Human Legacy Course/The Beginnings of Agriculture

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Human Legacy Course I
The Beginnings of Agriculture

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Hello and welcome to Lecture 2 of our Human Legacy course. In this lecture, we will be discussing the beginnings of agriculture. Now, before we start this, I want us to answer one question:

What might seeds reveal about the past? Well, let me tell you a little story. In Syria, on the banks of the Euphrates River, researchers carefully but quickly combed a prehistoric settlement to learn its secrets. A dam would soon flood the site, and time was running short. As the team of scientists raced to collect artifacts and other remains, a picture of the past began to emerge.

Flint and stone tools and the remains of houses showed that people had settled at the spot around 9,500 years ago. Using a specialized sifter, the scientists also found many seeds mixed among the dirt. An analysis of the seeds showed that they were cultivated, revealing that the people had known how to farm. The scientists were thrilled. They had found one of the first farming settlements.

Then, as the scientists continued to study the site, they had another major surprise. Beneath the first settlement was an even older one, dated to about 11,500 years ago. Once again, the scientists carefully sifted through the dirt and found numerous seeds—but with one major difference. These seeds were wild, yet they were still quite similar to the cultivated seeds from the later settlement. The excited scientists realized that the people who had once lived there might have learned the mysteries of farming in perhaps a single lifetime, far quicker than scientists had thought.

Today the settlements lie hidden beneath Lake Assad, but their secrets are hidden no more. There, people learned to farm. This development would radically change life and move people into the fast lane on the road to civilization.

The New Stone Age

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With the development of more sophisticated tools, the Paleolithic Era gave way to a period that scientists call the Neolithic Era, or New Stone Age. In some places, such as parts of Southwest Asia, this period began as early as 8000 BC and lasted until about 3000 BC. In other places, the era began much later and lasted much longer.

Several advances in toolmaking defined the New Stone Age. Whereas before people had chipped stones to produce sharp edges or points, in the New Stone Age people learned to polish and grind stones to shape tools with sharper edges. These new methods enabled people to make more specialized tools, such as chisels, drills, and saws. However, the most significant advances of the Neolithic Era had to do with food, not tools.

Development of Agriculture

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For tens of thousands of years—most of human history—people lived as nomads, surviving by hunting and gathering food. Then, around 10,000 years ago, some people learned to farm. The development of agriculture is one of the most important turning points in human history because it radically changed how people lived. As a result, historians refer to the shift to farming as the Neolithic Revolution.


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Around 10,000 years ago, a warming trend brought an end to last Ice Age. As the climate grew warmer and drier, sea levels rose. These changes caused many Ice Age plants and animals to become extinct, or die out. At the same time, new plants and animals appeared in some places. For example, wild grains such as barley and wheat began to spread throughout Southwest Asia.

In areas where wild grains spread, some people began to gather them for food. As people gathered grain each year, they may have noticed that new plants tended to grow where seeds fell. In time, people experimented with planting seeds and learned to farm. This process occurred gradually over a long period.

With the development of farming, people began to practice domestication, the selective growing or breeding of plants and animals to make them more useful to humans. Each year, people saved and planted the seeds from only the best plants, such as the hardiest. Slowly over time, wild plants became domesticated. Growing and domesticating plants provided people with larger food supplies.


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Before they domesticated plants, prehistoric people had already domesticated animals. As with plants, animal domestication required the careful selection and breeding of the best animals, such as the tamest or those that produced the most meat, milk, or wool.

Scientists think that the first animals that people domesticated were dogs. By 10,000 BC, people in North America and parts of Asia had tamed dogs, perhaps for use in hunting and as guard animals. In time, prehistoric people applied their knowledge of wild herd animals and learned to domesticate cattle, goats, pigs, and sheep.

By domesticating animals, people could raise livestock to provide a more stable supply of meat, milk, and skins or wool. In addition, people could use large animals such as cattle to carry or pull heavy loads and to help with farming. Like plant domestication, animal domestication provided prehistoric people with a larger and more reliable food supply.

Growth of Agriculture

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The development of agriculture occurred independently in different parts of the world at different times. In the regions where agriculture developed, people domesticated the plants and animals that were available. Those domesticated plants and animals then gradually spread to other areas.

In Southwest Asia, people domesticated barley, wheat, pigs, and sheep. In East Asia and South Asia, people grew barley, rice, and millet and raised cattle, goats, and water buffalo. In northern Africa, people domesticated sorghum and cattle. In Mexico and Central America, early crops included beans, corn, and squash; while in South America people domesticated potatoes and llamas.

Eventually, agriculture spread throughout much of the world. People made the transition to agriculture gradually, however, and often continued to hunt and gather plants as they learned to farm. In addition, some people remained hunter-gatherers, perhaps because their territories were not suited to farming.

Agriculture Changes Society

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Agriculture dramatically changed Stone Age societies. For one, the world population grew significantly because agriculture provided a larger and more reliable food supply. For another, people’s ways of life changed. Some people began to live as nomadic pastoralists, people who ranged over wide areas and kept herds of livestock on which they depended for food and other items. Other people gave up the nomadic lifestyle and formed settlements. By living in settlements, people could farm and pool their labor and resources.

Early Farming Societies

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In early farming settlements, people often lived close together in houses made of mud bricks or other materials. On the land around their settlements, people grew crops and raised livestock. As populations grew, some settlements developed into villages and towns. By about 6000 BC, villages and towns of up to several hundred people had arisen in parts of the world.

With the growth of agricultural societies, people’s everyday activities changed. Instead of hunting and gathering food, many people worked in the fields and tended livestock. Men, women, and children probably divided up the tasks involved in these activities. At the same time, with more food available, some people could spend more time doing activities other than food production. For example, some people became skilled at making crafts or tools.

As agriculture enabled people to produce extra food and products, trade increased. Settlements traded with one another to obtain raw materials and products that they lacked. For example, in Southwest Asia a popular trade good was obsidian, a dark volcanic glass used to make tools, jewelry, and mirrors.

Agriculture and trade made societies more complex and prosperous, and differences in social status began to emerge. Some people gained more wealth and influence than others. Other people rose to positions of authority, overseeing the planting and harvesting, running building projects, or planning defense. Men performed the heavier work in farming and often held positions of authority. As a result, men began to gain dominance and status over women in many agricultural societies.

Religion began to become more formalized in agricultural societies as well. Some societies began to construct structures for religious purposes. For example, in Europe some Neolithic societies built monuments out of megaliths, or huge stones, for burial or spiritual purposes. Some Neolithic people began to worship gods and goddesses associated with animals or the elements—air, water, fire, and earth. For example, one European tribe worshipped bulls, while another honored a thunder god. Other people may have worshipped their ancestors.

A more settled agricultural life had some negative effects as well. For example, warfare increased as societies began to fight over land and resources. As people became more dependent on farming, they were more affected by crop failure as a result of bad weather or other causes. In addition, disease increased. In settlements where people lived close together, disease spread more rapidly. Furthermore, increased contact between people and animals caused some animal diseases to cross over to humans. These diseases included the flu, measles, and smallpox.

New Technologies

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As their ways of life began to change, people developed new tools and methods to make life easier. Early farmers used hand tools such as hoes and sharpened sticks to prepare the soil for planting. Farmers scattered their seeds by hand and may have used animals to trample and loosen hard soil to work in the seeds. Then about 6000 BC, people began to use animals such as cattle to pull plows. With the plow, farmers could till larger areas to produce more crops.

To prepare foods such as grains, Neolithic people developed new tools such as pestles and grindstones. In addition, people learned to use clay to make pottery. Early pottery was used for cooking and to store grains, oils, and water.

The domestication of animals made it possible for Neolithic people to use wool from goats and sheep to create yarn. Some early farming societies learned to spin yarn and weave it into cloth to make garments and blankets.

Eventually, people learned to use metal, first copper and then bronze, a mix of copper and tin. Bronze is harder than copper and produces stronger objects. As people began to make items from bronze, the Stone Age gave way to a time period that scientists call the Bronze Age. This transition occurred as early as 3000 BC in some areas, but much later in others.

Çatal Hüyük

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Archaeologists have found the remains of several Neolithic settlements and villages. One that has provided a wealth of information is Çatal Hüyük. This Neolithic village was located in present-day Turkey and was home to some 5,000 to 6,000 people around 6000 BC. The village covered more than 30 acres, making it the largest Neolithic site that archaeologists have found.

The people of Çatal Hüyük grew crops such as barley, peas, and wheat in the fields around their village. In addition, they raised sheep and goats, hunted wild cattle, and fished in a nearby river. Based on artifacts found at Çatal Hüyük, such as shells, villagers traded with people as far away as the Red Sea.

The houses in Çatal Hüyük were built close together, and the village had few if any streets. Because of the closeness of the buildings, people entered their homes through openings in the roofs. Most homes had one main room in which a family lived, and one or two side rooms for storage. In the main room, areas were set aside for sleeping and for domestic tasks, such as cooking and making crafts. In some homes, areas were also set aside for religious shrines. These shrines often contained small female statues, large sculpted bulls’ heads, and one or two bodies buried beneath the floor. In addition, families covered the interior walls of their homes with colorful, vibrant paintings.

Ötzi the Iceman

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Archaeological discoveries continue to add to our knowledge of Neolithic societies. In 1991 hikers in Italy’s Ötztal Alps found a frozen male body that had been preserved by the cold, icy conditions. Scientific tests showed that the body was about 5,300 years old and from the Neolithic Era.

Nicknamed Ötzi the Iceman, the Neolithic man and his belongings were well preserved. Ötzi’s outfit was made of three types of animal skins stitched together. In addition, he wore leather shoes padded with grass, a woven grass cape, a fur hat, and a sort of backpack. Among his belongings were a deerskin quiver with arrows, a flint dagger, and an ax with a copper blade. Heavy wear on Ötzi’s front teeth suggest his diet included coarse grains.

Scientists do not think that Ötzi lived in the cold, mountainous location where he was found. Moreover, an arrowhead in his shoulder suggests he was murdered. Perhaps Ötzi had gone into the mountains to try to escape an enemy but then grew too weak to continue.


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Well, that is the end of this lecture. Here are your questions for your assignment:

  • Question #1: What characteristics define the Neolithic Era?
  • Question #2: How did tools in the Neolithic Era differ from those in the Paleolithic Era?
  • Question #3: What is involved in plant and animal domestication?
  • Question #4: How did the development of agriculture benefit prehistoric people’s lives?
  • Question #5: How did geography contribute to the development and spread of agriculture?
  • Question #6: Who is Ötzi the Iceman, and why is he significant?
  • Question #7: How did life for early hunter-gatherers differ from that for people in early agricultural societies?
  • Question #8: What have scientists learned about Neolithic farming societies by studying Çatal Hüyük?

I hope that you have enjoyed this lecture. I apologize for my horrible voice. Thank you very much for listening and goodbye.