Thesaurus and the
- You should be able to define and explain the following terms:
husbandry, agricultural revolution, selective breeding,
hybridization, fertilization, crop rotation, slash and burn agriculture,
megaliths, barbarism (in its old technical sense), the difference
between diffusion and independent development, "golden
- You should understand the relationship between a
sedentary way of life and material progress.
- You should have begun to consider some of the basic questions raised
by some aspects of The Agricultural Revolution:
- Why did humans adopt agriculture when it meant a more laborious
life for them, one with less variety and more drudgery, less social
communication and more lonely labor, and a poorer diet coupled with a
loss of leisure?
- Did agriculture spread through diffusion or independent
development? What arguments could be adduced to support one or the
- Why did The Agricultural Revolution tend to center in river
- How can one explain the immense amount of labor that Neolithic
societies invested in such things as the megaliths of western Europe?
- Are there any reasons why religion and magic might have been more
important for the people of early Neolithic communities that they had
been for their Paleolithic ancestors?
- Can you think of any Golden Ages that might been echo of the more
or less plentiful and carefree days of Paleolithic times?
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
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
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?
Washington State University has mounted an excellent series of
educational modules, and you should concentrate on The
Agricultural Revolution for a good general overview of the subject.
One of the problems with the web, however, is that it is changing so fast
that it is sometimes difficult to keep up with what is currently
available. For this reason, I will usually try to give you an alternate
site for the one assigned. At the time that this section is being put up,
Neolithic Revolution is available and is an excellent alternative
site. One of the more impressive characteristics of the Neolithic peoples
of western Europe was their practice of erecting tombs and monuments
composed of gigantic stones, often covered with hundreds of thousands of
tons of dirt. The
Stone Pages offers a good introduction to these constructions.
I would particularly recommend New grange, Knot, and Death in Ireland,
and, of course, the famous Stonehenge in England.