Chapter 8 (158-174): The Neolithic Revolution: Domestication of Plants and Animals


Until the end of the Paleolithic, humans relied solely on wild foods, hunting and gathering. By the end of the Paleolithic, people began to move towards food production. This is an economic strategy by which people manage or control plants and animals to increase the supply of food. It happens gradually, supplementing wild foods before replacing them. By around 12 kya, these changes became more noticeable as the last glacial period ended, water levels rose, rivers were created, dense forests grew and coastal areas were submerged, reducing landmass. This is the Mesolithic and it’s noted for an increasing variety of microlithic tools, a broad-spectrum diet, new forms of social and cultural organization and a semi-sedentary (settled in) way of life.


This section explores the foundations of modern life, food production, which allows for later innovations such as surplus food production, growing populations, class differences, the growth of religion, cities, writing and complex social organization. These developments are related to food production because it allowed population growth that turned villages into cities that required governance and writing. Thus, the Neolithic is truly when we start to become cultures that we would recognize today.

Why Humans Became Food Producers

Food production didn’t arise because foragers and hunters one day woke up and suddenly understood plant and animal biology. They lived among nature all their lives and had inherited millions of years of knowledge about that world from their ancestors. It also didn’t arise because people thought it would be easier to make a living in this way, as food producers have to work harder to make a living than food foragers. It also didn’t arise because people felt that it was a more secure way to feed themselves. The increasing genetic uniformity among plants and animals made them more susceptible to disease. Unfortunately, we don’t have an adequate answer as to why this shift occurred. It is likely that it occurred for a variety of reasons in the different areas in which production independently arose, and from there, spread through diffusion. It is also likely that the earliest domesticators probably started to experiment and supplement their wild sources of food with more managed ones.

The Neolithic in the Old World

The Neolithic began in Mesopotamia, especially the Fertile Crescent. Here, rye, wheat, barley and other grains were first domesticated, as well as animals such as sheep, goats, cattle and pigs.

The Neolithic in the New World

The Neolithic in the New World begins in Mesoamerica (Central America). Later transitions occurred in North and South America through independent invention and diffusion. The spread of maize is the most important factor that led to sedentism here.


Since the Neolithic, human population has steadily increased. However, we don’t know whether this population growth is a result of food production or whether growing populations exerted selective pressures which induced us to opt for food production. We do know that food production can support larger populations. It allows for a small portion of the population to be engaged in growing food while the rest are able to specialize in other labor areas, such as making clay jars to store food in, building more permanent dwellings for the now sedentary population and even later, governing. Thus, large harvests support larger, socially stratified populations. We also know that food producers have higher birth rates than foragers and that even though they have higher mortality rates, the birth rate increase makes up for higher death rates.


Aside from the cultural impacts mentioned above, food production had profound impacts on human biology.

Thus, we should not look at the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic as progress. That is a very Western idea. Rather, some cultures made this shift for a variety of reasons and in some cases it was beneficial and in others, detrimental. Others did not make this transition; there are still around a quarter of a million foragers in existence.