The history of civilizations comprises only a tiny fraction
of the time that the genus Homo has inhabited the earth.
Civilized societies those that relied on sedentary
agriculture, developed social stratification and economic
specialization, and created population densities sufficient
to support urban life have existed for the last 9,000 years.
In order to understand civilizations, it is necessary to
look at prehistorical precedents for human development in the
Paleolithic and Neolithic Ages. The rise of sedentary
agricultural communities during the Neolithic is one of the
first great transformations of human society.
- Human Life in the Era of Hunters and Gatherers
Homo sapiens, one of a number of human-like species, was able
to achieve biological dominance over its rivals and to spread
over much of the earth by 10,000 B.C.E. The success of Homo
sapiens was in part due to manual dexterity that permitted the production of tools enhancing the physical capabilities of
early humans and to intelligence that allowed the development
of spoken language enabling groups of humans to engage in
- Paleolithic Culture
One of the earliest cultural traditions of Homo sapiens was
the use of fire for cooking, curing animal hides, making
weapons, and as a source of heat and light. By the late
Paleolithic, human groups practiced mixed hunting and
gathering. The surviving technology of this period consists
of stone tools, the earliest of which date back more than two
million years. Later Paleolithic human culture also featured
artistic elements. The most impressive early works of art
were cave paintings that may have had religious significance.
It is also possible that these early works of art were
primitive calendars or counting systems.
- The Spread of Human Culture
Fire and the use of tools made it possible for humans to
spread beyond Africa. By 12,000 B.C.E. human societies
spread to Europe, Asia, North America, South America, and
- Human Society and Daily Life at the end of the Paleolithic Era
While most human societies at the end of the Paleolithic
period migrated in pursuit of game, some groups were more
sedentary. More stable groups harvested wild grains that
grew in profusion near their settlements, and some of these
societies progressed to true farming by domesticating plants
and animals. Some of these groups subsequently reverted to
hunting and gathering, suggesting that humans developed
different strategies that produced sufficient quantities of
Only those groups that adopted agriculture proved capable of
producing civilizations. Hunting and gathering groups were
limited to about 30 people and required extensive amounts of
territory to support themselves. Migratory groups tended to
live in the open rather than in caves and probably developed
a sense of territoriality over the lands that produced their
food. Labor was organized by gender males were responsible
for hunting and protection of the group, while females
gathered food from plants.
- Settling Down: Dead Ends and Transitions
Between 8000 and 5000 B.C.E. some hunting-gathering groups
developed more intensive techniques that permitted them to
establish more sedentary settlements. In what is now central
Russia, for example, groups were able to hunt wooly mammoths
and supplement meat supplies with intensive gathering. The
establishment of sedentary communities allowed intensive
hunting and gathering groups to establish social
stratification and commerce with other similar groups.
An even more specialized society associated with the Natufian
complex of the Middle East depended on the intensive
gathering of wild grasses primarily barley and wheat.
Natufian society was stratified and probably matrilocal and
matrilineal. Despite the development of intensive gathering
and sophisticated storage of grains, Natufian society did not
create any technological innovations. The dependence of
Natufian society on regional grasses left them vulnerable to
changes in the climate. Due to desiccation of the region,
Natufian communities disappeared around 9000 B.C.E.
- A Precarious Existence
Whether grouped in small bands of nomadic hunters and
gatherers or more densely clustered in intensive hunting and
gathering groups, life for all Homo sapiens remained
precarious. With limited technology and vulnerable to
alterations in the migratory patterns of prey or climatic
alterations that created changes in the ecosystems on which
they depended, all human communities experienced the constant
threat of extinction.
- Agriculture and the Origins of Civilization: The Neolithic Revolution
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 such as
Jericho and Catal Huyuk with populations of more than 1,000.
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.
- The Domestication of Plants and Animals
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
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 Spread of Neolithic Revolution
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 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 (8000-5000
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. From Egypt the
cultivation of grain crops spread southward along the Nile.
Africa south of the Sahara desert developed an independent
agricultural system around 2000 B.C.E. based on root and tree
In China, Neolithic agricultural societies developed a
separate system of crops based on millet. Somewhat later,
farmers of Southeast Asia began to cultivate rice. American
agricultural systems featured maize, manioc, and sweet
- The Transform of Material Life
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 storage of grain. More dependable
food supplies and better housing created conditions conducive
to population growth.
- Social Differentiation
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
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
- The First Towns: Seedbeds of Civilization
By 7000 B.C.E. agricultural productivity was sufficient to
support large communities including many nonagriculturalists.
In larger communities numbering in the thousands, social
stratification increased and trade became critical to the
communities' survival. Two of the earliest of these large
communities were located at Jericho in Palestine and Catal
Huyuk in Turkey. Although few in number and isolated from
surrounding villages and nomadic peoples, the earliest urban
centers accelerated the pace of change and made major
contributions to the technological revolution of the fourth
Jericho's site was favored by access to water. The site
extended to more than ten acres by 7000 B.C.E. The later
city consisted of many domestic dwellings built of brick and
some religious shrines. The huge wall surrounded the entire
settlement. Although Jericho was primarily an agricultural
community, there is substantial evidence of both trade and
hunting. The residents of Jericho traded their local
supplies of salt, sulfur, and pitch for goods from Turkey, the
Sinai, and the Red Sea. Structures at Jericho reveal
substantial social and economic stratification and the
existence of a governing elite.
- Catal Huyuk
Founded in 7000 B.C.E., Catal Huyuk was larger than Jericho
and included a more diversified population. Houses were
standardized throughout the community and served as
fortifications as well as residences. Standardization
implies a stronger ruling elite at Catal Huyuk than at
Jericho. Numerous religious shrines also suggest a powerful
priesthood. The economy of Catal Huyuk was more diverse than
that of Jericho. Pastoralism and domesticated animals were
more widely used. Trade in a variety of goods was
widespread. Artifacts also suggest the existence of a
skilled population of craftsmen making obsidian objects.
- Conclusion: The Watershed of the Fourth Millenium B. C. E.
Although not yet major urban centers, such as those
associated with early civilizations, Catal Huyuk and Jericho
established patterns of standardization and fortification
that would eventually be found in the greater cities of Sumer
and Egypt. Economic specialization and social stratification
proved critical to the development of technological
innovation in the fourth millennium B.C.E.
During the thousand years after 4000 B.C.E. the shift from
stone tools to bronze took place. The development of writing
made record-keeping and trading more effective. Most of this
new technology was limited to Eurasia and Africa. The
isolation of the Americas prevented the dissemination of many
technological advances. Isolation of the Americas also made
the people of those continents vulnerable to diseases of the