The Neolithic Revolution

Forgot everything about the Neolithic Revolution from high school history? Of course you did! Let’s review the paleolithic era, the discovery of agriculture, domestication of animals, and the impact of sedentary life on our world today!

(Listen to the full episode here!)

The Paleolithic Era

History that we can really understand starts with an event called the Neolithic Revolution, which is just a fancy term for the discovery of agriculture. Before this occurred, we were living in the Paleolithic Era (Paleo = Old, Lithic = Stone). Essentially, humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in small kinship tribes. If you have a friend who’s on the Paleo diet, then I’m sure you’ve heard them talk about this ad nauseum already. Humans may have eaten healthier but they also died way earlier, so they just didn’t live long enough to develop all the diseases that we have now. So, yeah they ate whole grains but they also died at 28 – you win some you lose some.

And even if they were healthier, it’s impossible to replicate their diet because our world is so different now – for example, back then potatoes were the size of peanuts – which is a strangely adorable image. (Don’t believe me Paleo fans? Read this and this.)

But there were some ways that life was pretty great during this era. For one, we actually had more free time because once you killed a mammoth you’d done your job for the next few weeks. And society in general was way more equal, especially gender roles. Men hunted and women gathered – but both genders were equally involved in the all-important task of feeding everyone.


That all changed around 8000-ish BCE (give or take a few thousand years). All over the globe, humans started to discover that they could domesticate plants and animals. Domesticate means to take something wild and tame it – so farming is just the domestication of plants. Domestication is also why my dog Otto von Glankler doesn’t eat my face off in the middle of the night, for which I am very grateful.

Interestingly, it was most likely women who discovered the domestication of plants since they were typically the gatherers. So they would have been the ones to notice that every time their tribe circled back to a region there was the same plant growing. Or maybe they dropped a few seeds and came back and saw a new plant.

Also, I think we can all agree that women are just better at noticing things – like this morning my husband literally emptied an entire dishwasher worth of dirty dishes. He put plates back that still had jelly on them. I love you, Zach.

But whether it was women or men a lot of humans decided it was a lot easier to settle down and have the food come to you. This was the Neolithic Revolution and it occurred around the globe over a few thousand years.

independent discovery

This is really interesting – if you were looking at a map of the world as the Neolithic Revolution was going on, starting at around 10,000 BCE or so you would just see these dots popping up all over the world. Over a few thousands years, small farming villages show up everywhere – the Americas, Africa, Eurasia. And this is what we call “independent discovery” – what it means is that there was no one person who invented agriculture. Everyone just figured it out at around the same time. It’s stuff like this that gets the “History” Channel really excited about ancient aliens or whatever but the most likely explanation is that the earth was coming out of the last ice age and so a period of warming led to an explosion of new growth.

The way I like to think about the shift that occurred is through the Hunger Games, obviously. Katniss before the Games was paleolithic – her main concern was foraging and hunting for food. Without ever knowing if her family would have a meal the next day, she couldn’t really concern herself with anything else – like how she should have really taken advantage of those romantic afternoons in the forest with Gale. Anyway. But – spoiler alert- after she wins the Games, she now has a steady food source and she settles down into a more established dwelling – the Victor’s Village. Because of that, she is able to specialize her labor and focus her time on… art? Fashion? Something dumb that made no sense for her character. This is what happened to humans as a result of the Neolithic Revolution. Side note: basically all of world history can be understood through the Hunger Games. Don’t believe me? Check out my most recent post and I will thoroughly prove you wrong.

Next, let’s figure out just what it means to be a “civilization”