World History 1 25 - 2.3.1 The Development of Agriculture

Possibly the most important transformation in the history of modern humans was the shift from hunting and gathering to a life based primarily on agriculture. We call this shift the Neolithic Revolution. But the revolution didn’t happen in just one place or at one time. Instead, it occurred independently at different times and in several different areas, including the Near East, China, sub-Saharan Africa, Mesoamerica, and South America.

Each region domesticated different types of plants. In the Near East it was grains like wheat and barley. In Mesoamerica it was squash and later maize, or corn, and in China millet and rice. These plants grew naturally in those areas and were gathered in their wild form for many thousands of years before they were cultivated deliberately. The shift to agriculture brought enormous transformations to human populations around the world. It made it possible to feed much larger groups, necessitated the abandonment of hunter-gatherer-style egalitarianism, prompted the domestication of animals, and ultimately made way for human civilization as we understand it.

The reason some human populations undertook this important evolution remains imperfectly understood. However, it’s likely not a coincidence that the earliest known adoptions of agriculture occurred not long after the end of the last ice age, about twelve thousand years ago. This climatic shift altered animal migration patterns and probably brought much drier conditions to places like the Near East, where we find the earliest evidence of plant domestication. Climate conditions may have put a strain on food resources and prompted a shift in survival strategy. For example, humans might have attempted to help edible plants grow by moving them to places where they didn’t grow before or had stopped growing. Populations already settled in one area might have begun to notice that seeds from the plants they were gathering would grow where they were left. Further observations likely prompted additional human interventions in order to produce more.

Beyond the Book

Göbekli Tepe

The archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe is located in what is now southeast Turkey near the Syrian border. It includes a number of large circular and rectangular structures, large T-shaped stone pillars, and numerous pieces of stone art depicting boars, snakes, birds, foxes, and other animals, made with both skill and care (Figure 2.19). It has been known for several decades, but it was only in the 1990s that German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt began conducting extensive excavations and studies.

An aerial photo is shown of an old structure made up of stones and dirt. There are four circular areas throughout the picture and one square area with stones in various shapes arranged inside the areas, some on the ground and some stacked on each other. Rectangular, large stones are arranged around the perimeters of those areas, lighter in color than the rest. Around the perimeter of the entire area, there are square areas, mostly filled with dirt, showing the walls of the areas sticking up from the ground. One square area toward the top right of the picture is filled with more stones and is dug deeper than the rest.
Figure 2.19 This aerial photograph of Göbekli Tepe shows four of the large circular features of the site, the largest of which is almost one hundred feet in diameter, as well as several rectangular structures nearby. (credit: modification of work “The archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe - main excavation area” by German Archaeological Institute, E. Kücük/PLoS ONE/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5)

One of the most fascinating characteristics of Göbekli Tepe is that some of its earliest structures, built about 11,600 years ago, predate the domestication of agriculture. Indeed, the earliest evidence we have for agriculture at the site dates to about one thousand years later. Until this discovery was made, scholars assumed that agricultural production was a necessary prerequisite for megalithic architecture like that at Göbekli Tepe. The evidence here, however, led to an important reevaluation of our understanding of the Neolithic Revolution: What if settled communities and megalithic architecture led to agriculture, rather than the other way around?

Schmidt concluded that the site was a temple of sorts, where hunter-gatherer peoples from surrounding areas assembled at times to practice their religion and cooperate in building a stone site suitable for their religious purposes. Rather than religion and temple building emerging from agriculture, as had been commonly believed, Schmidt concluded that religion emerged first, and agriculture and the domestication of animals came later.

Since Schmidt published his findings, others working at the site have developed new and even more interesting conclusions. Discovering that Göbekli Tepe was actually a year-round settlement, archaeologist Lee Clare suggested that rather than bringing about agriculture, the people who built it may have been resisting it. The many carvings of animals at the site, he argued, might represent narrative connections to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to which they were trying to cling as the world around them was embracing farming.

Both these conclusions challenge our earlier understanding of the Neolithic Revolution. And neither is likely to be the last word on what was happening at Göbekli Tepe.

  • Which theory about Göbekli Tepe sounds more plausible to you? Why?
  • Why might hunter-gatherer people take time to build a religious site? What does this suggest about the importance of religion for them?

Not all regions of the world had the right conditions in place to encourage a shift from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture. Among those regions that did, and where agriculture first flourished, were Mesopotamia, southern Turkey, and Israel. On a map, these places take the shape of a large crescent bending through the Near East. For this reason, the area is often referred to as the Fertile Crescent.

It was here that about twelve thousand years ago people began domesticating edible wild grasses to create what we know today as wheat and barley. Later, other species of plants were domesticated: peas, lentils, carrots, olives, and dates. Around ten thousand years ago, Asian peoples living on the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers began farming crops like rice, millet, and soybeans. In sub-Saharan Africa, likely around modern Sudan, people began actively cultivating sorghum, possibly as early as six thousand years ago. Over time they added crops like peanuts and sesame. Around the same time, groups living in central Mexico began cultivating maize (corn). Later they added crops like beans, squash, and peppers. Farther south, in the Andean region, around five thousand years ago people began to grow potatoes.

Each instance of the independent emergence of agriculture was followed by the expansion of these techniques to other areas. Wheat cultivation spread from the Fertile Crescent across the Mediterranean region and into northern Europe. Rice farming was adopted across large parts of eastern Asia where the crop would grow. Maize eventually expanded across Mesoamerica; in time, it reached as far north as the modern United States and as far south as the Andean region.

The key change brought by the rise of agriculture was not only that humans began to grow their own plants rather than just finding them where they grew naturally. It was also that humans, rather than their environment, became the deciding factor in determining which plants would grow. Since humans were selecting plants for their edible properties, their intervention led to gradual but important transformations in the plants themselves. For example, ancient wild varieties of wheat and barley had heavy husks around their edible seeds. These husks protected the seeds so that they could survive over the winter and sprout in the summer. But humans were primarily interested in the seeds, not the inedible husks. By selecting wheat and barley plants with thinner husks and more seeds year over year, humans transformed the plants over time into varieties of wheat and barley more suitable for their purposes. This domestication process occurred with numerous types of plants in different areas around the world.

The rise of agriculture also led to the domestication of numerous types of animals, often selected for characteristics that were beneficial to humans, such as docility, strength, ability to feed on readily available foods, and rapid growth and reproduction so the animals could be slaughtered for food. Some of the many animals domesticated in the Neolithic Age were sheep and goats in the Near East around ten thousand years ago, chickens in south Asia around eight thousand years ago, horses in central Asia around six thousand years ago, and llamas in Peru about the same time (Figure 2.20).

A picture of three llamas is shown. One is facing forward while the other two are facing toward the back. They have black heads with long snouts, a brown long neck, brown furry bodies, and thin, brown and black legs with two toes. The two facing backwards have white and brown legs and white areas around their tails. They are standing on stone steps and bushes, flowers, and grass can be seen behind them.
Figure 2.20 Domesticated llamas in Peru provided early peoples there with meat, animal power, dung for fertilizer, and fiber for clothing. (credit: “Llamas in Peru” by “NIAID”/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

While the advantages of plant and animal domestication seem obvious to us today, some groups either could not or simply did not adopt these practices. The Indigenous peoples of Australia, for example, lived in environments that would have supported agriculture, and some of them were in contact with groups from New Guinea that did farm crops like taro and yams. Yet the early Australians continued to practice a mostly hunter-gatherer lifestyle until Europeans arrived about two hundred and fifty years ago. They apparently consciously determined that hunting and gathering were more suitable and practical given their own needs and the environment in which they lived. This is just one example of a people choosing a means of survival apart from the Neolithic Revolution.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax