farming comes from the archaeological site of Tell Abu Hureyra, a small village located along the Euphrates River in modern Syria. The village was inhabited from roughly 11,500 to 7,000 B.C.
Inhabitants of Tell Abu Hureyra initially hunted gazelle and other game. Around 9,700 B.C. they began to harvest wild grains. Several large stone tools for grinding grain have been found at the site.
The first livestock was domesticated from animals that Neolithic humans hunted for meat. As humans began to experiment with farming, they also started domesticating animals. Evidence of sheep and goat herding has been found in Iraq and Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) as far back as about 12,000 years ago.
Domesticated animals, when used as labor, helped make more intensive farming possible and also provided additional nutrition via milk and meat for increasingly stable populations.
Domestic pigs were bred from wild boars, for instance, while goats came from the Persian ibex. Domesticated animals made the hard, physical labor of farming possible while their milk and meat added variety to the human diet. They also carried infectious diseases: smallpox, influenza, and measles all spread from domesticated animals to humans.
The first farm animals also included sheep and cattle. These originated in Mesopotamia between 10,000 and 13,000 years ago. Water buffalo and yak were domesticated shortly after in China, India, and Tibet. Draft animals including oxen, donkeys, and camels appeared much later around 4,000 B.C. as humans developed trade routes for transporting goods.
The agricultural revolution had a variety of consequences for humans. It has been linked to everything from societal inequality—a result of humans’ increased dependence on the land and fears of scarcity—to a decline in nutrition and a rise in infectious diseases contracted from domesticated animals. But the new period also ushered in the potential for modern societies—civilizations characterized by large population centers, improved technology, and advancements in knowledge, arts, and trade.
Cereals such as emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, and barley were among the first crops domesticated by Neolithic farming communities in the Fertile Crescent. These early farmers also domesticated lentils, chickpeas, peas, and flax.
Domestication is the process by which farmers select desirable traits by breeding successive generations of a plant or animal. Over time, a domestic species becomes different from its wild relative.
Neolithic farmers selected crops that harvested easily. Wild wheat, for instance, falls to the ground and shatters when it is ripe. Early humans bred wheat that stayed on the stem for easier harvesting.
Around the same time that farmers were beginning to sow wheat in the Fertile Crescent, people in Asia started to grow rice and millet. Scientists have discovered archaeological remnants of Stone Age rice paddies in Chinese swamps dating back at least 7,700 years.
In Mexico, squash cultivation began about 10,000 years ago, while maize-like crops emerged around 9,000 years ago.
The Agricultural Revolution was a period of technological improvement and increased crop productivity that occurred during the 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe. In this lesson, learn the timeline, causes, effects and major inventions that spurred this shift in production.
Timeline of the Agricultural Revolution
Historians have often labeled the first Agricultural Revolution (which took place around 10,000 B.C.) as the period of transition from a hunting-and-gathering society to one based on stationary farming. During the 18th century, another Agricultural Revolution took place when European agriculture shifted from the techniques of the past.
New patterns of crop rotation and livestock utilization paved the way for better crop yields, a greater diversity of wheat and vegetables, and the ability to support more livestock. These changes impacted society as the population became better nourished and healthier. The Enclosure Acts, passed in Great Britain, allowed wealthy lords to purchase public fields and push out small-scale farmers, causing a migration of men looking for wage labor in cities. These workers would provide the labor for new industries during the Industrial Revolution.
The Agricultural Revolution began in Great Britain around the turn of the 18th century. Several major events include:
- The perfection of the horse-drawn seed press, which would make farming less labor-intensive and more productive.
- The large-scale growth of new crops, such as potato and maize, by 1750.
- The passing of the Enclosure Laws, limiting the common land available to small farmers in 1760.
Effects of the Neolithic Revolution
The Neolithic Revolution led to masses of people establishing permanent settlements supported by farming and agriculture. It paved the way for the innovations of the ensuing Bronze Age and Iron Age when advancements in creating tools for farming, wars, and art swept the world and brought civilizations together through trade and conquest.
- The Development of Agriculture: National Geographic.
- The Seeds of Civilization: Smithsonian Magazine.
- What was the Neolithic Revolution?: National Geographic.
- Neolithic Revolution: History
- The Agricultural Revolution: Timeline, Causes, Inventions & Effects: study