The Neolithic Revolution, also called the Agricultural Revolution, marked the transition in human history from small, nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers to larger, agricultural settlements and early civilization. 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.
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 agriculture 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.
Plant domestication: 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 for 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 for crops that harvested easily. Wild wheat, for instance, falls to the ground and shatters when it is ripe. Early humans bred for 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.
Livestock: The first livestock were domesticated from animals that Neolithic humans hunted for meat. 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 the 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.
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.