World History 1 27 - 2.3.3 Neolithic Peoples

By around nine thousand years ago, groups in a few different areas around the world were not only practicing agriculture but also beginning to establish large and complex permanent settlements. A number of these Neolithic settlements emerged in Europe, the Near East, China, Pakistan, and beyond. One of the largest to be excavated today is in southeastern Turkey, at a site known as Çatalhöyük (pronounced cha-tal-HOY-ook). Evidence indicates this site was occupied for about twelve hundred years, roughly between 7200 and 6000 BCE. It covers more than thirty acres, and at its height it may have been home to as many as six thousand people.

Houses at Çatalhöyük were made with mud brick and were clustered together without roads or passages between them. This design required that residents enter their homes from the roof, but it provided them with protection from the outside world. Thanks to extensive excavation at the site, we can tell that the people who built and lived in Çatalhöyük included farmers, hunters, and skilled craftspeople with complex religious ideas. Their rooms include many examples of art, such as depictions of hunts and various kinds of animals, and even what may be representations of their myths, such as a woman giving birth to a bull. Cattle imagery abounds in Çatalhöyük, including bull heads with large horns and bull horns protruding from furniture, suggesting that the people who lived there venerated the animal (Figure 2.22).

A picture of four stone animal heads hung on a wall in wood frames is shown. The stones are gray and brown with one large one at the top and two medium ones on either side across the bottom and a very small one in the middle of those two in the bottom row. The head on top has two sets of horns, a large protruding forehead and no facial features. The two heads on the ends along the bottom have one set of horns, wide heads, and no facial features. The small one in the bottom middle is long and thin and has circular objects sticking out at the sides and no facial features. There is a small placard below the small animal head.
Figure 2.22 In this reconstruction of a Neolithic Age Çatalhöyük interior, several bull heads adorn the walls. (credit: “Bull heads from Catal Hüyük in Angora Museum” by Stipich Béla/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5)

The people of Çatalhöyük lived a life that was neither fully agricultural nor hunter-gatherer. Instead, they combined the two strategies. They had domesticated animals like cattle; grew a variety of domesticated plants like wheat, lentils, and barley; and may even have used some form of irrigation system to increase agricultural production. Yet they also relied on hunting wild animals for meat and gathering wild edible plants like walnuts, various types of berries, pears, and crab apples. It seems clear that their wealth was derived from trade in agricultural products, woven items, clay vessels, and especially obsidian, a naturally occurring volcanic glass. Because it can be chipped to create a razor-sharp edge, obsidian would have been a highly valued trade item for people in need of effective tools for butchering and other chores. The obsidian of Çatalhöyük was obtained from a nearby volcano and traded to people as far away as Syria and Cyprus.

Link to Learning

The Çatalhöyük Research Project provides up-to-date information about excavations at the site, as well as detailed descriptions of its architecture and artifacts and the way its people may once have lived.

Far to the south of Çatalhöyük, in the Jordan River valley east of Jerusalem, was an even older Neolithic city, Jericho. Archaeologists estimate that Jericho was occupied as early as 8300 BCE. Its construction was very different from that of Çatalhöyük. Rather than being composed of homes with adjoining walls for protection, Jericho was protected by a large ditch and a thick stone wall that encircled the settlement. Within the settlement there was also a large stone tower, the purpose of which remains unclear. Nearby were similar Neolithic settlements at Ain Ghazal and Nahal Hemar. And far to the north on the Euphrates River was Abu Hureyra.

Archaeologists have determined that all these sites and others were part of a culture often described as Natufian (Figure 2.23). The founding of most of them predates agriculture, and while their environments are very dry today, many thousands of years ago they were rich in wild edible plants and animals. It was likely the wealth of these resources that allowed the Natufian groups to settle there, only later adopting agriculture and building Neolithic settlements.

A map is drawn showing a square section of water with land at the north, east, and south sides. An orange area is highlighted at the east side of the coast and heading up into the land in a long thin oval. Cities are labeled inside of that orange area, from the north to the south: Mureybet, Abu Hurayra, Eynan, Hayomin, Ein Gev, Nahal Oren, El Wad, Wadi Uwainid, Jericho, Rosh Zin, and Beidha.
Figure 2.23 Approximately twelve thousand years ago, the area where Natufian culture spread was far wetter and filled with much more abundant wildlife than today. (credit: modification of work “Extensión de la cultura Natufiense” by “Crates”/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

The earliest evidence of agriculture in South Asia has been found at the Neolithic settlement of Mehrgarh, situated in modern Pakistan to the north and west of the Indus River. As early as 7000 BCE, the people of this community were farming barley and raising goats and sheep. A few thousand years later they began domesticating cotton. Barley cultivation techniques may have been brought to the area from the Near East, though they also may have been developed independently. The structures of the settlement itself were made of dried mud bricks, with homes designed in a rectangular shape and divided into four parts. The people of Mehrgarh included skilled artisans capable of using sea shells, sandstone, and the rich blue lapis lazuli. Many of these materials came from great distances away, indicating that the settlement engaged in some type of long-distance trade, as did other Neolithic settlements.

The earliest Neolithic settlements in China, from around 8000 BCE, were located along two of its major rivers, the Yellow and the Yangtze. Along the Yellow River, people mainly cultivated millet, while on the Yangtze it was rice. These were areas with an abundance of water, access to fertile grasslands, and a variety of edible plants and animals for gathering and hunting, and Neolithic settlements proliferated. The people domesticated pigs and dogs and supplemented their diets of rice and millet by hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants. They also made cord from hemp and pottery from clay.

Two of the early sites discovered there are Pengtoushan and Bashidang, both located in the Yangtze River valley in modern Hunan province. They may have been settled as early as 7500 BCE and preserve evidence of some of the earliest cultivation of wild rice. Homes were made by either digging partially into the ground or building on earth platforms with a central post to hold up the roof. A large ditch surrounds Bashidang, which may have served to channel water from the settlement and into the river. This surrounding-ditch design has been found at other locations and gradually developed into a type of moat around the settlements.

In other areas around the world, the shift to agriculture happened in similar fashion. Sites with permanent settlement, the practice of agriculture, the use of pottery, and other characteristics associated with particular Neolithic cultures have been discovered in a great number of places. The earliest known agricultural settlements in the Americas have been found in northeastern Mexico, where as early as 6500 BCE people were cultivating plants like pepper and squash. In the Andes Mountains region of South America, Neolithic settlements growing potatoes and manioc began to emerge as early as 3000 BCE. The cultivation of taro in New Guinea may have begun as early as 7000 BCE. Along the Danube River valley in Europe, Neolithic settlements began to emerge around 6000 BCE, likely having adopted cereal farming from the Near East. And in central Africa, farming of white Guinea yams began around 5000 BCE, later including crops like millet and sorghum.

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