About 12,000 years ago, during the Neolithic, the rise of agriculture revolutionized history, transforming the way of life and human survival altogether. Cultivating the land, as the basis of its own food production, allowed humanity to introduce such transcendental changes as sedentary lifestyle and the formation of populations that have completely marked the development of our history.
In the first settlements, humans began to take care of animals and grow plants without having to go looking for them, which together with the use of tools caused a complete revolution that marked the end of an era based on gathering and hunting, and the beginning of agriculture and livestock as a way of life.
“If we consider the current rural population, some 3400 million people, we can say that they live in a very similar environment, essentially and leaving aside technology, to that of those first Neolithic societies,” say the researchers of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) Juan F. Gibaja, senior scientist of the Milá y Fontanals Institution, Juan José Ibáñez, a scientific researcher in the research group Archaeology of Social Dynamics of the same institution, and Millán Mozota, collaborator of R + D + I in archaeology and dissemination.
Why did humans start agriculture?
The changes were so transformative that they spread, irreversibly and over millennia, throughout the planet. To try to answer the whys, the CSIC scientists present in the book The Neolithic several hypotheses to answer this question.
“The first would be a population explanation, as a response to a food crisis caused by population growth, at a certain time and under certain conditions. Another would be the climate hypothesis, that is, that the novelties came in response to a climate change that limited the resources of hunter-fisher-gatherer societies,” they explain.
Finally, the third theory would be a cultural explanation, where “the communities that lived by hunting, fishing and gathering reached a level of mastery of nature and technological and social development that allowed them to initiate change,” they say. “Although different, the three hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, but could be combined to get a more accurate view.”
How did agriculture spread throughout the world?
Researchers have also developed different explanations for how this way of life spread across the planet. According to the authors, “the strongest proposal argues that expansion from the Middle East can only be explained as a result of population movements.”
On these journeys, people carry with them food and pets, as well as the instruments they need for their production. Polished axes, sickles, pottery or mills “are known as the ‘Neolithic package’. That is why, when archaeologists document a new Neolithic site, they define it from the presence of such elements, not from an isolated one,” they add.
Ceramics, according to their style, shape, and their decoration, have been a key piece to distinguish ancient cultures since the origins of research on the Neolithic. Today it is considered that they do not equate to the same peoples, but it is accepted that “groups with the same ceramics would have at least certain affinities and cultural proximity”.
The roles of Neolithic communities
During this period of the history of our ancestors, it is still difficult for the scientific community to know how they divided the work between the different members of the villages. Even so, in popular books, it is common to find representations of women taking care of children and men carving stone tools.
The research also talks about the cultural changes that have developed since then. “It is likely that the beliefs of the hunter-fisher-gatherer communities were of the shamanistic type, in which the connection with the spirits was realized through the elements of nature, through trance. Now, spirituality is directed towards mythical beings represented by human figures.”
One of the studies carried out in recent years has been based on the stone and bone instruments deposited in the tombs of men, women, and children of some of the cemeteries of the ancient inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula.
“Between 6500 and 5400 BC, most of the burials were individual, so the trousseau can be associated with the sex and age of the deceased,” the authors state. The remains indicate that the dismemberment of animals, hunting, or woodworking were carried out by men, while women were in charge of the treatment of the skin. “But there were also tasks shared by the whole community, such as the harvesting of cereal, in which children surely also work,” they say.
Cavities and infections
Of course, these great changes in the way of life of Neolithic men and women caused a series of chain changes for their communities, such as a large increase in the population that could be related to the introduction of milk and cereals in the diet by shortening the lactation period. “However, this population growth was accompanied by a high infant mortality rate,” the researchers say.
“In the case of cereals, their consumption implies the intake of a greater amount of carbohydrates and sugars, which causes a considerable increase in dental pathologies,” they explain. On the other hand, coexistence with animals was another source of diseases, since they were a source of infections with fatal consequences on some occasions. “Their knowledge of the effects of certain plants, as well as their own body, was fundamental to their survival,” they conclude.