The Neolithic period as a notion is based on an idea from the 19th century, when John Lubbock split Christian Thomsen's "Stone Age" into the Old Stone Age (Paleolithic) and New Stone Age (Neolithic). In 1865, Lubbock distinguished the Neolithic as when polished or ground stone tools were first used: but since Lubbock's day, the definition of Neolithic is a "package" of characteristics: groundstone tools, rectangular buildings, pottery, people living in settled villages and, most importantly, the production of food by developing a working relationship with animals and plants called domestication.
Why the Neolithic?
In archaeological history, there have been many different theories about how and why agriculture was invented and then adopted by others: the Oasis Theory, the Hilly Flanks, and the Marginal Area or Periphery Theory are only the most well-known.
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In retrospect, it does seem odd that after 2 million years of hunting and gathering, people would suddenly start producing their own food. Some scholars even debate whether farming--a labor-intensive task which requires the active support of a community--was really a positive choice for hunter-gatherers. The remarkable changes that agriculture brought to people are what some scholars call the "Neolithic Revolution".
- Read more about the uneasy transition to farming of the Swifterbant culture
Most archaeologists today have abandoned the idea of one single overarching theory for the invention and cultural adoption of farming, because studies have shown that circumstances and processes varied from place to place. Some groups willingly embraced the stability of animal and plant tending, while others fought to maintain their hunter-gatherer lifestyle for hundreds of years.
So, Where is the Neolithic?
The "Neolithic", if you define it as the independent invention of agriculture, can be identified in several different places. The main hubs of plant and animal domestication are considered to include the Fertile Crescent and the adjacent hilly flanks of the Taurus and Zagros mountains; the Yellow and Yangtze river valleys of northern China; and central America, including parts of northern South America. Plants and animals domesticated in these heartlands were adopted by other peoples in adjacent regions, traded across continents, or brought to those people by migrations.
However, there is increasing evidence that hunter-gatherer horticulture led to independent domestication of plants in other locations, such as Eastern North America.
The Earliest Farmers
The earliest domestications, animal and plant, (that we know of) occurred some 12,000 years ago in southwest Asia and the Near East: the Fertile Crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the lower slopes of the Zagros and Taurus mountains adjacent to the Fertile Crescent.
- Read more about the Earliest Invention of Farming
- Read more about the Pre-Pottery Neolithic
- Plant Histories
- Animal Histories
- Eastern North America
Sources and Further Information
This Guide to the Neolithic is part of About.com's Guide to Human History.
Bogucki P. 2008. EUROPE | Neolithic. In: Pearsall, DM, editor. Encyclopedia of Archaeology. New York: Academic Press. p 1175-1187.
Hayden B. 1990. Nimrods, piscators, pluckers, and planters: The emergence of food production. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 9:31-69.
Lee G-A, Crawford GW, Liu L, and Chen X. 2007. Plants and people from the Early Neolithic to Shang periods in North China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(3):1087-1092.
Pearsall DM. 2008. Plant domestication. In: Pearsall DM, editor. Encyclopedia of Archaeology. London: Elsevier Inc. p 1822-1842.
Richard S. 2008. ASIA, WEST | Archaeology of the Near East: The Levant. In: Pearsall DM, editor. Encyclopedia of Archaeology. New York: Academic Press. p 834-848.Wenming Y. 2004. The Cradle of Eastern Civilization. pp. 49-75 in Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century: New Perspectives on China's Past, Volume 1. Xiaoneng Yang, editor. Yale University Press, New Haven.
Zeder MA. 2008. Domestication and early agriculture in the Mediterranean Basin: Origins, diffusion, and impact. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105(33):11597-11604.
Zeder MA, Emshwiller E, Smith BD, and Bradley DG. 2006. Documenting domestication: the intersection of genetics and archaeology. Trends in Genetics 22(3):139-155.