The Neolithic Revolution and the Birth of Civilization


Agriculture is so pervasive around the world that it is easy to assume that human beings have always farmed for their food. However, as Guisepi (n.d.) points out, “There was nothing natural or inevitable about the development of agriculture.” Prior to the Neolithic Revolution, Paleolithic-era people hunted for animals and gathered edible plants and fruits. Foraging and hunting proved to be the most efficient means of sustaining life in the Paleolithic era. The fact that human beings went from the relatively energy efficient model of hunting and gathering to a more labor intensive model of agriculture shows that there must have been major changes in terms of availability of food supply or increased competition. A combination of factors influenced human social evolution to the point where what we call “civilization” began in different places around the world. The change from hunting and gathering to agriculture had a huge impact on how societies were structured, and gave rise to many important developments including technological, political, sociological, ideological, artistic, and economic changes. The most important technological developments ever to occur in human history were the domestication of plants (agriculture) and of animals (pastoralism); together these developments are called the Neolithic Revolution.

The Neolithic Revolution basically signifies the transition from primarily hunting and gathering lifestyles to a more sedentary, stable culture based on farming and animal husbandry. As Guisepi (n.d.) states, “we cannot be certain why and how some peoples adopted these new ways of producing food and other necessities of life.” The people of the Paleolithic era and well into the Neolithic era did not use writing to record their histories or stories. Archaeologists and anthropologists need to look at the hard evidence to gather the reasons for the Neolithic Revolution. Moreover, the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture must have been motivated by different reasons for different people. For instance, in some regions, there might have been increased populations in the area leading to too much competition for the natural resources. When there is an increase in population, the local food sources become scarce. Big game and other edible animals are killed off before they have a chance to reproduce and increase their populations, while the edible plants in the area also become depleted. Usually when scarcity happened, it was temporary and seasonal. The hunters and gatherers would simply move to a new place to find food. However, many issues promoted the Neolithic Revolution in which agriculture began. Climate or environmental changes might have made it increasingly difficult to find any food, and some bands of people might have decided that it would be better to stay in one spot to conserve energy.

Other issues played a role in why the Neolithic Revolution started. One of those issues is the discovery of alcohol in the form of fermented beverages. Many researchers believe that alcohol played an important role in the Neolithic Revolution. For example, Thadeusz (2009) states, “agriculture — and with it the entire Neolithic Revolution, which began about 11,000 years ago — are ultimately results of the irrepressible impulse toward drinking and intoxication.” There is significant evidence that peoples scattered in different parts of the globe had discovered fermented beverages, and wanted to stay put in order to grow the types of food (like grains and grapes) that would make a new batch of alcohol. At first, fermentation might have happened by accident when a fruit or grain product was left out for a long time and exposed to wild yeast. After people figured out that they could actually make fermentation happen by recreating the conditions for it, they decided to stay put and farm grains. Alternatively, it is possible that imbibing alcohol made it more likely that people would not be as able to hunt and gather for their food.

Either way, it is important to point out that the invention of pottery is also characteristic of the Neolithic Revolution and that pottery also plays into the theory that alcohol promoted interest in agriculture. As Kavanagh (1994) points out, “although it may have long been possible to malt grain and indeed to make a fermentable mash, it was probably difficult, if not impossible, to make a reproducible beer, or any other fermented beverage, before the invention of pottery.” Pottery makes it possible to ferment and store the beverage that is made, but also to store the grain that is harvested. The discovery of oven-fired pottery is one of the major technological breakthroughs that characterize the Neolithic Revolution. Pottery and agriculture also go hand-in-hand, as pottery is necessary for long-term sedentary societies.

Life prior to the Neolithic Revolution, during the Paleolithic era, was mainly nomadic. It would not have been feasible to carry around clay pots, because such things were cumbersome. Also, people did not need pottery prior to the Neolithic Revolution. People moved around according to their food supplies. Tools were mainly made from stone, because they could be fashioned from whatever type of stone was available in the area. It would not have been feasible to work with grain products during Paleolithic times because, as Choi (2010) states, “until the Neolithic, cereals such as barley and rice constituted only a minor element of diets, most likely because they require so much labor to get anything edible from them — one typically has to gather, winnow, husk and grind them, all very time-consuming tasks.”

During the Paleolithic era, families were the primary social unit, but there were bands and tribes that began to emerge. The size of the bands or tribes was “limited to about 30 people and required extensive amounts of territory to support themselves,” (“The Neolithic Revolution and the Birth of Civilization: Outline,” 2010). It was more efficient to have smaller groups, which is why the reliigons of the Paleolithic times were not concerned with fertility rites as they were later on during the Neolithic Revolution. Paleolithic metaphysical views were concerned largely with death because “death was omnipresent during the Paleolithic, and the mystery of life and death translated into the practice of the faith into a world of spirits and the practice of magical rites,” (Anitei, 2008).

Homo habilis was the type of human at the beginning of the Paleolithic era, and was the proverbial “stone age man.” This was more than two million years ago. By the end of the Paleolithic era, at around 200,000 years ago, homo sapiens appeared. This type of human being went beyond the simple manipulation of tools for daily subsistence. Paleolithic peoples did create cave art, but their overall creative endeavors were sparse compared to what would happen later during the Neolithic Revolution. The art of Paleolithic people was usually depictions of “animals they wanted to bring down: horses, mammoths, reindeer, bisons; these paintings had a magic character, being meant for the capture of the represented animals,” (Anitei, 2008).

By the time the Neolithic Revolution was under way, social structure became much more complex. Technology played a role in why some Paleolithic groups started to become sedentary “Between 8000 B.C.E. And 5000 B.C.E., some hunting-gathering groups developed more intensive techniques that permitted them to establish more sedentary settlements,” (“The Neolithic Revolution and the Birth of Civilization: Outline” 2010). Technological advancements also gave rise to many more complex and differentiated types of creative endeavors, social activities, and cultural expressions. Likewise, being sedentary made it more likely that people had time to do things other than hunt, gather food, and cook the food. Agriculture meant that once the fields were planted, there was plenty of time to devote to other activities like music, art, and inventing new technologies. Human material culture grew rapidly; as sedentary societies produced worthwhile items they could trade with neighboring bands for other items they either did not have or did not have access to.

Both Paleolithic and Neolithic societies had gender stratification and division of labor, but Paleolithic people were not socially stratified to the degree that Neolithic people became. Moreover, Paleolithic people were as apt to be territorial as Neolithic people, meaning that agriculture itself did not cause territorial disputes among different bands. There are several reasons why human societies became more complex and hierarchical after agriculture was discovered and practiced. “Only those groups that adopted agriculture proved capable of producing civilizations,” (“The Neolithic Revolution and the Birth of Civilization: Outline” 2010). Groups that stayed in one area tended to demonstrate increasing complexity because of the accumulation of surplus. In hunter-gatherer societies, a surplus never existed. Once enough food was found, the people in the band feasted and moved on. When agriculture became a part of human life, surplus was necessary and inevitable. Surplus from the harvests were stored in pottery and other vessels. This surplus was needed to sustain the community in times of scarcity and need, including winter. However, the surplus could also be used to trade with neighboring bands. This meant that accumulation of surplus was the beginning of trade and the market economy.

When agriculture became a part of human society during the Neolithic Revolution, several other social, political, and economic changes needed to occur. One of those changes was the development of social hierarchies. The people in the community who accumulated more surplus, either from food products or from manufactured goods like baskets, became an elite class. The elite class took advantage of their increased power, and became political leaders. The political leaders took charge of the economic and political developments in the community, representing a tribe in times of conflict or in trading situations.

The Neolithic Revolution represented radical changes in technology and culture, transforming human society forever. The causes of the Neolithic Revolution are varied, but probably include climate change and environmental changes leading to scarcity; or increased competition due to increased human population growth. The development of alcohol might have been both a cause and an effect of the Neolithic Revolution. As a cause, alcohol might have inspired people to harvest the grains that created such a magical beverage. As an effect, increased production of grain might have inspired people to use excess for fermentation. The development of pottery and other technologies fostered the Neolithic Revolution too, because it was possible to store surplus materials. Pottery also made it more likely that people would practice agriculture, staying in one place rather than moving around. Effects of the Neolithic Revolution include the development of highly stratified societies with economic, political, and social hierarchies. The religious and creative expressions of Neolithic culture changed according to the needs and material culture of the communities. The importance of the Neolithic Revolution on human history cannot be underestimated.


Anitei, S. (2008). Paleolithic: The old stone age. Retrieved online:

Choi, C.Q. (2010). Beer lubricated the rise of civilization, study suggests. Live Science. Retrieved online:

Giusepi, R.A. (n.d.). Agriculture And The Origins Of Civilization: The Neolithic Revolution. Retrieved online:

Kavanagh, T.W. (1994). Archaeological parameters for the beginnings of beer. Brewing Techniques. Retrieved online:

“The Neolithic Revolution and the Birth of Civilization: Outline.” Retrieved online:

Sedivy, M. (n.d.). Prehistory. Retrieved online:

Thadeusz, F. (2009). Brewing up a civilization. Spiegel Online International. Retrieved online:,1518,668642,00.html

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