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October 12, 2007

The Neolithic in the Middle East

     The term Neolithic is used, especially in archaeology and anthropology, to designate a stage of cultural evolution or technological development characterized by the use of stone tools, the existence of settled villages largely dependent on domesticated plants and animals, and the presence of such crafts as pottery and weaving. The time period and cultural content indicated by the term varies with the geographic location of the culture considered and with the particular criteria used by the individual scientist.

     The Neolithic era follows the terminal Holocene Epipalaeolithic periods, beginning with the rise of farming, which produced the "Neolithic Revolution" and ending when metal tools became widespread in the Copper Age (chalcolithic) or Bronze Age or developing directly into the Iron Age, depending on geographical region.

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     The Neolithic culture of the Middle East developed into the urban civilizations of the Bronze Age by 3500 B.C. Between 6000 B.C. and 2000 B.C. Neolithic culture spread through Europe, the Nile valley (Egypt), the Indus valley (India), and the Huang He valley (N China). The formation of Neolithic cultures throughout the Old World resulted from a combination of local cultural developments with innovations diffused from the Middle East.

     Beginning around 8000 B.C.E., many human cultures became increasingly dependent on cultivated crops and domesticated animals to secure their supply of food. By 7000 B.C.E. sedentary agriculture was able to support towns with populations of more than 1,000, such as Jericho and Catal Huyuk. By 3500 B.C.E., the first civilizations appeared in the Middle East. While no one knows for certain what conditions caused the shift from hunting and gathering to sedentary agriculture, changes in the climate may have been significant factors. It is also probable that increases in human population prompted changes in food production. (Simmons, 2007)

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     The first plants domesticated were the wild grains - barley and wheat - that were common in many regions of the Middle East. The transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture took place slowly. Only as additional crops were added to the agricultural system did societies diminish efforts to hunt and gather. Early agriculturalists may have continued a seminomadic lifestyle. At approximately the same time as the domestication of wild grains, agricultural societies also began to domesticate animals. Dogs, sheep, goats, and pigs were among the first animals domesticated around 8500 B.C.E. Cattle, more aggressive and faster than the other animals, were added to the agricultural system around 6500 B.C.E. Domesticated animals improved the supplies of available protein, provided hides and wool for clothing materials, and increased the manuring of agricultural land.

     The greater effort expended in agricultural systems made the shift to sedentary communities impractical for many groups. Hunting and gathering societies and agricultural communities continued to coexist. Some groups practiced pastoralism, based on the dependence on domesticated animals. Pastoral societies often thrive in semiarid regions incapable of supporting large populations of farmers. Pastoral societies were often strongly militarized. During the period of the Neolithic revolution (8000 B.C.E. to 5000 B.C.E.), agricultural techniques of production spread from the Middle East to other areas of the globe where the climate permitted. The cultivation of wheat and barley expanded from the Middle East to India and Europe.

     With the shift toward sedentary communities typical of the Neolithic revolution, the human population rapidly expanded. Villages and cultivated fields became the dominant features of human society. The development of sedentary settlements accelerated the pace of technological development. Many of these innovations were directly connected to agriculture, including plows, implements, techniques of seed selection, and irrigation. The development of better tools led to better housing and systems for the storage of grain. More dependable food supplies and better housing created conditions conducive to population growth.

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     The production of food surpluses allowed social differentiation and economic specialization. Some people were freed from the processes associated with the production of food to make other commodities, such as cloth, pottery, and leather goods. Economic specialization led to social stratification and the creation of elite classes of rulers. Regional economic specialization often centered on commodities indigenous to the region in which the community was located. In order to provide an equitable distribution of goods, trade was established among regions featuring different goods. Social stratification in early agricultural communities was limited. Property may have been held by all members of communities in common. The position of women in agricultural communities may have declined. Men took over the critical tasks of agriculture and began to monopolize the use of the new tools.

     The new sedentary lifestyle brought with it an unprecedented and enduring threat. For the first time in history, large groups of humans, animals, waste material, and rubbish were concentrated together in the same households. This close proximity conferred advantages to select organisms that were quickly able to jump species, infecting the human population in large numbers for the very first time. Examples included smallpox, tuberculosis and measles, influenza and malaria. It was around this time also that the rat attached itself to human societies and has prospered ever since. Although medicine has played a major role in quelling many diseases in modern society, many of them continue to kill millions of people each year.

            Although it is widely acknowledged that agriculture did not occur overnight and that the transition from hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society took a few thousand years to complete, it would be folly to underestimate the effects on society caused by its introduction. Fourteen thousand years on, the Neolithic revolution still dominates our everyday lives.

Works Cited

lan H. Simmons: (2007) The Neolithic Revolution in the Near East: Transforming the Human Landscape, University of Arizona Press.

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