Return to 151 Syllabus

Return to 151 Course Schedule

Agriculture and Civilization Terms:

Homo Sapiens Sapiens
Agricultural Revolution
Fertile Crescent
Catal Huyuk

The first humans that anthropologists know of who closely resembled ourselves have been found in Africa, and carbon 14 dating, combined with strata dating, and potassium-argon dating of the rock associated with these finds show them to be from 40,000 to 50,000 years BCE. By 20,000 years BCE, evidence clearly shows that Homo Sapiens Sapiens, or modern humans, had inhabited all of the major continental land masses of the earth, including Africa, Australia, Eurasia, and the Americas (but excluding Antarctica, which has never had a self-sustaining human population, for obvious reasons). Fascinatingly enough, now tests on contemporary human females show them to have enough similarity in their mitochondrial DNA for biologists to claim that we may all, in fact, be descended from a single woman who lived in Africa thousands of years ago. (Mitochondrial DNA is a portion of human DNA that is passed only from female to female, and mutates minimally from generation to generation. Scientists have called this supposed first female ancestor "Eve.") However, new theories based on evidence of human development on a global scale also suggest that modern humans may not actually have developed in Africa and moved outward, but instead may have developed simultaneously in various places. This is one of the great debates rocking the Anthropology world at the moment.

In any case, these early ancestors of ours lived in very different situations from those we take for granted. They initially had no homes, and no secure food supply. In fact, if we give it a bit of thought, they were literally babes in the woods. Humans are really quite weak in comparison to most other animals. Most domestic dogs are able to fend for themselves by the time they are six months old, and walk within minutes after birth. Human babies do not walk for between 10 months and 2 years, and are completely unable to care for themselves for at least 12 to 14 years. In fact, humans do not reach their physical peaks until about the age of 16 for females, and 18 for males. Until then, running, jumping, grasping, and hunting, are extremely difficult. Even when humans reach that golden peak age, we have a top speed of only a few miles per hour (sustainable for long distances). We are no match for the Cheetah, which has been clocked at 60 miles per hour. Gorillas, with their diet of 90 percent leaves, still have almost 10 times the physical strength of humans on a per-pound basis. We have no natural armor to protect us from the teeth of predators. It is amazing that humans were able to survive at all initially. Most of the credit for this survival must go, it seems, to the human brain, and to our incredibly flexible hands and sharp eyes, without any of which we would likely have not gone nearly as far as we have.

Humans apparently quite early put their brains to use, however, devising means to survive. They did this for most of human history by practicing hunting and gathering. That is, they took their food from nature, wherever they could find it. That brain power was incredibly useful in this situation.
Modern gatherer-hunter groups have shown how complex and comprehensive knowledge of the natural workd can be. Hunter-gatherers in New Guinea, for example, have encyclopedic knowledge of wild mushrooms and their toxicity.

The Baka people in Africa can easily find roots which, when beaten and floated in a stream, paralyze all of the fish, but have no effect on the humans who eat them later.

To identify these things, we moderns have books. They keep their books in their heads. This is just one example of how complex gatherer culture is. In fact, it appears that for most of human history, hunting and gathering was remarkably successful in terms of its ability to feed, clothe, and protect the members of the human species.

So our first inquiry for this course is to discover what made humans change from hunter-gatherers to farmers. Second, we must ask what made these farmers decide to gather together in large, complex societies characterized by city life, hierarchical political organization, specialization of crafts and occupations, law, language, writing, and standardized cultural and religious behavior? In short, what was it that caused humans to change from hunter-gather social organization to civilization? After all, while the continental surfaces of the Earth were inhabited by humans as early as 20,000 BCE, no community began to actively engage in agriculture until 8500 BCE, and the first "civilization" did not arise until around 3500 BCE. What took us so long?
The first, and simplest, answer to this question is that until 8500 BCE, farming did not appear to be appreciably better than hunting and gathering as a lifestyle. In fact, as Jared Diamond has pointed out in his book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, given the amount of effort and time that hunter-gatherers put into their search for food on a daily basis, early farmers probably had to work far harder, and had no more guarantee that they would not starve. With this kind of risk-reward ratio, it is no surprise that the switch to farming took so long.

If farming was no guarantee of survival, the idea of combining large numbers of people in one place must not have occurred to most hunter-gatherer groups at all. Large sedentary groups would be, for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, a sure recipe for starvation.

So what brought about the domestication of plants and animals, and how did that change human society over the long term?

Given the time over which this change occurred, it is hard to call it a revolution. Nevertheless, most historians now call the move from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to farming the "Agricultural Revolution," and it has had the most widespread and important influence on every human society of any historical change we have experienced. It made civilization possible, and that, in turn, has made possible nearly everything else we now are.

Domesticating plants was probably not the exciting, discovery-ridden act we tend to think of. In fact, given the average intelligence of our species, it is likely that humans have known for most of our existence how seeds, if planted in the ground, would grow into plants. Explanations for why this was the case often had to do with magic or spiritualism, but that does not take away from the fact that humans knew how seeds worked. Even if we had not known, however, we would have begun changing plants and animals very early in our history.

This simply has to do with the fact that seeds cleverly find ways to transport themselves successfully away from the mother plant in order to germinate, and grow new members of the species in diverse locations. The way seeds do this includes attaching themselves to clothing, feathers, and fur; blowing in the wind; being so attractive to eat (through the colorful, tasty fruit that surrounds them) that animals and humans eat them and either spit the seeds out, or the seeds pass through the digestive system and germinate after re-emerging from the body.

In short, many plants that humans ate probably sort of followed them around ­ dropping seeds along the route of migration of the tribe, etc. . . Almonds, again as Diamond points out, are an excellent example. Wild almonds are bitter, and the chemical compound that causes this bitterness is cyanide. Thus a handful of wild almonds can be lethal. However, there is a very small percentage of almond trees,­ mutants if you will, ­ that do not have the gene which causes them to produce this bitter chemical. Humans would likely have raided trees where the sweet almonds grew, and perhaps dropped a few on the way back to camp. Their act of gathering thus probably caused more mutant trees to grow than might otherwise have been the case, because the nuts would have been completely eaten by animals had they been left on the tree. What was a deficiency in the almond tree’s natural defense, then, actually became an asset as humans began to use these sweet almonds in their diet. Such unconscious acts probably tended to create a kind of natural selection, in which mutant plants that humans found most useful tended to have their seeds better distributed due to human consumption (not human planting). So we can say that humans were modifying plants from very early times.

Around 10,000 BCE, anthropologists and archaeologists have found evidence that, while the last major ice age was receding, the area now known as the Fertile Crescent had a very different climate than it has today. At that time, as temperatures worldwide were rising, rain in the area of the Zagros Mountains in Turkey and Iran was common, and fed two major river systems, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

At the same time, the cool, temperate conditions that had prevailed in the area that is now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan were becoming more arid. An area that pollen samples show to have been covered with oak forests, and thus likely good hunting and gathering grounds during the ice age, was experiencing less rainfall. The increasingly arid conditions tended to cause the forests, and plants and animals that go with them, to recede into more temperate zones such as mountains, or areas closer to the poles. This recession meant that hunter-gatherer groups probably had to go farther and farther in search of food. At this point, the effort/reward ratio probably began to tip in the direction of farming.

Evidence shows that about 9,000 years BCE, hunter-gatherer groups in the region were beginning a kind of crude agriculture. They farmed via a slash and burn method. They would clear a piece of land, burn the stumps and weeds left, and then sew the seeds of wild wheat or barley on the ashes, which were rich in nutrients. These fields were usually left untended, and the group that set them up would often leave to forage over the growing season, coming back when the crop was near ready for harvest. Stone scythes found in the area and dated from 9,000 to 10,000 BCE still show the sheen of silica left by wild wheat and barley.

It is unclear at this stage how long it took, but eventually, these wild grains began to grow into plants much more suitable for human use than for wild use. Rather than small berries protected by armored stalks that clung to fur, and only released seeds in an un-harvestable explosion from the stalk, the grains that humans began planting in planned agricultural areas by around 8500 BCE were large, easy to grind, unarmored, and stayed on the stalk until cut from it, making a harvest much more productive. In fact, Diamond has estimated that by 8500 BCE, when farming came into practice first in the area that would become the city of Jericho, this domestication process changed the productivity of land from 2% edible biomass to 90% edible biomass on a cultivated tract of land. This huge jump in productivity made it possible to support an increasingly dense population. This was important because it appears that population density increases, combined with the search for food, were among the major causes of the shift to agriculture for every group that undertook it.
In any case, by 8500 BCE, agriculture was being used by some groups to provide food. Many other groups, who likely saw agriculture in practice, refused to adopt it for hundreds, or even thousands of years, for reasons that will become clear. Other groups adopted agriculture, then abandoned it, and finally adopted it again hundreds of years later.

The benefits of agriculture, and the problems it causes, are many. First, as mentioned, the vast increased in percentage of biomass per acre that was consumable by humans meant that farming groups could feed 10 to 100 times the number of people that they had been able to feed as hunter-gatherers. Since farming can be practiced near home by both sexes, initially at least, the more hands on the farm the better. In farming cultures, the number of children increased as the spacing between having children decreased. In other words, agriculture was both caused by, and was the cause of, increased population densities. The need to feed more people in difficult times probably led to the first choice to plant seeds and care for them until harvest. Once farming had secured much larger yields than a group had ever experienced in the wild, the availability of food and the need for working hands encouraged groups to increase their size, and the nature of farming, which is labor intensive, encouraged people to settle in one place so as to watch over their farms, and guard the produce that had been harvested.

One excellent example of this phenomenon is Catal Huyuk, a Neolithic village in what is now called Turkey. Catal Huyuk was apparently settled around 6200 BCE. It is clearly a permanent settlement, with well-built homes set in an organized grid pattern facing what may have been a major trade thoroughfare. Archeologists have found clay pots, wall paintings, and a spiritual center here. The village lies on the slopes of a volcano, and archeologists theorize that the village produced food for itself, and traded obsidian tools and jewelry for more.

This, of course, brings us one step closer to civilization. Not only were the people of Catal Huyuk growing their own food, they had enough food to provide for some members of their village to stop farming, and to specialize in trades such as tool- and jewelry-making for trade with other villages. An agricultural surplus provides for non-agricultural trade specialization, then, and thus more complex society.

At this point, it should be relatively clear what agriculture meant for humankind. The ability to grow enough to feed the growers and others who worked other trades as well changed social relations for good. No longer were all members of a social group essentially equal to one another. The sedentary nature of the new villages and farms, and their need for careful planning, irrigation, and building projects, meant that organization and long term planning became a necessity, and this would lead to the creation of government, of class distinctions based on profession, and eventually would bring the need to do numerical calculations and thus lies behind the invention of writing for the purpose of making records.

All of these things would introduce problems, as well as benefits, over the next 8,000 years of human history. It is those problems, and their solutions, that we will be interested in for the rest of this course.

Now that we have looked at proto-civilization and the Agricultural Revolution, we will begin to look at the way in which these changes caused problems, and how human societies addressed those problems. This is really what history is all about. It is not a story of progress, or a journey to a goal. History is a constant chain of problems and solutions. In fact, every age in history has faced multiple simultaneous or coincident problems, some of which have been contradictory, and some insoluble. The mechanisms that people have devised to deal with problems, and the way in which those mechanisms create new problems and new possibilities is really the core of the historical search.

So, what problems did humans face as a result of abandoning their oldest system of sustenance and social organization and embarking upon the agricultural road? We can imagine they must have been vast, and seemingly impossible to deal with.

First of all, agriculture, to be successful, demands constant attention, good soil, good weather, and plentiful water. Humans are able to control only one of the above factors fully: the amount of effort they invest. Soil conditions can be controlled in a limited way. In fact, the attempt to increase control of this particular factor is one of the key elements in human conflict.

The first place where farming appeared was in the Fertile Crescent area of what is now Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Israel and Palestine. This area was not perfect. The area around Jericho was relatively well watered by rainfall, but was in the process of becoming warmer and drier. This meant that irrigation canals had to be dug, and farms tended carefully so as to maximize production while conserving water. In order to maximize use of arable (farmable) land, communities of farmers like that in Catal Huyuk lived together in a village built on agriculturally marginal land so that they could maximize agricultural use of the surrounding good land.

Living together, as we all know, causes problems that need to be solved. This was one of the major challenges facing the new sedentary societies, who had greater populations. Hunter-gatherer groups, mostly small in population, had solved this problem with a very simple code of ethics. Everything was based on the value of an individual as a member of a family group who all worked at essentially the same job – gathering food. This was not an easy system to keep in operation in the new agricultural societies, especially as occupational specialization more and more drastically differentiated the value of individuals to the overall group project, and population growth lessened the power of individual members of clans, and separated subdivisions of clans from each other. Thus, one of the key problems – living together, was a cause of the development of law, and of government to oversee and enforce that law.

Since the goal of sedentary agricultural societies was also to feed the maximum number of people possible, organized activity had to be developed that maximized the efficiency of labor. Irrigation canals had to be dug, houses had to be built, seed had to be stored and distributed, and everyone had to receive their fair share of the produce. This organization also required overseers to create and manage projects. This was another function that would be taken on by government.

Government authority had to derive from some clear source, and the most obvious of those sources at the time, aside from the threat of violence, which posed the problem of potential destruction of the society, was religious belief. As governments began to explain to people why they had the right to plan, create laws, and distribute wealth, they often used religion as a way to connect themselves with authority. There is clear evidence in most early societies that government and religious authority cooperated. Ofen they were even the same entity.

But organization of production and larger populations brought problems as well. Agriculture, while it can be highly productive, takes advantage of only a few thousand of the edible plants available on the planet. More, staple foods such as wheat or rice can be counted on the fingers of two hands. This means that an agriculture-based society relied on fewer food choices than hunter-gatherer societies had, and this makes them vulnerable.
First, most agricultural societies, even today, rely on what is known as “monocropping”. That is, the vast majority of the food they produce is of one variety of one type of plant. If disease or weather affects that kind of plant badly, a society can (and historically, every society has) be in danger of massive starvation because the main staple crop is in short supply.

Additionally, subjecting the land to a less diverse ecological system can cause tremendous environmental damage through leeching the soil of nutrients, encouraging salinization of the soil, allowing for tremendous erosion of topsoil due to row-cropping and irrigation practices, and encouraging massive populations of insects that feed specifically on the crops being grown. All of these things can in the short or long term produce disaster. In fact, it seems early agricultural societies were more subject to starvation than hunter-gatherers were. This is probably why many groups refused to become farmers at all initially, and why a large number tried agriculture but abandoned it to return to hunting and gathering. By 3100 BCE, when Egypt was in the process of unifying, only 3% of all humans were farmers. The rest were still hunter-gatherers.

One of the other major effects of domestication came not from plants, but from animals. As far as we can see, only the dog was domesticated before 5,000 BCE or so. The relationship between humans and dogs appears to go back to about 40,000 BCE (truly best friends). Cows, goats, sheep, pigs, and other domestic animals, however, didn’t appear in human society until much later. Horses were one of the latest.

When they did appear, these animals brought with them diseases that mutated to thrive in the other closest host – humans. The human immune system learned over time to deal with these diseases, which include bubonic plague, influenza, smallpox, anthrax, to name a few. In a sense, this was both an advantage and a disadvantage. Since the domesticated animals were different in nearly every different human location, so were the diseases and the built-up immune system responses to disease. This has meant that human societies have throughout history alternately devastated each other, and been devastated, as contact brought new diseases into various parts of the human world.

Finally, one of the most important problems that humans would begin to face after the advent of civilization was war. This is not to say that hunter-gatherer groups did not come into conflict with each other. However, war as a society vs. society concept, really came into its own with the development of agricultural villages and eventually civilizations. Their success at creating wealth, and at feeding themselves when conditions were right, tempted others not only to emulate them, but to take what they had.

Hunter-gatherer and nomadic groups often fought and conquered civilizations in the ancient world in order to control their wealth and production – to become part of the civilization. Civilized city-states and empires competed with each other militarily for the most precious wealth on the planet to agricultural societies: land. Mesopotamia was rife with warfare. Egypt fought tremendous wars as soon as it came in contact with other civilizations. The Akkadians, creators of the world’s first empire, came, apparently, from the desert, as nomads, to conquer and unify Mesopotamia. The Assyrians followed the Akkadians. Next came the Amorites, the Hittites, the Indo-European peoples including the Greeks, and the Iranian mountain peoples including the Medes and the Persians. In all of these cases warfare was a result of the wealth generated by agricultural surplus.
As we go on in this course, we will look at these issues and more, in an attempt to find not the answers to the problems, but the answers that various societies in time and space have given to their problems, and how these things changed the human project here on our little blue ball.

Back to Hist 151 page