Chapter 1 Before Civilization

Section 4 From Hunting and Gathering to Controlling Food Supplies: The Neolithic Revolution


As with the other great changes in human cultural development, a changing environment probably stimulated the great human experiment of attempting to control food sources rather than simply gathering or hunting them. Scholars dispute the reasons people switched from hunting and gathering to producing their own food. Although some scholars believe that the growing population of the human race forced people into food producing, there is no direct evidence of this. In fact, as we have seen, in areas like central Russia humans often passed up opportunities to become food-producers, even after centuries of relatively settled life in one place. In the Middle East too, many of the Natufian settlements were eventually abandoned, as their inhabitants apparently went back to a nomadic hunting and gathering existence. 

             On the other hand, as the climate changed after the end of the last glacial period, when the ice began to retreat north again, and the herds of animals moved with it, some people in the hills and valleys of the Middle East did not go back on the road. In addition to hunting, they had become increasingly content to gather a variety of wild grains that were particularly abundant in the region, especially in the hills. The warming climate actually led to an expansion of these grains and the wildlife that exploited them. With food and water supplies remaining so abundant, many of the Natufian peoples felt no need to change their lives by returning to a wandering existence. Instead they chose to find ways to remain in their homes. These people changed the course of human history.

Domestication of plants.  Ironically, the decision to remain sedentary foragers nearly proved disastrous. During the early phases of the Interglacial, as the wild grains became rapidly more abundant, the Natufian foragers became increasingly dependent on them. Between about 11,000 and 8,000 B.C., however, during a period known as the Younger Dryas, the warming trend that had begun with the end of the last ice age suddenly reversed for over a thousand years, and the climate in the eastern Mediterranean became suddenly colder and drier again. As rain became scarce, and both wild grains and herds of large game animals began to diminish, between 8,000 and 5,000 B.C. some people adapted to the rapidly changing environment by achieving a new level of technology, domestication, or conscious control of both plants and animals. This was the first step towards taking control of the environment rather than being subject to it. Domesticating plants led to the development of agriculture, in which people depended primarily on crops for food. Domestication of animals, especially grazing animals such as goats, sheep and pigs, led to the development of pastoralism, in which meat and milk became the primary food sources.

             Domestication of plants was a gradual process. As women stayed in one spot year after year gathering the wild grains around their homes, they must have noticed that wherever they dropped seeds from their harvest new plants would eventually spring up. Soon they may have realized that this was more likely to happen near water, and so they began to plant seeds deliberately, in good soil near water. Or perhaps they began to selectively cultivate the plants that grew up from seeds that had been discarded in their own trash piles from partially eaten food. At any rate, apparently they eventually began to plant only the kinds of grain that they liked most, and deliberate agriculture was under way.

            Through trial and error, the wild strains of barley and wheat that had been gathered by people in the Middle East for centuries were now selectively bred in ways that made them more productive and more resistant to disease. As their yields increased, so too did people's dependence upon them for food. As people spent more and more time developing the new agriculture, they had less time to spend on hunting and gathering. Since the animal populations were moving anyway, this only allowed more people, including men now, to work at farming.

Domestication of animals   At about the same time, however, people also began to find ways to keep some animals, the smaller ones, from moving away. As women did with plants, so men began to do with animals. There is evidence that as early as 12,000 B.C. human beings had learned that wolf cubs, probably taken from their dens after the parents had been killed, could be brought up and trained to help human hunters on the game trail. The domestication of the wolf into the dog also gave man a companion who could be used to gather and control herds of grazing animals like sheep. Hunters must have noticed how some types of animals tended to follow a leader, the ram or the billy goat. By taking control of these leaders they could get control of the whole herd. Although at first people seem to have domesticated animals for their meat - as a kind of controlled and predictable form of hunting - eventually they began to realize that the animals were actually more useful for their milk, hair and other "secondary" products. From controlled hunters they had now become herders. Soon, these new herders also began to experiment with breeding the stronger animals to achieve improvements in the whole herd. Domestication of animals in communities that practiced agriculture also brought the advantages of using manure to enrich the soil. Initially, of course, such communities continued to depend upon both farming and animal production, as well as hunting and gathering activities. When either agriculture or herding came to dominate the life of a community, however, new patterns of social organization also generally developed.

             Unlike developed agriculture, which soon became sedentary, or settled permanently in one place, herding animals was a pastime that could keep people on the move. Animals still needed to graze, as well as to find water. Consequently, the people who depended on them also had to move with them, usually according to the seasons, looking for grass and fresh water. Pastoralists, those who came to depend more on animals than on agriculture for their survival, thus generally became semi-nomadic, that is they migrated in a fixed pattern around the countryside in accordance with the seasons. In the spring, for example, they might move up into the hills where grass grew lushly in the summer; in the winter they would come down into the valleys, where it was warmer and where grass was more likely to be found. Some pastoralists remained completely nomadic, wandering in no fixed pattern, but simply following the grazing herds. Such nomadic pastoralists, in fact, became the greatest threat to sedentary agricultural peoples right up to the modern era.

             It may have been through observation of their animals that pastoralists began to realize the relationship between conception and birth. As a consequence, they soon decided that just as the ram was the head of the herd, so the oldest male should be the head of the extended family or clan. In fact, pastoral peoples are almost always patrilineal, counting descent and inheritance through the male line, and patrilocal, with wives going to live with their husbands’ families. Such societies are also generally patriarchal, granting authority to men rather than women. Agricultural communities, on the other hand, continued to associate women, probably the first agricultural specialists, with the basic element of group survival, food production. Consequently, they remained largely mother-oriented - at least until development of the plow, which was too heavy for women to use effectively, gave men control of agricultural production too.  

            Although scholars generally agree that the discovery of domestication, both of plants and animals, a process often called the "Neolithic Revolution," occurred first in Southwest Asia at least as early as 10,000 B.C., particularly the area of the present-day Middle East, they also note that it occurred independently in  six or seven different places at slightly different times - Southwest Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, East Asia, South America, Mesoamerica, the highlands of Ethiopia in northeastern Africa, as well as the sahel region of Africa (the grasslands just south of the Sahara Desert), and West Africa. From these original regions of development, domestication of plants and animals spread into other parts of the world. From Southwest Asia, for example, the Neolithic Revolution spread into Egypt, the Mediterranean and Europe. From China and perhaps India it spread into Southeast Asia and eventually across the Pacific. From Mesoamerica it spread into North America. In all these areas, the basic patterns of developing agriculture and pastoralism were much the same. On the other hand, the local plants and animals that were available for domestication varied from region to region. Consequently, different areas developed very different bases for their agriculture and herding. 

            In Southwest Asia, for example, as early as 9,000 B.C., people in the Jordan River Valley were apparently domesticating figs and oats, while the the most easily domesticated grain plants were local grasses that would produce barley and several early forms of wheat (emmer and einkorn). In Asia, on the other hand, millet and rice became the most important grain crops sometime before about 8,000 B.C. In South America, potatoes and manioc were domesticated as a major food crop, and cotton, which was used for clothing and to make fishing lines and nets, was also a major agricultural product. Mesoamericans probably first cultivated squash and maize (corn) sometime between about 8000 and 7000 B.C., and by at least 4000 B.C. they had also domesticated beans.  

            Similarly, different regions depended on different domesticated animals - peoples in South America, for example, domesticated the llama, while those in the Middle East came to rely on sheep, goats, pigs, cattle and oxen. In India people tamed (though they did not not truly domesticate) the elephant, while Central Asian peoples apparently first domesticated the horse. In the deserts of Arabia and Central Asia, several types of camels also became an important domesticated animal that shaped peoples' lives and cultures. The different requirements and skills necessary for successful domestication of all these different plants and animals contributed directly to the different cultures established by the peoples in these different regions of the world as they adapted to their local environments.  


By the late Neolithic period, around 5,000 B.C., people in the Middle East had made great strides in taking control of their environment. They had created new inventions, such as pottery, which allowed them to store water and food, the sail and the wheel, which made long-distance transportation and trade easier, and even the plow and the ox yoke, which made it easier to till the soil. It was in this period too that they first learned to use metals.

            Copper was the first metal to be made into tools. Easily identified where it occurred in natural deposits on the surface of the earth, copper also had a low enough melting point to be melted out of the ore in ordinary charcoal fires. Once extracted from the ore and cooled, the metal was still soft enough to be easily shaped. Copper tools lasted longer than stone tools, and could be reshaped if they broke or were bent out of shape. Eventually, people learned that when copper containing small amounts of other materials like arsenic and especially tin was melted, the combined result, a metal alloy known as bronze, was both easier to melt and shape. Once it cooled, bronze was also harder than copper and could carry a sharper edge. As soon as people began to shift from using stone and copper tools to bronze tools, they had left the Neolithic era and had begun what many scholars have traditionally called the Bronze Age.

             By making human farming techniques more efficient, the new tools increased even further the amount of food that people could produce. More food in turn meant that more people could be sustained, and communities began to grow larger. The same social patterns that had already begun in the earlier settlements of the hunters and gatherers were accelerated in these new agricultural settlements. From the level of the village, people began to live together in such large numbers that small towns were established. The sheer size of community life reinforced all the patterns of privacy, private property, and social stratification that had begun in places like the Natufian settlements.

             By about 7,000 B.C. the process of agricultural development in the Middle East had allowed communities of over a thousand people to develop. Archeologists have uncovered one such early town in southern Turkey, at a place called Catal Huyuk (Chatal Hooyook). Another, which some scientists date back to 8,000 B.C., was established at Jericho, in the valley of the Jordan River in present-day Israel. (And yes, it did have walls that seem to have fallen down, though we do not yet know why.) These early towns were apparently in contact with others like themselves, for there is clear evidence of trade goods that must have originated in other regions. Still, towns were not the rule, for most human beings on the planet did not yet live in such communities.

Artist's rendition of Catal Huyuk, taken from

Social and Cultural Consequences The shift to sedentary agriculture that made such large towns possible also had social and cultural consequences. As we have seen, pastoral nomads became patriarchal in nature, dominated by men. The same thing happened even in the agricultural centers, as the invention of the plow, the hoe, and other tools requiring heavy labor brought men into the fields in increasing numbers. As control over agricultural production passed from women to men, so apparently did control over society as a whole.

            Although female oriented fertility cults continued to be the center of peoples' religious life in agricultural communities, they also gradually became more symbolic, with women holding less and less real power in society. This shift may also have reflected a growing awareness of the man's role in producing children.

             Just as relationships between men and women changed with the rise of large towns, so too did the basic relationships among the various groups within the communities. Jericho and Catal Huyuk, for example, had populations ranging from 2,000 to 6,000 people. With so many living in a relatively small area, the organizational skills that had begun to develop in Neolithic villages had to be greatly expanded. The prosperous specialists, who could already be seen in the Mammoth-bone culture, now became real elites, directing town life with careful concern, consciously we might say.

            Specialization as a whole increased, as growing food surpluses left time free for many people to develop their own special crafts or arts. Specialization also made trade with other communities important, particularly for items that were not easily found in the area of one's own town. In the hills above the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, for example, trade in salt, an indispensable item for all human beings, especially those living in warm climates, became a major factor in growing communications among Neolithic villages. Villages near salt supplies began to specialize in producing the vital substance, which they then traded to other villages in exchange for grain and other foodstuffs, or perhaps even articles made of copper and bronze.

            Jericho is perhaps the best example of this process for the town was located near good supplies of salt, as well as sulfur and pitch, both substances used in making fire. The people of Jericho traded these items for a variety of things from far away places, especially obsidian, an extremely hard, glass-like volcanic rock that could be sharpened to a razor edge. They also traded for decorative stones like turquoise, lapis lazuli, even cowrie shells from the Red Sea.

             Jericho also tells us a lot about how social and religious organization developed. A very powerful ruling group ran the town. They seem to have gotten their power from the fact that they kept the town’s religious shrines. People still believed that the world was inhabited by spirits. Especially powerful were the forces of nature. Even more important was the earth, which was generally seen as a great mother goddess. Both the plants and the water so necessary for human survival sprang from her body. Even salt was dug from her fruitful womb. The specialists who tended all these spirits were naturally considered vital to the survival of the community.

            If the spirits of nature did not cooperate, the entire existence of the community might be at stake. Religion in such an environment was thus a kind of insurance plan, designed to guarantee the continuing cooperation of nature with the human effort to survive. The specialists who maintained this cooperation were themselves increasingly seen as invaluable. They might produce no physical commodity, no pottery bowls nor cowrie shell necklaces for adornment, but people must have believed that through their special knowledge and ritual efforts they kept the human community in harmony and balance with the natural world on which it depended.

             The same patterns seen at Jericho were repeated with even greater development at Catal Huyuk. There, agriculture was also the basis of human existence but it was supplemented by a more highly developed level of animal herding than was the case at Jericho. In general a greater variety of meats, grains, and vegetables was available. Catal Huyuk developed even more specialized industries than Jericho too, especially in making flint and obsidian weapons and tools. The ruling elite was probably larger and even more powerful.

            The religious shrines scattered throughout the town, which were built like regular houses, though generally larger, tell us that the mother goddess was worshipped in Catal Huyuk, along with other gods and goddesses that seem to have been associated with both fertility rites and death rites. Like Jericho too, Catal Huyuk eventually found the need to fortify itself, presumably against raids from groups of people who lived outside the town. Perhaps these raiders were passing bands of hunters and gatherers desperate for food in times of drought. Perhaps they were nomadic pastoralists seeking to steal the town's livestock. Once again we can only speculate.

             Yet also like Jericho, as far as we can tell Catal Huyuk was a unique development in its region. We have discovered no other towns of comparable development in association with it. Although the elements of what we might call civilized life are clearly seen there, civilization itself had not yet begun. That development came first during the 5th-4th millennium, culminating around around 3500 B.C., a thousand miles away, in the region where two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, flowed into the Persian Gulf.

The expansion of villages into towns, towns into cities and the establishment of relations among cities marked not only humanity's creative discovery of civilization, but their emergence into what most scholars call the historical era.  



Much has been written about the origins of civilized life - what it is, where it first developed, and why it developed. Yet still we have no firm answers to many of our questions. Even the terms 'civilization' and 'civilized' mean different things to different people. In the English language, these words all come from a Latin word, civis, which means citizen or 'city-dweller.' The ancient Greeks used the term 'civilized' to distinguish between those people who spoke Greek and lived in cities and those who didn't. Those who didn't they called 'barbarians.' A similar distinction was also made in China, where the term 'civilized' applied only to the main Chinese population, who call themselves the Han - while all others were considered 'barbarians.' In short, all over the world the terms ‘civilized’ and ‘barbarian’ have traditionally been used simply as a means of distinguishing between those who belonged to a particular group of people, usually engaged in sedentary agriculture and living in towns or cities, and those who did not. Over the centuries, however, particularly in the Western European tradition, the terms have taken on more specialized meanings.  

             Most modern scholars use the term civilization to refer to people living together in relatively complex societies, marked by varying combinations of several basic elements: large-scale production of surplus food, usually through agriculture, perhaps supplemented by pastoralism or even fishing; the development of large towns or cities, particularly including large-scale or monumental architecture; divisions of labor that reflect well-developed levels of economic specialization, including organized government; and writing or record-keeping, which allows people to record and transmit information both to each other and to succeeding generations. According to these definitions, civilized people are those who have given up the nomadic or semi-nomadic existence of their forbears, to pursue a cooperative, sedentary life.

             Of course, for most of us the terms 'uncivilized' and 'barbarian' still have a negative meaning. This is primarily because such peoples and ways of living have historically represented perhaps the greatest threat to the 'civilizations' that ultimately dominated the earth - and that produced us in the process. Yet despite the tendency of civilizations to look down on their wandering neighbors, one of the major themes of human history has been the interaction between the two ways of living, and the peoples who practiced them. Nor have all such interactions been negative - 'barbarian' peoples have often developed technologies that proved enormously beneficial to civilized peoples, as well as providing crucial links in the development of long-distance trade. Consequently, historians who prefer less value-laden terms usually refer to such peoples as 'nomadic,' 'migratory,' or even 'non-sedentary'. Even so, according to most interpretations the natural reason for choosing a sedentary existence is that it is both more physically and psychologically secure and more materially and intellectually rewarding than nomadic life. 

             The first civilizations that we know of apparently developed out of the need to control water supplies for large-scale sedentary agriculture. Like the initial development of agriculture and pastoralism, the resort to large-scale irrigation agriculture itself was probably due to rapid changes in global weather patterns, particularly the onset of major long-lasting drought that forced people closer and closer to reliable water sources - major river valleys.Large-scale agriculture was only possible when relatively large groups of people coordinated their efforts to tame the rivers along which they lived. They used the rivers' water and rich silts to grow crops on a scale previously unknown. With such large-scale coordination came also increased specialization, increased hierarchical distinctions within society, and eventually all the elements of human existence that we identify today with 'civilization.' The next chapter is about both the common features of these first civilizations, and the unique answers they developed to the basic questions of life that shaped their view of themselves and the world around them. Once again, as was true for all earlier human development, perhaps the major factor that shaped each civilization was the means by which its inhabitants adapted to their local environment.