Reading History #4 – The Agricultural and Urban Revolutions

Questions to consider:

  1. How did the Agricultural Revolution alter the way humans functioned?
  2. What distinguishes a civilization from an ethnic group?
  3. How did the search for food shape a human community?
  4. What was the role of religion in procuring food for a city?


Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth laborers into his harvest. (Matthew 9:38)

‘Revolution’ is a term that  is used popularly more and more to designate less and less. Here is just a sampling of monikers most recently slapped on to world events by the blathering class of over-hype news mongers: Republican Revolution, Orange Revolution, the Rose Revolution, the Cedar Revolution, the Tulip Revolution, the Bulldozer Revolution, the Rainbow Revolution. If we think with a historical lens, most of these so-called revolutions should more correctly be considered part of commonplace political change rather than fundamental transformations of all fixed ideas about government and society. Those in the business of selling you news, perhaps, could exercise more discernment when it comes to figuring out if an event is truly revolutionary, i.e. something so tumultuous that it completely overturns earlier ways of acting or thinking, or is merely part of the normal back and forth sway of political events. The Industrial Revolution, as you probably understand, fits the title because it completely altered the way humans approached work and fundamentally transformed the world in which we live.

Perhaps the only other event in human history with a more significant impact on human behavior and living arrangements occurred nearly six thousand years ago in the region that is now Iraq. And while the time period over which the change occurred is vast, probably some two-thousand years or so, we still consider the changes themselves to be revolutionary because of the impact those changes had upon the way man lived. Though Homo sapiens (meaning ‘wise man’) have probably been around as a species for nearly two-hundred thousand years, humans only relatively recently (c. 9,000 BCE) began settling into enduring communities that ultimately generated the first cities and civilizations. The shift from hunting to farming neither took place suddenly nor occurred everywhere at the same time. Archaeological discoveries place this shift first in the area known as the Fertile Crescent (modern Egypt and the Middle East), somewhat later in China, Europe, and Meso-America. The decision that those people made to reside in one location and live by farming rather than hunting fundamentally transformed the ways humans think and interact with other. The event, even though extended over millennia, is, therefore, rightly styled an Agricultural Revolution.

Before humans settled into permanent communities, they generally relied upon hunting and gathering for sustenance. This meant that many early humans dependent upon wild animals were forced to move along with the herds, an obstacle in and of itself to any lasting settlements. For thousands of years, relatively small groups of humans — perhaps as few as 20 to 60 people, not much more than an extended family — followed antelope, bison, buffalo, deer, goats, and horses, living primarily upon the meat they could harvest, supplementing their diet with wild nuts, berries, and fruits that could be easily plucked (or ‘gathered’ if one insists upon using the established nomenclature – though there’s a certain ring to ‘hunter-pluckers’) along the way. Because animals generally do not tend to congregate in one area and stay there, neither did early humans. Thus, we call them nomadic.There are still nomadic peoples in the world today, though their number is few has been dropping dramatically since the 19th century.

[Listen to the Art & Story of America’s Plains Indians]

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, though distinct cultural variations certainly exist from group to group. You can gain insight into Blackfoot (Plains Indians) and Yupik (Eskimo) cultures, for example, simply by thinking about the ways each tribe historically gathered food. Both groups were considered ‘hunter-gatherers,’ dependent upon hunting for sustenance, and that makes them similar in some respects. But the Blackfoot hunted buffalo while the Yupik hunted (and still do) seal, fish, and bear. If material culture reflects the way we feed ourselves, then it should come as no surprise to learn that much of Blackfoot artwork was placed upon objects that were worn or used, objects that could easily be carried with people as they moved from place to place. And the images depict that which was most spiritually and materially important for survival, the hunt. Blackfoot art, therefore, features buffalo warriors, bows, and horses, while Yupik art incorporates images of boats, spears, whales, seals, and the polar bear. Even the religions of these peoples developed in relation to the food supply: Nanook, the Great Polar Bear spirit, controls the Yupik hunt, while the Creator Spirit of the Blackfoot made buffalo and bows and arrows specifically to aid man.

Similar to their hunting counterparts, the agricultural cultures also possess art and rituals surrounding food preparation. Communities that transitioned to large-scale farming altered their relationship to their environment, which became a fixed location rather than a seasonal camp. Planting grains and vegetables provided a stable and abundant food source. The domestication (taming) of goats, cattle, sheep, and pigs added meat and dairy to the diet and also provided skins and fiber for leather and wool production. Also, the planting, tending, and harvesting of crops first and foremost requires that people remain on-site, and people with a steady food supply tend not to wander off to snack on migrating gazelles, especially if supplementary meat can be had from goats and sheep, both of which were domesticated during the Neolithic/Agricultural Revolution.

The modes of preparation for new foodstuffs such as bread, beer, and cheese created vastly different social and cultural attitudes in these agricultural communities. A grindstone, for example, became an essential tools for working grains and could play a substantive role in projecting social status. Bee Wilson, a food historian, points out that the labor-intensive grinding and pounding demanded by a grain-rich diet conferred status upon those, mostly women, who engaged in it, thereby helping the feed the community. Today in Uganda, it is still commonplace to bury a woman with one of her grindstones, an acknowledgment of the importance of both the tool and the woman. (see Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, Basic Books, 2013.)

The Agricultural Revolution affected almost every aspect of human life.  Agricultural production, in the first instance, demanded new technologies. The earliest grindstones, which date to about 20,000 BCE, were discovered near the Sea of Galilee (modern Israel) along with traces of wild barley. The combination, concludes Wilson, suggests evidence of some of the earliest bread making. Agriculture increased and regularized the food supply. No longer was it ‘feast or famine’ depending upon the success of that day’s hunt. Simply in terms of human population, changing to a grain-based diet significantly increased the absolute number of humans in existence and allowed for more of them to live in greater concentrations.  It estimated that prior to the Agricultural Revolution (c.9,000 BCE) the global population had plateaued at about 4 million. By the beginning of the Christian Era, this population had reached about 170 million. The prospect of abundant food and the material culture of a large settlement lured pastoralists and hunters into what Rousseau termed ‘the glittering misery of the towns’ to have a go at sedentary farming. Once a food surplus was achieved, the new system took off, as it steadily attracted new labor into its mechanism. Food surplus and the natural cycle of the agricultural year created leisure and “the fruits of leisure in the agricultural state are not indolence, as in the savage state,” writes distinguished professor Anthony Pagden, “but the creation of the sciences and the arts.” (Pagden, The Enlightenment and Why it Still Matters, pp.257-258.) This is precisely why settling down and cultivating the land was the first step man took toward creating the first recognizable civilizations. The ninth-century Arab poet, Abu Tammam, expressed the connection between food and settlement this way:

No, not for Paradise didst thou the nomad life forsake; Rather, I believe, it was thy yearning after bread and dates.

In conclusion, the following excerpt from Paul Kriwaczek’s book on Mesopotamia captures well the true revolutionary aspect of the movement from hunting to farming:

Elsewhere in the world, for several thousand years men and women had happily led lives of subsistence agriculture, finely attuned to their needs and desires, a lifestyle that would hardly change in its essentials until nearly our own times. Indeed in many palces it continues. That was not enough for the pioneers of the Mesopotamian plain. They had not run out of land suitable for traditional farming. Human populations were tiny and widely dispersed, leaving ample room for new agricultural settlements. But those who came here were apparently not interested in doing as their ancestors had done, adapting their manner of living to fit the natural world as they found it. Instead they were determined to adapt their environment to suit their way of life… The incomers were consciously aiming at nothing less than changing the world…  With the city came the centralized state, the hierarchy of social classes, the division of labor, organized religion, monumental building, civil engineering, writing, literature, art, music, education, mathematics, and law, not to mention a vast array of new inventions and discoveries, from items as basic as wheeled vehicles and sailing boats to the potter’s kiln, metallurgy and the creation of synthetic materials. And on top of that was the huge collection of notions and ideas so fundamental to our way of looking at the world, like the concepts of numbers, or eight, quite independent of actual items counted or weighed. Southern Mesopotamia was the place where all that was first achieved. (p.20-21)

Before continuing, we should consider carefully what obstacles the great river valleys of Mesopotamia, the Tigris and Euphrates, actually presented to human settlement. It is all too easy to view early agricultural settlements as communities which had somehow discovered the good life along a bountiful river without considering how terribly difficult it was traditionally to sustain life in a great flood plain. Archeologists confirm that permanent settlement occurred first in upland plateau and mountains, that is outside of the region that spawned the first civilization. The river plains remained unsettled until humans began to master their environment, until they figured out how to tame the ferocious floods and sustain themselves through the dry seasons. It is not farming itself, but precisely that learning process that followed it, that revolutionary spike in innovation, that led to the creation of the first civilizations. Climatologists, too, are beginning to show that climate change played a role in the process, as it was not until about 4000 BCE that heavy rainfall and melting ice converted desert and canyons into the arable plains of Mesopotamia. That process ceased around 3000 BCE and the region has been reverting to desert ever since. Rain-based agriculture is almost non-existent there (Iraq) today. (von Soden, The Ancient Orient, pp.6-11)

Works Consulted:

  • Von Soden, Wolfram. The Ancient Orient (1985)
  • Pagden, Anthony. The Enlightenment and Why it Still Matters. Random House: New York. 2013

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