The Neolithic Revolution, also known as the Agricultural Revolution, was a significant turning point in human history. It transformed small, wandering groups of hunter-gatherers into larger agricultural communities, leading to the birth of early civilization. This groundbreaking shift began approximately in 10,000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, where farming was first embraced by humans. The impact of this revolution was profound, altering the way people live, eat, and engage with one another.
Area of the Fertile Crescent with main sites of the Neolithic period, c. 7500 B.C.
The revolution wasn’t driven by a single factor. One theory proposes that climate changes played a role. Approximately 14,000 years ago, as the last Ice Age came to an end, the Earth experienced a warming trend. This led to the growth of wild wheat and barley in the Fertile Crescent, prompting Pre-Neolithic people to construct permanent settlements in the area.
Another hypothesis suggests that intellectual advancements in the human brain contributed to the transition. Archaeological findings from the earliest Neolithic settlements reveal religious artifacts and artistic imagery, indicating a development in human cognition and creativity.
Model of the Neolithic settlement, Çatalhöyük, located in southern Turkey
Anatomically modern humans have been around for about 200,000-300,000 years. However, before agriculture developed, they relied solely on hunting and foraging. Since food sources were limited, only a small number of humans could inhabit a given area. In order for a tribe of 100 hunter-foragers to survive, they would have needed a territory spanning from 20 to 200 square miles (~50 to 500 square kilometers). With hunting and foraging alone, Earth could support only about 10 million people.
The transition to farming cereal grains like wheat and barley occurred approximately 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. Subsequently, people turned to protein-rich foods like peas and lentils. Around the same time, in Asia, rice and millet cultivation began. In Mexico, people started cultivating squash around 10,000 years ago, while maize-like crops emerged about 9,000 years ago.
As these early farmers developed their agriculture skills, they generated surplus seeds and crops that needed to be stored. This surplus not only facilitated population growth due to a more reliable food supply but also encouraged a more settled lifestyle, with the responsibility of storing seeds and tending to crops.
Spread of farming from Southwest Asia to Europe between 9,600 B.C. and 3,800 B.C
Farmers played a crucial role in economic exchanges by trading their crops for various goods. This allowed non-farmers to specialize in producing different commodities, which could then be exchanged for food and other things. Specialization led to heightened productivity, driving advancements in construction, tool development, and weaponry. Consequently, governments emerged to oversee these activities, while military forces were formed to protect people and resources.
As humans delved into farming, they also took to domesticating animals. In the Fertile Crescent, evidence of herding cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs dates back to approximately 12,000 years ago. Soon after, in China, India, and Tibet, water buffalo, and yak were domesticated. However, it was much later, around 4,000 B.C., that draft animals like oxen, donkeys, and camels emerged. This coincided with the development of trade routes, where these animals played a crucial role in transporting goods.
Map of the world in 2,000 B.C. (yellow—hunter-gatherers; purple—nomadic pastoralists; green—simple farming societies; orange—complex farming societies/chiefdoms; blue—state societies; white—uninhabited; red line—areas of bronze working.)
Domesticated animals played a vital role in enabling more intensive farming, providing additional nutrition through milk and meat, and supporting stable populations. However, they also brought infectious diseases, such as smallpox, influenza, and measles, which spread from animals to humans.
The profound impact of agriculture on humanity is evident in the population growth. Before the agricultural revolution, there were around six to ten million people. However, by the time of the Roman Empire, approximately 10,000 years later, the world population had surged to over 250 million. Fast forward to the present, and the population has reached seven billion. In just 12,000 years, agricultural advancements have enabled the human population to increase by roughly 1,000 times.
Words of wisdom
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” —Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
“It has been said that civilization is twenty-four hours and two meals away from barbarism.” —Neil Gaiman, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
“I could die for you. But I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, live for you.” —Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.” —Sigmund Freud