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The Origins of Civilization

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From Hunters to Farmers: A Revolution in Human History

Domestication is the process of increasing human control over the breeding of wild plants and animals in order to select for traits that make them more useful for human needs, such as food, transportation, or other animal products, such as wool, hides, or dairy products. This selective breeding process results in genetic changes in the plants and animals so that they become recognizably different species from their wild ancestors.

Since the earliest appearance of modern humans more than 150,000 years ago during the Pleistocene (Ice Age), people had always relied on hunting herds of wild animals, fishing, and gathering wild plants to feed themselves. This required humans to organize themselves in small-scale nomadic groups, migrating across the landscape to follow their prey, and to collect a variety of widely scattered wild plant species. All human groups during the Paleolithic (“Old Stone”) period during the Ice Age were nomadic hunters and gatherers.

However, with the major climate changes that marked the end of the Pleistocene and the beginning of the Holocene (or modern) Age, a major cultural change took place as well – the shift from the Paleolithic period to the Epipaleolithic (“end of the Old Stone Age” – also known as the “Mesolithic”), about 10,000-8300 BCE, and then the Neolithic Period  (or “New Stone” Age), about 8300-6000 BCE.

During the Epipaleolithic period, people in the Middle East first began to settle down in village communities of sedentary hunters and gatherers. Approximately 8300 BCE, these communities began to domesticate those key plants and animals that they had previously been hunting and gathering: wheat, barley, chickpeas, sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. The economic and social impact of these developments was so great that we refer to this new way of life based on the combination of sedentism and the domestication of plants and animals as the Neolithic Revolution.

With the domestication of the key food plants and animals in the Middle East (about 10,000 years ago during the early Holocene age), people were able to live in large settled communities with a reliable, predictable, and abundant food supply that was able to support the development of cities, craft specialization, social stratification, temple priesthoods, and kingship – the complex of connected institutions that we call “civilization”. In short, the consequences of the Neolithic revolution were enormous – affecting nearly every major aspect of human environment, economy, and culture. For that reason alone, we need to understand how and why the ancient peoples of the Middle East first settled down in village communities and domesticated plants and animals. Our best understanding is that a combination of environmental, demographic, and cultural factors played key roles in the origins of food production.

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