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Beginning of Agriculture (Neolithic): Part I

Beginning of Agriculture (Neolithic): Part I

  • Neolithic Age, which followed the Mesolithic, heralded the beginning of food production.
  • Human communities entered a new stage of culture when, instead of depending entirely on the resources of nature for survival, they started producing their own food by cultivating cereals like barley, wheat and rice and started domesticating some species of animals-both for supplies of milk and meat as well as for harnessing their labour for various purposes. selfstudyhistory.com
  • Beginnings of this stage of human culture are revealed by new type of stone tools which are called Neolithic tools or tools of the New Stone Age.
    • The neolithic age is associated with innovations in stone tool technology, specifically the making of ground, pecked, and polished stone tools and the advent of food production.
    • Changes in stone tools were related to shifts in subsistence strategies.
  • Domestication of plants and animals has been considered as one of the main characteristic features of the Neolithic stage of culture.
    • In the long run, such shifts were associated with technological changes, greater food availability, a rise in population, an increase in the number and size of human settlements, and more complex social and political organization.
  • Other features of the neolithic phase include the invention of pottery, a greater degree of sedentary living, the emergence of small and relatively self-sufficient village communities, and a division of labour based on sex.
  • The term Neolithic was coined by Sir John Lubbock. He used this term to denote an Age in which the stone implements were more skillfully made, more varied in form and often polished.
  • V. Gordon Childe defined the Neolithic-Chalcolithic culture as a self-sufficient food producing economy.
    • V. Gordon Childe coined the phrase neolithic revolution to highlight the enormous significance of these changes.
  • Miles Burkitt stressed that the following characteristic traits should be considered to represent the Neolithic Culture:
    • Practice of agriculture
    • Domestication of animals
    • Grinding and polishing of stone tools, and
    • The manufacture of pottery.
  • The term Neolithic should represent a culture of the pre-metal stage where the inhabitants had assured supply of food by cultivation of cereals and domestication of animals and led a sedentary life. However, the Ground stone tools remain the most essential characteristics of a Neolithic culture.
  • Domestication of plants and animals led to:
    • the emergence of village communities based on sedentary life,
    • the beginnings of agriculture technology, and
    • greater control over nature by exploitation of natural resources.

Onset of agriculture in India:

  • India was for a long time seen as having borrowed the idea of food production from its western neighbour, Mesopotamia, via the Iranian plateau.
    • Modern research on the subject, has discredited this viewpoint.
    • It is now generally believed that agriculture in India was an independent, indigenous development rather than an import from outside.
  • It has been proved for three of the main staples of the subcontinent –
    • the discovery of wheat and barley in Mehrgarh (in Pakistan) grown almost contemporaneously with the Fertile Crescent sites cancels the possibility of diffusion into India.
    • Similarly, the discovery of rice from Koldihwa in Uttar Pradesh and millet from sites in South India have put a question mark on the diffusion of these two crops from South China and Africa respectively.
  • The occurrence of food production in India was spread over a few millennia – from the 8th millennium BC to 1000 BC.

What was the catalyst that moved humans in vastly separated parts to adopt agriculture and animal domestication?

  • After thousands and thousands of years of hunting and gathering, why did some groups of people start domesticating animals and plants?
  • V. Gordon Childe:
    • He suggested that environmental changes at the end of the Pleistocene were the impetus towards food production.
    • He argued that about 10,000 years ago, the climate in parts of West Asia became drier due to a northward shift of the summer rains.
      • This desiccation led to a concentration of people, plants, and animals close to water resources such as rivers and oases.
      • This enforced closeness eventually led to new relationships of dependence between humans, plants, and animals, resulting in domestication.
  • Robert J. Braidwood:
    • Childe’s theory was questioned by Robert J. Braidwood, who rejected the focus on environmental change as the crucial factor leading to agriculture.
    • He pointed out that environmental changes had occurred within the Pleistocene as well and had not led to agriculture.
    • He argued that domestication took place in certain nuclear zones, which supported a variety of wild plants and animals that had the potential for domestication.
      • In such areas, domestication was the natural outcome of human experimentation and people getting to know their environment better.
      • Evolving cultural and technological strategies of human groups.
    • This theory does not explain the pressures or incentives that may have led to domestication.
      • There is ethnographic evidence of many hunting-gathering communities who know their environment very well and are even aware of agriculture, but do not see the point of practising it themselves.
      • There have to be good reasons for a community to radically change its way of life.
  • Lewis R. Binford:
    • Braidwood’s theory was rejected by Lewis R. Binford on the grounds that it could not be archaeologically tested.
    • He asserted that in areas where environment and population have remained constant, a stable balance between the human population and food resources is achieved and people do not have to look for new sources or strategies of getting food. Such groups in fact tend to live at food consumption levels far below the resource potential of their environment.
    • Two factors can upset the balance between people and food: 
      • stress produced by environmental change or
      • by population growth.
    • Binford identified two kinds of demographic stress:
      • internal demographic stress, which occurs when the number of people within a community increase;
      • external demographic stress, caused by immigration into an area by people from another area.
    • In the context of the origins of agriculture, he emphasized external demographic stress.
      • He argued that at the end of the Pleistocene era, as a result of a rise in sea levels, people living along the coasts migrated to less populated inland areas.
      • This upset the people–food equilibrium in inland areas and gave an impetus to the search for new strategies to increase food supplies.
    • Criticism:
      • Evidence of a migration of people from the world’s sea coasts to inland areas at the end of the Pleistocene is lacking.
      • It is difficult to talk about ‘overpopulation’ and ‘food crisis’ in times when human communities were small and resources abundant.
  • Kent Flannery:
    • He shifted the focus from the search for an event that might have led to the beginnings of food production to the process of food production itself and the adaptive advantages of plant and animal domestication over foraging and hunting.
    • He distinguished two types of food procurement systems—negative and positive feedback food procurement systems. Negative feedback food procurement systems involve a balanced exploitation and use of various food resources within an area and discourage any change. Positive feedback systems are those in which
    • He says that the productivity of resources increases as a result of human interference and exploitation.
      • For e.g. transplanting maize from areas within its natural habitat to other areas and cross-fertilization increase the number of grains. Once people recognized this increased productivity, they turned more and more towards the domestication of maize.
    • This explains why people found agriculture more advantageous than food gathering, but it does not explain why the initial experiments in domestication were made in the first place.
  • Recent studies:
    • Suggested that the key may in fact lie in environmental change, although not the sort suggested many years ago by Childe.
    • In many parts of the world, the Holocene was marked by the onset of a milder, warmer, wetter climate. Such changes may have led to an expansion of the natural habitat area of wild cereals that had the potential for domestication.
    • Perhaps it was not an environmental crisis but amelioration that was responsible for the beginnings of domestication.

The identification of domestication and food Production in the archaeology:

  • Animal domestication:
    • When wild animals or plants are domesticated over long periods of time, certain morphological changes tend to take place.
      • In the case of animals, early domesticates tend to be smaller than their wild counterparts.
      • There are changes in dental structure—teeth become smaller, some teeth may disappear. Horns tend to reduce in size.
      • Domesticated cattle have weak muscle ridges while in the case of draught animals there is a strengthening of certain muscles.
      • Domestication also leads to a shortening of the animal’s hair.
    • This makes it possible for scientists to study the animal bones and teeth found at an archaeological site and to identify not only the animal they represent, but also whether this animal was wild or domesticated.
    • Other ways of inferring animal domestication:
      • Animals found outside their natural habitat suggest domestication.
      • Age and sex ratios can also provide clues. In the wild, the male–female proportion among animals is 1:1. However, when they are bred, males are killed quite young and females are killed in old age.
  • Plant domestication:
    • Wild and domesticated plant grains and seeds can also be differentiated.
      • Under conditions of domestication, over a long period of time, plants undergo certain morphological changes.
      • For example, the grains of wild wheat and barley are larger than those of domesticated varieties.
    • Even an analysis of impressions of grain or husk on lumps of clay or pottery can help identify domestication.
    • Certain kinds of artefacts and tools such as grinding stones and sickles are sometimes taken as indicative of plant domestication.
  • Indirect evidence of animal or plant domestication:
    • It can be inferred from art remains such as representations of people capturing or tending animals, harvesting grain, or processing food.

The transition to food production in the Indian Subcontinent:

  • The neolithic age is generally associated with food production, pottery, and sedentary living.
    • In the Indian subcontinent, the roots of some of the features associated with the neolithic can be traced to the mesolithic phase. There were references to the evidence of pottery and animal domestication at certain mesolithic sites.
      • On the other hand, there are some neolithic sites without pottery.
    • Some mesolithic hunter-gatherer communities led a fairly sedentary life. And there were some communities practising animal and/or plant domestication who did not live for very long in the same place.
    • The beginnings of animal and plant domestication did not mean the end of the hunting-gathering way of life. Communities that practised animal rearing and agriculture usually continued to hunt and forage for food.
    • Moreover, there were numerous communities who retained their hunting-gathering way of life and never switched over to domestication at all.
  • The history of early food-producing settlements in the subcontinent consists of different regional profiles and trajectories.
    • In certain regions (e.g., the northern fringes of the Vindhyas), the food-producing neolithic culture emerged out of an earlier mesolithic phase.
    • In other areas (such as the north-west), there is no mesolithic phase and the earliest settlements seem to belong to neolithic agriculturists and pastoralists.
    • While there are some ‘pure neolithic sites, there are many neolithic–chalcolithic cultures which have elements of the neolithic along with the use of metal (mainly copper).
    • In still other parts of the subcontinent (such as Rajasthan), there is so far little evidence of a neolithic or even neolithic–chalcolithic stage, and the earliest sedentary communities appear in a full-fledged chalcolithic context.

Neolithic Period as Neolithic Revolution:

  • Neolithic was the last leg of the Stone Age and also the link or platform on which all subsequent civilizations arose.
  • Unlike the lighter and sharper tools of the palaeolithic or mesolithic, the neolithic tool kit was composed of heavy ground tools – pestles, mortars, grinders and pounders – as also axes and sickles which have a characteristic sheen on them, the result of harvesting wild or domesticated plants and grasses.
  • But besides the use of stone tools, the neolithic people had little in common with their predecessors.
    • The palaeolithic and Mesolithic humans were mobile hunter-gatherers who travelled long distances to procure their food.
    • On the other hand, neolithic populations all over the places have relied on agriculture or food production and the domestication of animals for their dietary needs.
  • Sedentism (practice of living in one place for a long time) is another feature that distinguishes the neolithic period.
    • People without any apparent connection, began settling down in agricultural communities and gave rise to villages, towns and then cities.
  • The use of pottery and the wheel and the subsequent invention of crafts like spinning, weaving and bead-making also serve to demonstrate the uniqueness of the neolithic phase.
    • Most neolithic cultures start as aceramic or pre-pottery neolithic.
    • However, soon enough, sherds of hand-made pottery are found, often followed by wheel-thrown pottery.
    • The technological breakthrough of the wheel enabled developments like spinning and by the time of the bronze age civilizations, the use of the wheel in carts.
  • It was a consideration of all these developments that made this period to be called as as the ‘Neolithic Revolution’.
    • However, the term ‘revolution’ is synonymous with sudden or abrupt change and that the neolithic was a gradual unfolding of developments, the culmination of the Stone Age.
    • While the significant socio-economic impact of the Neolithic cannot be denied, it is today generally viewed as a ‘transformation’ or ‘evolution’ rather than a ‘revolution’.

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