the neolithic revolution is characterized by
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Neolithic, also called New Stone Age, final stage of cultural evolution or technological development among prehistoric humans. It was characterized by stone tools shaped by polishing or grinding, dependence on domesticated plants or animals, settlement in permanent villages, and the appearance of such crafts as pottery and weaving. The Neolithic followed the Paleolithic Period, or age of chipped-stone tools, and preceded the Bronze Age, or early period of metal tools.
What was the Neolithic Revolution?
Also called the Agricultural Revolution, the shift to agriculture from hunting and gathering changed humanity forever.
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.
During the Neolithic period, hunter-gatherers roamed the natural world, foraging for their food. But then a dramatic shift occurred. The foragers became farmers, transitioning from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more settled one.
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.
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.
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.
The agricultural revolution
About 10,000 years ago Central Africa began to undergo an economic revolution. It started in the north, where a new dry phase in the Earth’s history forced people to make better use of a more limited part of their environment as the desert spread southward once more. Hunters who had roamed the savanna settled beside the rivers and perfected their skills as fishermen. Gatherers who had harvested wild grain on the plains settled beside lakes, where they could sow some of their gleanings as seed in the moist and fertile soils left by the waters that withdrew at the end of each wet season. The northern border of Central Africa became one of the cradles of the world’s food-producing revolution.
The Iron Age
The Iron Age reached Central Africa more or less at the same time it reached western Europe, some 3,000 years ago. The hallmark of the new era was technological innovation, but the social and economic changes that metalworking brought about were fundamental to the agricultural communities—if not to the hunting communities—of the tropics. Ironworking, unlike agriculture, was not a local invention but a skill that spread from community to community as the superiority of metal tools and weapons came to be recognized. Iron smelting came into Central Africa from two directions. In the northwest the oldest source of the new knowledge was on the Nigerian plateau. The skill necessary to dig pit furnaces and surround them with ranks of bellows spread among the Bantu-speaking peoples of the western forest. Gradually the polished stone tools that they had perfected were replaced by much more expensive but effective iron ones.
Where salt was not available, or where the costs of transport made it prohibitively expensive, people had to make do with salt substitutes such as the ash of marsh plants. Where real salt was produced, however, the industry became a focus for political power, and early states were formed, as on the Loango coast of modern Congo.
Could Foragers Have Taken Up Farming Even If It Were Not More Productive?
An important clue for the explanation of the Neolithic agricultural revolution is the rareness of the independent advent of farming (with perhaps a dozen cases at most), which cannot be explained (as might be the rareness of the development of writing) by the difficulty of “inventing” farming. Hunter-gatherers were of necessity experts in plant and animal biology.1 Seeing that after the Last Glacial Maximum, virtually all human groups (excluding Arctic populations and a few others) were free to experiment with cultivation and animal tending and (as we see in Sec. VIII) that many did so without taking up farming over the long period, it is quite unlikely that foragers’ ignorance of the possibilities of food production explains why the independent emergence of farming was so rare. We propose, instead, that an institutional bottleneck impeded the advent of farming.
Empirical Doubts about Standard Explanations
Three pieces of evidence to be reviewed below are the basis of our conclusion that it is unlikely that farming emerged as a way to improve or sustain livelihoods under adverse climatic conditions or increasing population. We then introduce three additional empirical observations that have guided us in providing a more adequate model.
A. Farming Was Initiated in Declining, Not Growing, Populations
Using evidence on the age structure of the deceased in burials before and following the advent of farming, the archaeologist Jean-Pierre Bocquet-Appel and his coauthors have documented the Neolithic Demographic Transition from a roughly stationary population of foragers to a slowly growing population of farmers. They show that the first farming, in the Levant, followed almost 8 centuries of stationary or even declining population. The initiation of farming at European and North American sites was preceded by even more prolonged periods of declining population (Bocquet-Appel 2002; Bocquet-Appel and Naji 2006; Guerrero, Naji, and Bocquet-Appel 2008). Moreover, some of the earliest farming (at Abu Hureyra and Mureybet, for example) took place at sites of resource abundance and comparatively limited population pressure (Bar-Yosef and Belfer-Cohen 1992; Cauvin 2000).
The Neolithic Agricultural Revolution Took Place under Increasingly Farming-Friendly Climatic Conditions, Not under Climatic Adversity
Archaeologists have long thought that foragers took up farming in response to the period of climatic adversity called the Younger Dryas (12,900–11,700 years BP, meaning before 1950; Bar-Yosef and Meadow 1995), an interpretation favored by the view that farming had raised productivity.
But recent improved dating of both temperature and growing conditions, on the one hand, and, on the other, the first independent cultivation of domesticated species appears to be inconsistent with this view. There were local variations, of course, but the amelioration of climate marking the beginning of the Holocene was a global phenomenon, and, as is evident in figure 1, it predated the advent of the cultivation of domesticated species even at the earliest sites.
Exploitation of ivory
In the second half of the 19th century, the northern border of Central Africa was suddenly opened up to the impact of an intense new trade in ivory. Rapid prosperity in both Europe and North America had led to an increase in demand for ivory to make piano keys, billiard balls, knife handles, and ornamental carvings. Traders from Egypt and the old Ottoman Empire of North Africa went across the Sahara and up the Nile to cross into the upper reaches of the Congo basin, where elephants were still plentiful.