Ch. 2. The Development of Agriculture

Economic Institutions

    About 12,500 BCE, as the last ice age was coming to an end, the Levant area of the eastern Mediterranean enjoyed an excellent climate. Grains and legumes grew naturally. Wild goats, sheep, cattle, and other game grazed the open forests and savannahs. The tribal people of the Natufian culture were able to stop wandering in search of food and build sedentary villages. For a few thousand years, they were just harvesting the grains, peas, and other plants that grew wild and hunting the animals. 1

    About 9000 BCE, the Natufian people started scattering seeds and early-Neolithic agriculture began. The villagers continued to improve their agricultural skills, tool making, building construction, and other crafts. Around 8500 BCE, goats and sheep were being domesticated, followed by cattle. Fired ceramic pottery appeared about 7000 BCE. Population was increasing, villages were expanding, and Neolithic culture was spreading. The 7th and 6th millennia continued to show the same trends. 2

    As far as it is possible to tell, the Neolithic villagers were still using the same basic communal forms as the early-stage tribal societies. The dominant form of economic distribution was tribal sharing. There were community granaries for storage. Most villages had large outdoor fire pits suitable for preparing community meals. 3

Political Institutions

    Leadership was probably provided by village elders and open discussion, similar to the earlier hunter-gathering populations. We do not have direct data about the political organization of early-stage tribal societies or the early Neolithic villages, but there are two things we do know. The first is that whatever leadership there may have been, it is invisible to the archaeologists. 4

    Lots of early Neolithic villages have been found and excavated. The experts can tell us a great deal about the tools, agriculture, pottery, construction techniques, and proportion of bones from wild or domesticated animals. At every excavation site, the archeologists have spent a lot of time trying to identify any particular house or building which might have been occupied by the community leader. They are looking for any sign of special status. So far, they have drawn a blank. The Neolithic villages must have had some kind of leaders or leading councils, but they cannot be identified from the physical remains. 5

    The second thing we know is that when the archaeologists begin to find definite evidence for leaders and a higher level of social organization, they are not clan leaders, tribal leaders, or village elders. The first leaders who can be positively identified are the priests who administered the earliest cities from a temple compound. 6

Military Institutions

    The archaeologists have also been searching for any evidence of organized warfare in this early-Neolithic stage of development. There was probably some amount of conflict. Spear points and arrow heads have been found in a few graves which may or may not have been hunting weapons. Only very rarely do excavations of the villages turn up anything that might possibly be interpreted as the foundations of defensive walls. Nothing has been found that would seem to indicate the remains of an early Neolithic village that has been sacked and looted. 7


    Aside from the increasing sophistication of stone tools, ceramics, agriculture, animal domestication, and other skilled crafts—the aspect of society that seems to be developing the fastest is religion. Shamans, nature spirits, and zoomorphic representations are well known features of tribal religion. Priests, gods, temples, and churches are the primary features of religion in aristocrat-peasant societies. Out of the many important distinctions between tribal society and aristocrat-peasant society, it was the new religious forms that began to develop first. 8

     A large out-door religious center at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey has been dated to about 9600 BCE, five centuries before the beginning of agriculture. This is the earliest large-scale stone structure ever found by archeologists. We cannot tell if this construction was organized by shamans or priests, but it demonstrates that religion was already becoming stronger and better organized even before the development of farming. 9

    In the 9th millennium, we start seeing the appearance of spiritual sanctuaries inside the agricultural villages. The skulls of bulls are found buried in walls, hanging on walls, or displayed with female figurines. The combination of bull skulls with horns, probably a male proto-divinity symbol, and female "Venus" figurines with enlarged breasts and abdomens, probably a female proto-divinity symbol, became more common and more widespread throughout the Neolithic period. 10

Potential for the Future

    What had happened in the Fertile Crescent was not just the development of agriculture. It was the development of cereal agriculture. This is an important distinction. Wheat, rice, barley, and most other cereal grains are left in the field until the kernel is dry. After threshing and winnowing, the grain can be stored for years without deteriorating. Peas, beans, and lentils were also some of the earliest crops. They too could be dried and stored for long periods. 11

    The ability to grow large amounts of food that could be accumulated and stored made possible an entirely “new pattern of society.” In the future there would be cities with large numbers of specialized workers who did not have to produce their own food. The possibilities were endless—writing, learning, economies of scale from mass production, and a great deal more. 12

    The technology was now in place to develop what we think of as “complex civilization.” The problem was that it would require an entirely new pattern of society. There would have to be a higher level of social organization with stronger leadership and some kind of mechanism for distributing the surplus food that agriculture made possible. 13

    It was the priests who would step forward and provide the leadership for the new form of organization that was necessary. This kind of change does not happen quickly. It would take thousands of years for the new pattern of society to evolve. 14

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