Try this. Ask people to name three revolutions. Depending on their background, they might cite the American and French Revolutions of the nineteenth century. Others will mention the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the Industrial Revolution. How many cited the Agricultural Revolution? Likely not many. Ironic, since the agricultural revolution stands as one of the more fundamental and far-reaching developments in human history. Peter Stearns calls it a “great watershed in human history.” (Stearns 16) Ronald Wright argues that “In the magnitude of its consequences, no other invention rivals farming…” (Wright, 45)
So, what is the agricultural revolution? When did it happen? How did it change how humans lived? It is a far-reaching and complex topic but let’s try to cover the essentials. “Essentially,” the agricultural revolution transitioned nomadic hunting-gathering societies to human societies that grew their food and for some domesticated animals. This development is revolutionary because it fundamentally changed how people lived. Hunting and gathering societies depended on edible wild plants and animals, whereas agricultural communities controlled and shaped their environment (to some extent) to grow crops and domesticate animals. Besides planting crops, agricultural societies changed their landscapes through irrigation and canal construction.
When Did it Happen? Where did it happen first? The above chronology offers a general timeline. Essentially we are looking at 9000 BCE to 3500 BCE. Agriculture on a large scale first happened in various river valleys (e.g. Nile River, Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica) that offered reliable water sources and fertile soil. Different crops grew throughout the world. Egypt produced wheat and barley. People living on what became the Greek peninsula grew grapes and olives. China cultivated rice
There are two points to remember. One is that this revolution happened over a very long time – 1000s of years. Secondly, agriculture occurred independently in various parts of the world and at different times. Mesoamerica, for instance, had no contact with Eurasia and alone learned to cultivate crops like maize and squash. Later, as populations grew and interacted more through trade, agricultural practices and technologies would be shared and accelerate agricultural production over larger areas.
Nomadic to Sedentary and Permanent Dwellings. Tending to crops requires people to stay in one area. Hence the term “sedentary agriculture.” Nomadic people might remain in one place for some time, but as soon as the supply of wild plants and or game ran low or migrated, they were on the move. Permanent dwellings offered space to store food and house families.
Growing Populations, Social and Political Specialization By increasing food production, the agricultural revolution also facilitated drastic population growth. Agriculture could sustain more people in a smaller area. As Greg Woolf writes, “5 square miles cold support a farming village of 150 people. (Woolf 58). A more reliable food source also contributed to higher life expectancy. These growing population centers became the first steps toward cities, city-states and even empires. A food surplus allowed people to adopt more specialized roles in families, politics and religious life.
What motivated hunters and gatherers to adopt agriculture?Great question. After all, farming required more effort than hunting and gathering. Accordingly, people likely adopted agriculture very gradually. Probably, circumstances pushed them in this direction. Climate change, for example, might have encouraged big game to migrate north of the Middle East and other river valley areas. Overhunting also might have significantly diminished the wild animal population. Another factor might be growing populations that required alternative food supply offered by hunting and gathering.
Historians, of course, differ on how the Agricultural Revolution came about, how it evolved and its impact. Concerning the latter, some historians have lauded it as one of the seminal movements of human progress. Others see it as the catalyst for current problems such as overpopulation, consumerism, rapid species extinction and climate change. Whatever their position, they agree that the Agricultural Revolution is one of the most fundamental developments in human history.
Havari, Yural Noah. Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind. Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 2014.
McClellan III, James E. and Harold Dorn. Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2015
Roberts, J.M. The Penguin History of the World. New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 1987.
Stearns, Peter et al. World Civilizations: The Global Experience. Third Edition. New York: Longman, 2001.
Woolf, Greg, ed. Ancient Civilizations. London: Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd., 2005.
Wright, Ronald. A Short History of Progress. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2004.