18. The Agricultural Revolution (~10,000 BCE)

Summary Since about 10,000 years BCE, at the beginning of the current warm interglacial period, humans gradually abandoned their traditional lives as nomadic hunters and gatherers in order to create permanent settlements and to use domesticated plants and animals as their primary food source. This event is called the Agricultural Revolution and led to an enormous increase in human population. It occurred independently from each other in the Fertile Crescent, in China, in sub-Saharan Africa, in New Guinea and in the Americas.

Keywords Domesticated Species; History of Southwest Asia; Population Growth; Technology

Centres of origin and spread of agriculture

Origins and spread of the Agricultural Revolution. The Eurasian origins in the Fertile Crescent and in China were the most significant ones in the further course of the history of humankind. Other origins in Afro-Eurasia were in an unknown location of sub-Saharan Africa and in New Guinea, and in the Americas in the Andes, in Mexico and in eastern north America. User:Joe Roe / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Soon after the Last Glacial Maximum of 22,000 years ago the global climate warmed and the global sea level rose. At the time when the current warm interglacial – which is also called the Holocene – started, which was 11,700 years ago, humans already inhabited the whole globe including the Americas. Since around that time several groups of humans worldwide abandoned their traditional lives as nomadic hunters and gatherers and independently from each other started to locally domesticate plants, that means to plant, to cultivate and to harvest them, usually for the reason of food consumption. Additionally they started to domesticate animals, in order to obtain their meat, milk or eggs as food, their skins or wool as raw materials, or their muscle power.

This Agricultural Revolution occurred at least seven times independently from each other at different locations. It occurred along rivers with fertile soils, and in regions which were not too cold, too hot, too dry or too wet for agriculture. These regions were also the ones which would later maintain the largest human populations, where empires would be established and where history would unfold. The two places which turned out to be the most significant ones in the history of humankind were the Fertile Crescent in southwest Asia and China in east Asia: In the Fertile Crescent – along the Tigris and the Euphrates in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq), but also in parts of Iran, Turkey and Syria – wheat, pea and the olive were first cultivated, and the sheep and the goat were domesticated. Agriculture subsequently spread from there to India and to Europe. In China this development took place along the Yellow River and the Yangtze. There rice and millet were cultivated, and the pig and the silkworm were domesticated. Agriculture spread from there to southeast Asia. Additionally to the animals mentioned above dogs were already domesticated around 15,000 years ago. As it was the first animal domesticated by humans it is also called “man’s best friend”.

Felsoetold Wheat field, Hungary

Wheat, which was for the first time cultivated in the Fertile Crescent around 10,000 BCE. User:Takkk / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Apart from these two original locations, at a later time African millet, African rice, sorghum and wheat were domesticated in an unknown location of sub-Saharan Africa; sugar cane and bananas were domesticated in New Guinea; the potato, the llama and the guinea pig were domesticated in the Andes; maize, beans and the turkey were domesticated in Mexico; and the pumpkin was domesticated in eastern north America.

The Agricultural Revolution formed the basis for an enormous population growth and for the formation of the first cities. While in 7000 BCE the Fertile Crescent was dotted with towns of several thousands of people, in 4000 BCE cities with several tens of thousands of people had evolved. Soon most humans lived in agricultural societies instead of in original hunter-gatherer societies, and for millennia until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century more than 90 percent of humans were farmers. While the total human population before the Agricultural Revolution is estimated to be 5-8 million, in 1 CE worldwide there were about 300 million humans, with the vast majority of them being farmers. As after the Agricultural Revolution the survival of human populations was often dependent on a single or only a few crops – in contrast to traditional hunter-gatherer societies which had several food sources and were thus more flexible –, the quality of the average nutrition dropped for farmers, and there were more famines. Apart from that farmers on average had to work harder than their ancestors, and cramped cities and domesticated animals led to the appearance of more infectious diseases.

The surplus created by farmers could be stored in granaries which had to be protected and about which eventually wars were fought. Future planning became more important for agricultural societies, if compared to hunter-gatherer societies. The surpluses could also feed elites such as kings, soldiers, priests or scribes, which typically consisted of less than 10 percent of the population and which administered the surpluses produced by the majority of farmers. Such the Agricultural Revolution led to an increased division of labor and to a stratification of the society, and ultimately to the formation of the first states.

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