Invention of farming was first industrial revolution

Taken from the Royal Society of Arts lecture, given by Steven Mithen, the Professor of Archaeology, from Reading University
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The Independent Online

Let's leave our wet and cold English winter and travel to the hot, arid desert of southern Jordan. Abandon London, and take leave of urban society - and indeed of the industrialised world altogether. This evening we must step into the lives of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, those who lived just as the last ice age had come to its close 11,500 years ago.

Let's leave our wet and cold English winter and travel to the hot, arid desert of southern Jordan. Abandon London, and take leave of urban society - and indeed of the industrialised world altogether. This evening we must step into the lives of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, those who lived just as the last ice age had come to its close 11,500 years ago.

These were very special hunter-gatherers, because they were involved in an economic revolution - they helped to invent farming. That invention was the turning point in human history; nothing else gets remotely close in terms of its significance for the nature of human society, economy and culture.

The development of Oldowan stone tools on the African savannahs three million years ago, the painting of Lascaux cave 15,000 years ago, the invention of metallurgy and writing 5,000 years ago, the rise and fall of the ancient world, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the two world wars and the emergence of the internet - all these pale in their significance against the one event that truly did change the world - the invention of farming.

The cause of this change was neither the forces of climate change nor those of global population growth. Both were certainly important, but ultimately farming arose because people - people not that different from you and me - chose to plant seeds in the ground and to nurture the seedlings; they chose to invest in the land and to keep flocks of sheep and goats, instead of hunting wild animals.

In this sense, the invention of farming was no accident of history; it arose from a sequence of deliberate, intentional acts - none of which constituted the start of farming in itself. But none of the players in this economic revolution had the remotest idea of how fundamentally it would change their own lives, and the whole history of the world.

The impact of farming can be very easily appreciated. Our first human ancestors evolved on the African savannahs at least 2.5 million years ago. By 0.5 million years ago, and several human species later, they were living throughout the Old World. By 150,000 years ago our own species. Homo sapiens, had evolved in Africa, and by 30,000 years ago it had spread throughout the Old World, displacing all other species such as the Neanderthals and pushing them into extinction. By 12,000 years ago, modern humans were living in every habitable continent on earth, had weathered the extremes of the last ice age, and were creating some of the greatest works of art known to humankind.

So when did the economic revolution occur? Was it back at 19,000 years ago, with the start of intensive plant gathering? Was it 14,500 years ago, with the first settled communities, when the skills of cultivation began and attitudes towards land and possessions began to change? Each of these steps seems to have been as important as the other; each was a minor revolution in itself, culminating in the first towns and a radical new way of life for Homo sapiens on this planet.

Archaeologists have already gained substantial knowledge about when, why and how it may have occurred, but there is still an immense amount to learn and much work to do. This involves trying to recreate life at a variety of ancient settlements throughout the fertile crescent. Fortunately, this requires us to work in some spectacular and beautiful landscapes.

This 21st-century world is the consequence of those prehistoric hunter-gatherers who chose to cultivate rather than to gather, to herd rather than to hurt. And that is why the origin of farming is a turning point in the history of the world.

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