7: Neolithic Farmers

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Age of Agri-cultures

In the Paleolithic, humans began using the materials of their environment to give them a survival advantage. During the Mesolithic, humans tamed animals in order to make life easier. During the Neolithic, humans tamed the land itself to provide a more stable food source. While Mesolithic agriculture consisted of throwing seeds upon the ground, Neolithic farming is characterized by the cultivation of the earth. This included tending the land on an annual cycle.

Geography determines Direction, not Stage

Before going too deep into the so called ‘Neolithic revolution’, let us point out that certain ecosystems, as indicated earlier, lent themselves to agricultural development, for instance fertile river valleys. Others types of ecosystems were not suitable for agriculture, for instance arid grass lands and forests. As such, the pastoral cultures of the grasslands and the Hunters of the forest adopted a lifestyle that allowed them to survive in their particular environment. The Neolithic Revolution was based around ecosystems, such as fertile river valleys, where agriculture was possible.

The traditional view holds that ‘primitive’ cultures, such as Hunter-gatherers and Herders, eventually evolve into Farmers. But the preceding analysis illustrates that Hunter, Herder, and Farmer cultures do not belong to any sequence. They are not stages, but are instead unique adaptations to particular environments.

According to the traditional mindset, the most advanced cultures have the most control of their environment. Under this rating system, agrarian cultures would be rated highest because they have tamed materials, animals and the earth. The pastoral cultures would be considered lower having only tamed materials and animals, while the hunter-gatherer cultures would be considered most primitive because they only shaped the materials of their environment. Indeed, the standard perspective holds that ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherer cultures ‘naturally’ evolve into ‘civilized’ agrarian societies.

There are significant counter-examples to this viewpoint. For instance, many Native Americans chose and choose not to adopt the settled agricultural style of European civilization. Instead they continue to prefer living with nature rather than in cities. Genghis Khan preferred his homeland in the ‘uncivilized’ arid grasslands of Mongolia to the comforts of ‘civilized’ China or Persia. The agri-cultures that domesticated the land also domesticated themselves, in the sense that they acclimated to a settled life-style. The settled agricultural life is not for everyone. A wilder, less citified/‘civilized’ existence seems to be preferable to some cultures.

A Few Forces behind the Discovery of Agri-technology

The Near East: Shepherds and Farmers Merge

Due to their nomadic nature, herding cultures leave very little evidence of their existence. As such, most theories regarding their lifestyle are just logical guesses. One theory of the transition to the farming culture holds that Central Asian sheepherders came in contact with the proto-farmers of the Mediterranean. The cultures merged for mutual benefit. The Farmers had the grain to feed the animals, allowing the Shepherds to settle down. The Shepherds possessed the animals that would provide a welcome supplement to the Farmer diet. These herd animals also consumed the waste products of farming as feed. Dairy products are another byproduct of the herding animals and beer is a byproduct of the grain crops. A Marriage made in heaven. Thank you Mother Nature.

Feeding the Herd, first, Humans as by product

Another theory has it that the inspiration for farming itself was based upon the desire to feed the domesticated herds. Under this theory, a pastoral tribe wanted to settle down with the flocks that have provided them with such a stable food source. They began growing grain for their animal feed. In times of scarcity, they may have realized that they too could utilize grain as a food source with a little grinding, cooking and such.

Beer, the driving force

Another byproduct of grain agriculture is beer. Some hold that the desire for beer intoxication was the driving force behind the development of grain farming technology. The evidence for beer is simultaneous with the beginning of agriculture. Scientists have not yet determined which was invented first bread or beer. This indicates the Neolithic significance of beer and its constant companion – intoxication. (Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Beer, 1997)

The Nesting Urge

We have been talking about the driving forces behind the origination of farming technology, but haven’t addressed why early homo might like to settle down in an agri-culture. For those of us who have been thoroughly domesticated the answer seems obvious and underlying, security and warmth. While true, a stronger driving force is the rising dependency time of the human child. The woman must have played a huge role in the decision to settle down. It is primarily the mother who needs a stable environment in which to raise her children. While the nesting urge lasts only a season for birds, it can last up to six years and more for the human species. The desire of the female of the species to nest is based upon the need to protect and shelter the young. As the need to protect and shelter the young grows longer and longer, the need for permanent shelter grows proportionally.

Accelerated Cultural Evolution

A side benefit of the longer nesting time allowed by more permanent structures is that more cultural information, including technology, can be transmitted. This increase in transmission time accelerates the speed of cultural evolution based upon the products of the society including its technology. As an example, the rise in settled agri-cultures stimulated the development of both pottery and fabric technologies. 

All forces work together

While the Female Nesting Urge would have to rate as a major force in the development of permanent settlements, the need for beer and domesticated herding animals would have to be considered contributing forces. It is likely that each of the processes mingled to drive the farming technology that allowed humans to settle down.

Middle Eastern Farming successful

The type of farming based upon domesticated herding animals was such an effective cultural tool that it spread quickly to adjacent areas and beyond. It remains one of the dominant agri-technologies of the planet. Its success was based, at least in part, upon the self-sufficiency that it introduces. The crops feed the humans and their farm animals. The farm animals in turn provide dairy products as well as meat to the diet of the Neolithic farmer. Once crop rotation was worked out, this was a fairly self-sustaining ecological system.

Not at all universal

This agricultural system is not universal. Many locations in the world could not support herding animals. For instance South, East and Southeast Asia, cultivated rice rather than the grasses preferred by grazing animals. As such, these populations rarely employed domesticated herds as part of their agricultural system.

As an example, the indigenous population of China hunted the pig initially. Simultaneous with the domestication of the land, they domesticated the pig. They caught him, penned him up, raised him for meat, and fed him the refuse, the garbage, of the village. In this Neolithic society, they went straight from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society because herding was not an option. Nobody herds pigs.

The urge for agriculture seems to be a human universal, just like animal domestication. However the methods of land domestication vary considerably depending upon the possibilities of the geography. The distinct differences in both animal domestication and agri-technology are yet further indications that cultural styles do not always represent stages. Instead cultural differentiation is frequently due to the possibilities of the geography. In fact, humans seem to exploit the potentials of their environment to the extent of their existing technologies.

Residual Neolithic symbols

We’ve mentioned the Christmas tree, Easter eggs and Easter bunny as Paleolithic symbols. Thanksgiving celebrates the annual harvest of the Farmer. The death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter is linked with agricultural ceremonies, as is the birth of the baby Jesus at Christmas time. Thus many of our most popular celebrations are linked with the Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures that preceded the civilizations of the following Metal Ages.

The Neolithic Hunter Gatherer

The Hunter-gatherer societies of the Neolithic evolved along with the other culture types. During this period, they improved their hunting and fishing techniques, and their botanical knowledge concerning both food sources and medicine.

Male Hunter, Female Gatherer: Balanced

The Hunter-gatherer societies tended to be based upon a balanced sexual polarity. The Hunter tended to be male because of his explosive muscle groups, which were available for momentary bursts of energy. The Hunter could leave the home for extended absences, whether on fishing or hunting trips. The Gatherer tended to be female because of her need to stay close to the home to raise the next generation. The male Hunter practiced domination because of his function of killing game. The female gatherer practiced cultivation because of her involvement with raising plants and children. When in equilibrium, discipline and nurture balance each other. When the female element is suppressed as in the coming Metal Ages, the dominator mentality runs rampant leading to endemic warfare.

Hunters domesticated neither land nor animal

The Hunter-gatherer cultures of the forest, mountains and sea, domesticated neither animals nor land. The other cultures always considered them the most primitive, presumably because they hadn’t tamed nature. While the Shepherds and Farmers had separated themselves from the Wild of Nature by domesticating her, the Hunters had embraced the Wild of Nature as a way of life. The Hunters were never as citified, civilized, as the Farmers, and so were referred to as the opposite of civilized, savage. While the term has a pejorative connotation, it was used in a descriptive sense, as in the following sentences. The savages didn’t possess an advanced technology but treated each other in a civilized way. In contrast, those with advanced technology treated their fellow humans in a savage way.

Hunters not necessarily nomadic

Even the settled/nomadic criterion does not apply consistently to each cultural style. The hunter-gatherer societies were not necessarily nomadic, although they could be. There were migratory Hunter cultures that moved seasonally. But there were also settled hunter-fisher cultures that hunted or fished locally, such as the Scandinavian and Japanese societies. The Shepherds were nomadic by necessity. The Farmers who tended the soil were settled, while the Farmers who tended the crops, such as with slash and burn techniques, were mildly nomadic.

Neolithic Paradise

In some ways, the Neolithic was an ideal period, in the sense that each type of culture could develop independently with relatively little conflict. During this period, there was plenty of space on the planet for everyone. They were each able to develop in their own ways without conflict. As evidence, the Neolithic is known for the developement of pottery and fabric, not armaments. Further women were still venerated, especially due to their child-bearing capacity.

Success is killing us

The actual success of the Neolithic cultures was at the root of their coming problems. Each of the separate cultures developed technologies that allowed them to survive and thrive in their respective ecologies. As their technologies allowed them to cope more effectively with their environments, their populations began growing. Due to their increasing populations, the cultures of the Neolithic came into increasing conflict in the coming Bronze Age. As the Neolithic wound down and space became scarcer, clashes, which could be avoided with lots of resources to go around, couldn’t be avoided anymore. Enter the Age of Metals.


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