Chris Harman

A people’s history of the world

Part one: The rise of class societies

Chapter 1
The neolithic ‘revolution’

The first big changes in people’s lives and ideas began to occur only about 10,000 years ago. People took up a new way of making a livelihood in certain parts of the world, notably the ‘Fertile Crescent’ region of the Middle East. [25] They learned to cultivate crops instead of relying upon nature to provide them with vegetable foodstuffs, and to domesticate animals instead of simply hunting them. It was an innovation which was to transform their whole way of living.

The transformation did not necessarily lead these people to have an easier life than their forebears. But climatic changes gave some of them a very limited choice. [26] They had grown accustomed, over two or three millennia, to life in areas where conditions had been such as to provide bountiful supplies of wild plant food and animals to hunt – in one area in south east Turkey, for instance, a ‘family group’ could, ‘without working very hard’, gather enough grain from wild cereals in three weeks to keep them alive for a year. They did not need to be continually on the move like other peoples. [27] They had been able to live in the same places year after year, transforming their former rough camps into permanent village settlements numbering hundreds rather than dozens of people, storing foodstuffs in stone or baked clay pots, and accumulating a range of sophisticated stone tools. For a period of time greater than from the foundation of ancient Rome to the present day, they had been able to combine the low workloads typical of foraging societies with the advantages of fixed village life.

But then changes in the global climate prevented people obtaining an adequate livelihood in this way. As conditions in the Fertile Crescent region became drier and cooler, there was a decline in the availability of naturally occurring wild grains and a fall in the size of the antelope and deer herds. The hunter-gatherer villages faced a crisis. They could no longer live as they had been living. If they were not to starve they either had to break up into small groups and return to a long-forgotten nomadic way of life, or find some way to make up for the deficiencies of nature by their own labour.

This path led to agriculture. People had accumulated immense amounts of knowledge about plant life over hundreds of generations of living off wild vegetation. Now some groups began to use this knowledge to guarantee food supplies by planting the seeds of wild plants. Observation taught them that the seeds of certain plants were much more fruitful than others and, by selecting such seeds, they began to breed new, domesticated varieties which were much more useful to them than wild plants could ever be. The regular harvests they obtained enabled them to tether and feed the more tame varieties of wild sheep, goats, cattle and donkeys, and to breed animals that were tamer still.

The first form of agriculture (often called ‘horticulture’) involved clearing the land by cutting away at woodland and brush with axes and burning off the rest, then planting and harvesting seeds using a hoe or a digging stick. After a couple of years the land would usually be exhausted. So it would be allowed to return to the wild and a new area would be cleared for cultivation.

Obtaining a livelihood in this way involved radical changes in patterns of working and living together. People became more firmly rooted to their village settlements than ever before. They had to tend the crops between planting and harvesting and so could not wander off for months at a time. They also had to work out ways of cooperating with each other to clear the land, to ensure the regular tending of crops (weeding, watering and so on), the storing of harvests, the sharing of stocks, and the rearing of children. Whole new patterns of social life developed and, with them, new ways of viewing the world, expressed in various myths, ceremonies and rituals.

The transformation is usually referred to as the ‘neolithic revolution’ [28], after the increasingly sophisticated ‘neolithic’ (meaning ‘New Stone Age’) tools associated with it. This involved a complete reorganisation of the way people worked and lived, even if the process took place over a prolonged period of time.

The archaeological evidence from the Fertile Crescent shows people living in small villages as separate households, although it does not tell us what the basis of these households was (whether, for instance, they were made up of separate couples and their children; of a mother, her daughter and their spouses; or of a father, his sons and their wives). [29]

There was still nothing resembling class and state authority until many thousands of years after the first turn to agriculture. In the ‘late Urbaid period’ (4000 BC), ‘significant differentiation’ in ‘wealth was almost entirely absent’, and even in the ‘proto-literate period’ (toward 3000 BC), there was no indication that ‘the processes of social stratification had as yet proceeded very far’. [30] There was no evidence of male supremacy, either. Some archaeologists have seen the existence of clay or stone statuettes of fecund female figures as suggesting a high status for women, so that men found it ‘natural’ to pray to women. [31] However, one significant development was that weapons for warfare as well as for hunting became more prevalent.

The pattern seems to have been very similar to that in horticulture-based societies which survived into more recent times – in a few cases right through to the 20th century – in various parts of the world These societies varied considerably, but did share certain general features. [32]

Households tended to be associated with cultivating particular bits of land. But private property in land as we know it did not exist, and nor did the drive of individuals or households to pile up stocks of personal possessions at the expense of others. Instead, individual households were integrated into wider social groupings, ‘lineages’ of people, who shared (or at least purported to share) the same ancestry. These provided individuals and households with clearly defined rights and obligations towards others to whom they were related directly, or linked to through marriage or through ‘age group’ associations Each was expected to share food with the others, so that no household would suffer because of the failure of a crop or because it had more young children to bring up than others. Prestige came not from individual consumption, but from the ability to help make up for the deficiencies of others.

Many core values remained much closer to those of hunter-gatherer societies than to those we take for granted in class societies. Thus, an early 18th century observer of the Iroquois horticulturists noted, ‘If a cabin of hungry Iroquois meets another whose provisions are not entirely exhausted, the latter share with the newcomers the little which remains to them without waiting to be asked, although they expose themselves thereby to the same dangers of perishing as those whom they help’. [33] A classic study of the Nuer noted, ‘In general it can be said that no one in a Nuer village starves unless all are starving’. [34]

Once again, the explanation for such ‘altruism’ lay in the requirements of obtaining a livelihood. It made sure, for example, that households with lots of labour but few mouths to feed provided assistance to those which had lots of mouths but little labour – especially those with many young children. [35] Children represented the future labour supply of the village as a whole. Such ‘redistributional’ mechanisms towards the biggest families were necessary if the group was to be protected from dying out.

Under hunting and gathering, the need to carry children on the daily round of gathering and on the periodic moves of the whole camp had led to very low birth rates. Women could not afford to have more than one child who required carrying at a time, so births were spaced every three or four years (if necessary through sexual abstention, abortion or infanticide). With a fixed village life based on agriculture, the child did not have to be carried once it was a few months old, and the greater the number of children, the greater the area of land that could be cleared and cultivated in future. The premium was on larger families. The change in the method of production also had a profound impact on reproduction. Populations began to expand. Although the rate of growth was small by present standards (0.1 percent a year) [36], it quadrupled over two millennia, beginning the climb which took it from perhaps ten million at the time of the neolithic revolution to 200 million at the beginning of capitalism.

There were other big changes in horticulture-based societies compared with those of hunter-gatherers. A big dispute in a band of hunter-gatherers could be solved simply by the band splitting or by individuals leaving This option was hardly open to a group of agriculturists once they had cleared and planted their land. The village was larger and depended on a more complex, organised interaction between people than did the hunter-gatherer band. At the same time it faced a problem which hunter-gatherers did not – it had stocks of stored food and artefacts which provided a motive for attacks by armed raiders from outside. War, virtually unknown among hunter-gatherers, was endemic among many horticultural peoples. This gave a further impetus to formal decision-making mechanisms designed to exercise social control – to councils made up of senior figures in each lineage, for example.

People have made the move from hunting and gathering to farming in several parts of the world independently of each other, in the ten millennia since – in Meso-America (present day Mexico and Guatemala), in the Andean region of South America, in at least three distinct parts

of Africa, in Indochina, in the Highland valleys of central Papua New Guinea, and in China. [37] In each case, changes occurred similar to those in Mesopotamia, although the different plants and animals available for domestication had an important impact on exactly how and to what degree. The evidence refutes any claim that some ‘race’ or ‘culture’ had a special ‘genius’ which led the rest of humanity forward. Rather, faced with changes in climate and ecology, different human groups in different parts of the world found they had to turn to new techniques to sustain anything like their old way of life – and found their ways of life began to change anyway in a manner they could hardly have expected. In each case, the loose band gave way to life in villages, organised through strongly structured kin groups, rigid norms of social behaviour and elaborate religious rituals and myths. [38]

A typical example of the independent development of agriculture was in Highland Papua New Guinea. Here people began domesticating and cultivating a variety of crops in about 7000 BC – sugar cane, certain varieties of bananas, a nut tree, the giant swamp taro, edible grass stems, roots and green vegetables. With cultivation they turned, as elsewhere, from nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gathering to village life. Their social organisation was centred on egalitarian kinship groups, and there was no private ownership of land. People continued to live like this, in valleys remote and virtually impenetrable from the coast, undisturbed by outside intrusion until they were ‘discovered’ by Westerners in the early 1930s.

Many early societies did not turn to agriculture. Some put up resistance to what they saw as needless drudgery when they could make a comfortable living through hunting and gathering. Others lived in environments – such as California, Australia and southern Africa – which provided neither plants nor animals that were easy to domesticate. [39] The groups which inhabited these regions for millennia had little choice but to subsist by hunting and gathering until contact with outsiders provided domesticated species from elsewhere. [40]

Once agriculture was established in any part of the world, however, it proceeded to spread. Sometimes the success of a people in adopting agriculture encouraged others to imitate them. So the arrival of crop species from the Fertile Crescent seems to have played a role in the rise of agriculture in the Nile Valley, the Indus Valley and western Europe. Sometimes the spread of agriculture was the inevitable result of the spread of peoples who already practised it as their populations grew and some split off to build new villages on previously uncultivated lands. It was in this way that Bantu speakers from west Africa spread into the centre and eventually the south of the continent, and Polynesians from south east Asia spread across the oceans to Madagascar off the African coast, to Easter Island (only 1,500 miles from the South American coast) and to New Zealand.

The existence of an agriculturist society often changed the lives of the hunter-gatherer peoples who came into contact with it. They found they could radically improve their livelihoods by exchanging products with nearby agriculturists – fish, game or animal skins for grain, woven clothing or fermented drinks. This encouraged some to turn to one aspect of agriculture, the breeding and herding of animals, without also cultivating crops. Such ‘pastoralist peoples’ were soon to be found in Eurasia, Africa and the southern Andes of South America, wandering the land between agricultural settlements – sometimes raiding them, sometimes trading with them – and developing characteristic patterns of social life of their own.

On occasions the spread of crop raising and herding led to one final important change in social life – the first differentiation into social ranks. What anthropologists call ‘chieftainships’ or ‘big men’ arose, with some individuals or lineages enjoying much greater prestige than others, and this could culminate in the establishment of hereditary chiefs and chiefly lineages. But even these were not anything like the class distinctions we take for granted, with one section of society consuming the surplus which others toil to produce.

Egalitarianism and sharing remained all-pervasive. Those people with high status had to serve the rest of the community, not live off it. As Richard Lee notes, there were the same ‘communal property concepts’ as in hunter-gatherer societies: ‘Much of what tribute the chiefs receive is redistributed to subjects, and the chiefs’ powers are subject to checks and balances by the forces of popular opinion and institutions’. [41] So among the Nambikwara of South America, ‘Generosity is ... an essential attribute of power’, and ‘the chief’ must be prepared to use the ‘surplus quantities of food, tools, weapons and ornaments’ under his control to respond ‘to the appeals of an individual, a family or the band as a whole’ for anything they need. [42] This could even result in the leader having a harder time materially than those under him. Thus, among the New Guinea Busama, the clubhouse leader has to work harder than anyone else to keep up his stocks of food ... It is acknowledged he must toil early and late – “his hands are never free from earth, and his forehead continually drips with sweat”.’ [43]

The ‘New Stone Age’ turn to agriculture transformed people’s lives, spreading village living and warfare. To this extent it was indeed a certain sort of ‘revolution’. But society still lacked most of the elements we take for granted today class division, the establishment of permanent state apparatuses based on full time bureaucrats and bodies of armed men, the subordination of women – none of these things had arisen. They would not do so until there was a second series of changes in the ways people gained a livelihood – until what Gordon Childe called the ‘urban revolution’ was superimposed on the ‘neolithic revolution’.


25. Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, southern Turkey and Iraq.

26. For full accounts of what happened along the lines presented here, see D.O. Henry, From Foraging to Agriculture (Philadelphia 1989); J.V.S. Megaw (ed.), Hunters, Gatherers and the First Farmers Beyond Europe (Leicester 1977); the essays by P.M. Dolukhanov and G.W.W. Barker in C. Renfrew (ed.), Explaining Cultural Change (London 1973); C.K. Maisels, The Emergence of Civilisation (London 1993), chs.3 and 4.

27. J. Harlan, A Wild Wheat Harvest in Turkey, Archaeology 20 (1967), pp.197-201, quoted in C.K. Maisels, The Emergence of Civilisation, pp.68-69.

28. Gordon Childe’s term.

29. Various estimates and calculations in C.K. Maisels, The Emergence of Civilisation, p.125.

30. R.M. Adams, The Evolution of Urban Society (London 1966), p.96.

31. Although others have argued that the statuettes are connected to fertility rites, and no more imply a high status for women than does the Catholic cult of the Virgin Mary.

32. A point strongly stressed by the Western anthropologists who carried out pioneering studies of them in the 1920s and 1930s See, for instance, R. Benedicts, Patterns of Culture (London 1935).

33. J.-F. Lafitan, quoted in R. Lee, Reflections on Primitive Communism, p.252.

34. E. Evans-Pritchard, quoted in R. Lee, Reflections on Primitive Communism, p.252.

35. This is one of the key arguments in M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics.

36. R.M. Adams, The Evolution of Urban Society, p.96.

37. See J.V.S. Megaw (ed.), Hunters, Gatherers and the First Farmers Beyond Europe, and the essays by P.M. Dolukhanov, G.W.W. Barker, C.M. Nelson, D.R. Harris and M. Tosi in C. Renfrew (ed.), Explaining Cultural Change.

38. F. Katz; Ancient American Civilisations (London 1989); W.M. Bray, F.H. Swanson and I.S. Farrington, The Ancient Americas (Oxford 1989), p.14.

39. As the biologist Jared Diamond has pointed out, no one has yet succeeded in domesticating animals or plants in these regions properly. See J. Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel (London 1997), pp.163-175.

40. This point is made very well in J. Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, p.139.

41. R. Lee, Reflections on Primitive Communism, p.262.

42. C. Levi-Strauss, quoted in M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, p.132.

43. H.I. Hogbin, quotedin M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, p.135.

Last updated on 27 January 2010