Chapter 8 (163-179): The Neolithic Revolution: Domestication of Plants and Animals


Transitions during the Mesolithic

Until the end of the Paleolithic, humans relied solely on wild foods, hunting and gathering. By the end of the Paleolithic, people began to move towards food production. This is an economic strategy by which people manage or control plants and animals to increase the supply of food. It happens gradually, supplementing wild foods before replacing them. By around 12 kya, these changes became more noticeable as the last glacial period ended, water levels rose, rivers were created, dense forests grew and coastal areas were submerged, reducing landmass. This is the Mesolithic and it’s noted for an increasing variety of microlithic tools, a broad-spectrum diet, new forms of social and cultural organization and a semi-sedentary (settled in) way of life.

·       During this transition, foraging was combined with food production such as harvesting of wild grains, the management of herds (selective killing) and new forms of processing plant foods, such as grinding and roasting, that allowed them to include new sources of food in their diets. These changes are a hint of what comes next. Instead of reacting to changes, humans began to shape their environments to control and manage food sources. As a result, groups increased in size and culture became more complex.

·       Middle East: The oldest evidence of the shift to food production is here. From 12-7 kya, the cultures of this area exhibited varied food providing strategies, social organization, shelter and symbolic expression. Climate change and growing populations lead to the extinction of large animals and they turned to alternative food sources. One such culture is the Natufian, foragers who arose around 15 kya. Their sites included villages, a sign of sedentary living. They had dwellings, stone tool industries, and new kinds of tools. The region they lived in was rich in plant life and the seasons alternated between hot and cold. One way of adapting to this was to be seasonally sedentary. By managing plants and animals, they assured themselves of a more stable supply of food.

·       Africa: In Africa during the same period, the climate dried and cooled. There were at least two patterns of adaptation to these changes. In drier areas, people increased their mobility to follow the herds. In wetter areas, they became more sedentary, focusing instead on plant and marine foods. Many people migrated to areas with more dependable food and water supplies, increasing population densities in those areas.

·       Pacific Region: Some sites in the Pacific show deliberate wild food manipulation such as digging, replanting and relocation of plants by 9000 ya. These baby steps towards food production were supplements to a foraging lifestyle.

·       New World: The separate evolution of New World cultures for thousands of years and its distinctive food types offered a unique landscape. For example, pine nuts were important in the emergence of sedentary lifestyles in some regions as they are nutritious and store well, making it easier for people to occupy sites year round. Around 4,500 ya in the Andean region of Peru, llama herd management took place and their previous mobile foraging patterns became more sedentary as a result.


The Neolithic Revolution

This section explores the foundations of modern life, food production, which allows for later innovations such as surplus food production, growing populations, class differences, the growth of religion, cities, writing and complex social organization. These developments are related to food production because it allowed population growth that turned villages into cities that required governance and writing. Thus, the Neolithic is truly when we start to become cultures that we would recognize today.

·       Around 12,000 years ago, people all over the world began to live in small, permanent settlements, a way of life called sedentism. They ate different foods and obtained, processed and stored them in new ways. They began to domesticate wild plants and animals, a process by which human selection causes changes in the genetic material of plants and animals.

·       Neolithic refers to changes in stone tools that arose with the first sedentary farms as well as to the time period in which this shift to food production occurred. The tools included sickles and grinding stones. More people started to live in permanent homes, to use pottery or ceramic vessels for cooking and food storage, and to bury their dead.

·       The emergence of food production occurred independently in various parts of the world.


Why Humans Became Food Producers

Food production didn’t arise because foragers and hunters one day woke up and suddenly understood plant and animal biology. They lived among nature all their lives and had inherited millions of years of knowledge about that world from their ancestors. It also didn’t arise because people thought it would be easier to make a living in this way, as food producers have to work harder to make a living than food foragers. It also didn’t arise because people felt that it was a more secure way to feed themselves. The increasing genetic uniformity among plants and animals made them more susceptible to disease. Unfortunately, we don’t have an adequate answer as to why this shift occurred. It is likely that it occurred for a variety of reasons in the different areas in which production independently arose, and from there, spread through diffusion. It is also likely that the earliest domesticators probably started to experiment and supplement their wild sources of food with more managed ones.


The Neolithic in the Old World

The Neolithic began in Mesopotamia, especially the Fertile Crescent. Here, rye, wheat, barley and other grains were first domesticated, as well as animals such as sheep, goats, cattle and pigs.

·       Middle East: Abu Hureyra was an early Natufian village on the Euphrates River. Excavations give us an idea of the process of domestication. The first settlers were sedentary foragers but over time, they began domesticating rye, and then wheat and barley. Their reliance on hunting gazelle diminished as they became scarce, and they had to rely on domesticated sheep and goats. The first domesticated plants were probably produced on a small scale by horticulture, the growing of domesticated plants using hand tools and relying on natural sources of water and fertilization. Eventually, the village grew and they had to intensify their food production through agriculture, the growing of crops in permanent plots using plows, irrigation and fertilizer. By 12 kya, they had domesticated rye. Other sites, such as ones in Turkey, show evidence of a rural, food producing population that traded their goods with a more settled village population, as well as long distance trade.

·       Africa: Independent of the Middle Eastern development of food production was a pattern in the Sahel. The area was known for its lakes and abundant wild grasses and foragers had occupied the area for thousands of years. They fished, hunted herd animals and harvested wild grasses. In Africa, the domestication of cattle was the first step in the Neolithic transition. It supported the emergence of pastoralism, an economic strategy in which people rely on domesticated animals for most of their food. Domesticated cattle arose 11 kya in Chad. The first domesticated plants in Africa were Middle Eastern in origin and needed lots of water, thus, they were grown in the Nile River Valley around 7,500 ya. Millet, sorghum and rice were indigenous to Africa and were independently domesticated around 5000 ya. The indigenous plants are drought resistant and were planted around lakesides at the start of the dry season. The foragers then moved to areas with abundant wild foods and later returned to the lakes to harvest the grasses. This seasonal migration is still practiced.

·       Asia: In Asia, the domestication of root crops, known as vegeculture, included yams and taro. However, rice was the earliest species of plant in the region to be domesticated.

·       Europe: In Europe, plant and animal domesticates were introduced from the Middle East. They adopted certain aspects of Middle Eastern food production and adapted them to their local situations and needs. The first domesticates showed up in southeastern Europe around 8000 ya and by 6000 ya farming had spread across most of Europe. There are varied patterns of domestication, some sites were only semi-sedentary as they followed herds, while other ones became more permanent and grew in size. Domesticated sheep, goats, cattle and pigs were introduced from the Middle East and spread to the rest of Europe. Contact and trade probably brought the first plants and animals into southeastern Europe from the Middle East. It is likely that migration accounts for a lot of the intra-European spread.


The Neolithic in the New World

The Neolithic in the New World begins in Mesoamerica (Central America). Later transitions occurred in North and South America through independent invention and diffusion. The spread of maize is the most important factor that led to sedentism here.

·       Mesoamerica: There are several differences between Middle Eastern and Mesoamerican domestication and sedentism. First, a longer period of experimentation with domesticated plants occurred before the sedentary pattern evolved, compared to the Middle East. Second, the specific wild plants and animals that were candidates for domestication were different. Beans, gourds, squash and maize were important plant domesticates and the animal domesticates were bees, turkeys and dogs. Third, the transition to a wholly agricultural way of life was slow, taking nearly six thousand years, from 8 to 2 kya. This period, known as the Archaic, was a time when small bands of foragers slowly incorporated domesticated plants and animals into their economies. Maize was probably domesticated around 7000 ya in southwestern Mexico. As large animals disappeared, many foragers switched to smaller animals and supplemented their diets with seasonally available foods. Eventually, the Mesoamerican Triad (maize, squash and beans) became a staple of their diets. Until the domestication of maize 7000 ya, it would have been difficult for foragers to settle down and become full-time farmers because the plants available for domestication would not have been sufficient to support them.

·       South America: It was people of the Andes who first domesticated the potato, a tuber or root crop. It was a late domesticate, probably around 7000 ya and coming after beans, llamas, alpacas and guinea pigs. Some studies also suggest that gourds and squash were domesticated by around 12 ya in Ecuador.

·       North America: By 6000 ya, people in eastern North America were experimenting with different plants as part of a mixed economic pattern of hunting, collecting wild plants and cultivating a few types of seed crops. The most important domesticates were goosefoot (like spinach), sunflowers and squash. However, none of these could have supported a sedentary way of life. By around 4000 ya (2000 BCE) though, maize was imported and eventually led to the emergence of farming among some Native American cultures in North America.


Food production and population size

Since the Neolithic, human population has steadily increased. However, we don’t know whether this population growth is a result of food production or whether growing populations exerted selective pressures which induced us to opt for food production. We do know that food production can support larger populations. It allows for a small portion of the population to be engaged in growing food while the rest are able to specialize in other labor areas, such as making clay jars to store food in, building more permanent dwellings for the now sedentary population and even later, governing. Thus, large harvests support larger, socially stratified populations. We also know that food producers have higher birth rates than foragers and that even though they have higher mortality rates, the birth rate increase makes up for higher death rates.



Aside from the cultural impacts mentioned above, food production had profound impacts on human biology.

·       Relying on wild sources of food incurred greater stress on bodies and teeth. Despite it being a less time consuming way to make a living, being nomadic, walking and hunting on a daily basis impacted our bodies greatly. By eventually allocating food production to a small part of the population, the rest of a culture didn’t have to take on the hard work of farming or herd management, which in their own ways were just as difficult.

·       However, because the foods that were selected for domestication were often those that were easiest or best able to be domesticated, many of them were not the most nutritious or most desirable foods. This led to the odd situation that even with abundant food supplies, people suffered malnutrition or other forms of nutritional stress.

·       They were more likely to suffer starvation than foragers because of periodic crop failures.

·       Finally, they suffered higher rates of disease than those who relied on wild foods. These were diseases of nutritional deficiency as well as infectious diseases that arose as humans began to live sedentary lives, close to one another and their animals.


Thus, we should not look at the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic as progress. That is a very Western idea. Rather, some cultures made this shift for a variety of reasons and in some cases it was beneficial and in others, detrimental. Others did not make this transition; there are still around a quarter of a million foragers in existence.