Reading History #1 – Agricultural Revolution

The Agricultural Revolution: Mesopotamia c.9,000 BC

Questions to consider during this unit:

1. What was the impact of the Agricultural Revolution upon human development?

2. What distinguishes a civilization from a mere cultural or ethnic group?

3. How did the search for food shape early civilizations?

4. What was the role of religion in shaping the first civilization in Mesopotamia?

Though Homo sapiens (meaning ‘wise man’) have probably been around as a species for nearly two-hundred thousand years, humans have only relatively recently — sometime around 9,000 BCE — settled into the permanent communities that generated the first cities and civilizations. Because this tendency to reside in one location and live by means of farming rather than hunting fundamentally transformed the human community, it has been styled a revolution. Therefore, the process by which humans settled in villages, worked the land for food, and domesticated animals is known as the Agricultural Revolution, and it first occurred along the river systems of modern day Iraq about eleven-thousand years ago.

Before humans settled into permanent communities, they relied upon hunting and gathering for sustenance. This meant that early humans were dependant upon the movement of wild herds, an obstacle in and of itself to permanent settlement. For thousands of years, relatively small groups of humans (perhaps as few as 20 to 60 people – an extended family) followed antelope, bison, buffalo, deer, goats, and horses, living primarily upon the meat they could harvest supplemented by wild nuts, berries, and fruits that could be easily plucked along the way. Because animals generally do not settle into one area, neither did early humans, thus we call them nomadic.

In all societies, certain patterns of living (i.e. culture) develop in consequence of the most fundamental activity of man, food production. Because of the obvious importance of this activity, which quite literally is a matter of life-or-death, humans have created a vast store of cultural traits and traditions surrounding it: art, language, government, technology and even religion may be attributed in some way to man’s attempt to produce enough food. Nomadic hunters developed a certain life-style simply because they were nomadic, but there are also distinct cultural variations from group to group. The cultures of the Blackfoot (Plains Indians) and the Yupik (Eskimo), for example, may be broadly understood by looking at the way each tribe historically gathered its food. Both groups depended upon hunting for sustenance and that makes them similar in some respects. But the Blackfoot hunted buffalo while the Yupik depended upon (and still do) seal, fish, and bear. It should be no surprise to learn that much Yupik art incorporates images of polar bears and seals, while that of the Blackfoot focuses on specialized items for and from the buffalo hunt (robes, bows and after c.1500 , the horse). Even the religion of these tribes took on the characteristics of food supply: Nanook, was the Great Polar Bear spirit who controlled the Yupik hunt, while the Creator Spirit of the Blackfoot made buffalo and bows and arrows specifically to aid man.

The shift from hunting to farming did not, of course, take place suddenly or occur everywhere. When it did, however, planting grains and vegetables provided a stable food source and the domestication (taming) of goats, cattle, sheep, and pigs added meat and milk to the diet, while also providing skins and fiber for leather and wool production.  This shift from hunting and gathering to farming had a profound impact upon human society. The Agricultural Revolution, because it affected food supply, affected almost every aspect of human life and ultimately produced the first civilizations.

QUESTION: What type of government and attitudes do you think might evolve among such groups of hunters? Why?

INTERESTING: Recent scholarship claims that early man’s consumption of cooked meat actually aided in the success of the species by increasing our brain capacity:  “I believe the transformative moment that gave rise to the genus Homo, one of the great transitions in the history of life, stemmed from the control of fire and the advent of cooked meals,” Richard Wrangham explains in his new book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.


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