The Neolithic Revolution|Prehistoric Asia

The term Neolithic is to some degree a misnomer, since it means literally “New Stone Age,” referring to the rapid improvement and new variety in finely made stone tools. But although stone tools continued to be made in great quantities, bone and clay were of increasing importance, and toward the end of the period tools and weapons began to be made of metal.

The term revolution is more appropriately applied to the beginnings of agriculture. This made possible for the first time large permanent settlements, a great increase in population, the accumulation of surpluses, the consequent need for writing (in part to keep records), and the growth of the first true cities, from which our word civilization comes, via its Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit roots.

In the few thousand years between about 10,000 B.C.E.. and about 4000 B.C.E. —an extremely short space of time compared with the almost imperceptible pace of change during Paleolithic times—most of the elements of what we call modern civilization emerged.

early cities in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley had bureaucrats, tax collectors, priests, metalworkers, scribes, schools, housing and traffic problems, and almost all of the features of our own times.

As the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes put it about 200 B.C.E., a view that we can echo today: “There is no new thing under the sun. Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us.

early cities in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley had bureaucrats, tax collectors, priests, metalworkers, scribes, schools, housing and traffic problems, and almost all of the features of our own times. As the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes put it about 200 B.C.E., a view that we can echo today: “There is no new thing under the sun. Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us.

That is, in fact, a very Asian view. The changes of which we are so conscious in our own times are extremely recent and center on new technology beginning with the steam engine a mere two centuries ago and accelerating rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century. But people, human society, and their problems have not changed much since the building of the first cities some 5,000 years ago.

The Neolithic revolution in agriculture and town building transformed the lives of everyone involved. The change came about over several thousand years, probably first in Southwest Asia and Egypt and then spreading to other parts of the Old World; similar developments in eastern Asia and much later in Mexico and Peru probably began independently.

Neolithic refers to a stage of development. It came later in Western Europe and most of the rest of the world; isolated areas such as Australia or the tropical rain forests were still in the Paleolithic period when they were invaded by modern Europeans after the eighteenth century.

and town building transformed the lives of everyone involved. The change came about over several thousand years, probably first in Southwest Asia and Egypt and then spreading to other parts of the Old World; similar developments in eastern Asia and much later in Mexico and Peru probably began independently. Neolithic refers to a stage of development.

It came later in Western Europe and most of the rest of the world; isolated areas such as Australia or the tropical rain forests were still in the Paleolithic period when they were invaded by modern Europeans after the eighteenth century.

Archaeological evidence suggests four main areas as the earliest cradles of settled agriculture: the uplands of Southwest Asia surrounding the Tigris-Euphrates lowland of Mesopotamia; the Nile delta; coastal Peru, where remains of clearly domesticated animals and even grindstones have been found; and the coastal or near-coastal areas of mainland Southeast Asia.

There is clear evidence of early settlement in southern Anatolia (now in modern Turkey), Palestine and Syria, northern Iraq, and western Iran. In these semiarid areas with some winter, rainfall grew steppe grasses that included the wild ancestors of wheat and barley. Early Neolithic stone-toothed sickles dated to about 10,000 B.C.E. have been found here and have a sheen from cutting such grasses with their grain heads.

Dating from a little later, small hoards of stored grains have been found. It must have been a long process of adaptation from gathering such grasses or grains in the wild to planting them, perhaps originally by accident, in fields that they could be prepared and tended until harvest.

Fields growing only the desired grain could obviously yield far more than could be gathered in the wild, but they did require care and hence a permanent settlement of farmers at a given site, usually, one where a supply of water was available.

Soon after 10,000 B.C.E., stone mortars appeared, indicating that the grain was milled (ground into flour) and that it helped to support a population already beginning to grow beyond what could be sustained by hunting and gathering.

By about 7000 B.C.E. there were large and numerous storage pits for grain, and early clay pots for the same purpose and for carrying or storing water. By this time cultivated wheat, barley, and peas had clearly evolved into more productive forms than their wild ancestors, probably through purposeful selection by the cultivators.

Sheep, goats, and dogs were domesticated instead of being hunted as prey or used as hunting assistants. A thousand years later cattle and pigs had joined the list of domesticates. There is a reasonably clear record of this evolution at a number of Southwest Asian sites including Jericho in southern Palestine, Cayonu, and Catal Huyuk in southern Anatolia, Jarmo in northern Iraq, Hassuna and Ali Kosh in western Iran, and many others.

By about 4000 B.C.E. or slightly earlier, agricultural techniques were far enough advanced and populations large enough to permit an expansion into the different environment of the Tigris-Euphrates lowland, the Nile valley, and somewhat later to the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan, the latter based on models transmitted via early agricultural settlements in eastern Iran and Afghanistan.

Most of these areas, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus valley, as well as coastal Peru, were desert or near-desert, with a few scattered oases in Iran, but the river floodplains, given their fertile alluvial soils and long growing seasons of high temperatures, were potentially highly productive if they could be provided with water by controlled irrigation.

The Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, and Indus rivers are fed by rains and snowmelt in their mountain source areas and hence are subject to seasonal flooding. The destructive aspects of these floods had to be controlled to permit permanent agriculture.

There were also problems of drainage to be solved, especially in the lower course of the Tigris-Euphrates, where the two rivers meet and empty into the Persian Gulf together through what was originally a vast, swampy delta. Techniques of irrigation also had to be developed at about the same time in lower Egypt.

Soon after 4000 B.C.E., villages began to grow into small cities at the conjunction of the Tigris and Euphrates and in the lower Nile. Lower Nile sites have since been buried under silt, and we do not know their names or locations; but in Mesopotamia, perhaps slightly earlier than in Egypt, these first true cities included Ur, Nippur, Uruk, and Eridu. Their names are recorded in the world’s first written texts, which have been preserved on clay tablets.

The Neolithic revolution was completed with the development of metalworking and the production of bronze tools and, unfortunately, weapons. Technological innovations probably developed independently in different places and at different times.

Copper was the first metal to be worked, in both the Old and New Worlds, because it sometimes occurs at or near the surface in nearly pure form and can be beaten into a more or less rigid shape without refining or smelting, although it will not hold an edge and was used primarily for ornaments.

In Mesopotamia by about 4000 B.C.E., successive experiments mixing copper with tin and lead in varying proportions produced bronze, which was stronger and would take and keep an edge. But it needs to be remembered that it was agricultural surpluses that made possible the division of labor.

Some people were able to pursue nonfarm occupations, and there was more leisure time for experimentation and for the perfecting of artisan techniques, including the smelting and working of metal. The need for better tools for farming, clearing trees, and building towns and cities provided further incentives.

Perhaps through the medium of trade, agricultural and irrigation techniques spread east from Mesopotamia and western Iran, and by at least 3500 B.C.E.

Both were fully developed at sites in eastern Iran, Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and the fringes of the Indus Valley, although early proto agricultural villages have recently been dated to about 7500 B.C.E. By or before 3000 B.C.E.

Irrigated agriculture was fully established on the floodplain of the Indus and its major tributaries, where the first true cities of monsoon Asia arose, growing out of Neolithic villages and towns. The major Indus crop was wheat, probably derived from Southwest Asia in its later cultivated form rather than its wild form.

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