From Hunter-Gatherers to Civilization: What Was Lost in Transition?

Neolithic Village Implementing Agriculture and Animal Domestication | Courtesy of bbc.com

The Paleolithic Era began nearly two hundred thousand years ago, and lasted for tens of thousands of years. The Neolithic Era followed, and was introduced with the rise of plant and animal domestications between twelve and six thousand years ago. The thought of the human species being around for so long is interesting to think about, especially given the fact that humans originated from ancestors in East Africa that date four to five million years back.1 Our ancestors must have been doing something right, considering the fact that the human species survived for such a long time without the technology, medicine, and overall knowledge that we have today. Once we realize that our ancestors from two hundred thousand years ago were so successful in their pattern of living during the Paleolithic Era, we must ask ourselves what changes occurred during the transitional period between the Paleolithic and Neolithic Eras, and whether or not those changes were good.

Humans living during the Paleolithic Era lived in egalitarian societies, that is, societies in which the inhabitants practiced political, economic, and social equality, where each individual in society held the same social status as all other members of society. This egalitarian society was made possible because of their way of life at the time. People lived in small communities of no more than a hundred, and they relied on hunting and gathering as their means of sustenance. They were necessarily migratory because of the limits of their environment, so there was not a real possibility of staying in one place for an extended period of time. Their migratory existence made the accumulate wealth impossible; in fact, wealth was an inconceivable concept for hunters and gatherers. As a result, everyone in society had the same economic standing; since there were no economic differences among individuals of society, there were no social classes. Nor was there the formation of political classes during this time either. Furthermore, everyone—men and women alike—played relatively equal roles in contributing to the survival and well-being of the community.2 

This way of life and the egalitarian nature of society remained intact for centuries after the beginning of domestications. However, as hunter and gatherer societies transitioned to herding and farming, and hence to a sedentary lifestyle, a shift began that transformed those societies from egalitarian to stratified societies.3  This shift is one of the major distinctions between the Paleolithic and Neolithic Eras; again, this shift is a direct result of plant and animal domestication, or herding of animals and agriculture.

Neolithic Farmers | Courtesy of libcom.org
Neolithic Farmers | Courtesy of libcom.org

Agriculture gave the people of the Neolithic Era reassurance that their food supply would be constant; however, it also caused the rise of new issues that communities in the Paleolithic Era never dealt with. For example, the rise of agriculture prompted humans of the time to live in clustered societies, and therefore fostered the spread of parasites and several infectious diseases.4 Furthermore, since agriculture promoted a sedentary lifestyle, Neolithic societies were enabled to accumulate wealth in the form of surplus food supplies. This accumulation of wealth allowed for the social structure of the Neolithic Era to quickly become vastly different from that of the Paleolithic Era due to a focus on the “interests, behavior, and social role(s) of individuals versus a collective group of individuals.”5

Essentially, in the transition between the Paleolithic and Neolithic Eras, human society suffered a loss of social and economic equality and a general respect for all people, and replaced it with a system that required the separation of people based on superficial characteristics such as wealth, power, and gender. The interesting thing about the new class and gender distinctions that accompanied the beginning of the Neolithic Era is that for hundreds upon thousands of years, the human species had managed to exist without the use of class separations. Instead, it was the common practice of communities during the Paleolithic Era that there was no need to cause separation between persons because everyone made an equal contribution to the development and management of their small communities. Ironically, during the Neolithic Era, the rise of agriculture allowed the development of class divisions, as well as the establishment of governments that ruled harshly over society’s non-elites.6

These changes in social structure that arose during the Neolithic Era as a result of agriculture still persist in our societies today; there are still deep and widespread class divisions; there is still gender inequality, and there is still a sense of excessive elite control over the working class.7 Overall, social changes that occurred during the transition between the Paleolithic and Neolithic Eras exhibited a loss in important practices that we have only recently attempted to restore.

 

  1.  Jerry H. Bentley, Herbert F. Ziegler, and Heather E. Streets-Salter, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History From the Beginning to 1500, Fourth, vol. 1 (McGraw-Hill Education, 2016), 6-7.
  2. Bentley, Ziegler, and Streets-Salter, Traditions & Encounters, 6-7.
  3. Bentley, Ziegler, and Streets-Salter, Traditions & Encounters, 7-8.
  4. Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Discover Magazine, May 1987, 65.
  5.  Ian Kuijt, Life in Neolithic Farming Communities: Social Organization, Identity, and Differentiation (New York: Springer Science & Business Media, 2002), 315-316.
  6. Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”, 65.
  7. Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.”, 65-66.

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This Post Has 56 Comments

  1. The transition of the Paleolithic Era to the Neolithic Era was a movement of new ideas of developing a sustainable life in a group. The Paleolithic Era was a traditional way of humans believing that they must stay together and that everyone will be treated equally; no one has more or less. However, humans in the Neolithic Era moved to a different perspective that there would be social norms and that there would be classes as well. The agricultural and trade movement was a new trend of how humans in a group can survive. This article just gave me a better understanding of how humans started to change in a Neolithic Era once they discovered new ways of living, such as domesticating animals and farming.

  2. Reading this article provided me with a deeper insight into the historical transitions between the Paleolithic and Neolithic era, a topic I am currently studying in a class. To know that at one point in time, man and woman were seen as equals due to the fact that they both provided equal work to sustain their lives, its truly fascinating. If only that ideal was more common in today’s society seeing how there is such a division between the two genders, specifically in the workforce. The second aspect of the article that I found interesting is how during the Neolithic era, the accumulation of bringing in more food which in turn created a greater food surplus, began the trend we see today: the more you bring in or accumulate, the more power you will be granted. This idea was started so long ago and I was not aware of that; a great read and well-written article.

  3. Alexander Manibusan

    Did agriculture really lead us to such a stratified society? Yes, I understand that as time progressed, humans began establishing harsh rules on non-elites, men ruled over women, and thus inequality was expressed in every possible way. This makes it seem that civilization is not worth it. However, weren’t there some cons to living in a hunting-gathering society? I’d assume moving a lot would be a negative aspect to living before agriculture.

  4. It was certainly interesting to understand our tracing as human beings. Most of the time, we criticize how inequality and social divisions destroy our social balance, but we rarely take time to understand where do all of these problems actually come from, and how did they originate. As most problems, I believe that the divisional problems we have can be solved if they are better understood by everyone. For instance, it was very amusing to see, and even har to believe, that at some point in time, there was a society made of people who lived with not divisions! This seems almost idealistic and unreal nowadays, but being able to read about how such a utopic society actually worker, is inspiring for all. Ironically, I think we should somehow try to go back to those time: the times where everyone was viewed as equal for their egalitarian contributions to the community, as it was done before. I also think it is amazing to think back at how our industry and business began; I never would have thought that agriculture would be such an important factor in the development of our society, but after reading this article I have learned to admire, and to no longer underestimate the importance of agriculture in our world.

  5. This article really emphasizes the dangers that early humans faced during the Neolithic era. It makes present individuals think about how grateful you must be to live in a generation were humans dominate and thrive rather than survive. The nomadic aspect of moving with the given food source, shows how dependable these societies were to migratory food species. In all, great article!!

  6. Pamela Callahan

    I found this article to be really interesting and informative. It’s hard to believe that humans were able to exist for so long without the resources we sometimes seem to take for granted today. I think that if people in today’s society were forced to live like those before us we would probably not be able to survive for very long and would eventually go extinct because we have come to rely so heavily on the advancements of our society. I also never realized that there were no social classes in the past and I think that is probably one of the reasons that humans were able to survive for so long because they were not constantly battling each other for control or enduring the constant power struggle that is all too common.

  7. Christopher Hohman

    Nice article. Just started covering this in class. I think it is interesting that people who lived so many years ago, in some ways, had it better than us. A society that was egalitarian seems so unacheievable, especially with the way society is in America today. It is terribly ironic that these people who lived simpler than us are in some ways more advanced than we are thousands of years in the future. typically one likes to think that society gets better as time goes on

  8. Steven Hale

    I have never thought about the dangers of living in an established community. Prior to reading this article I just assumed that the elements would make the nomadic Paleolithic life more difficult than settling one area as humans did during the Neolithic Era. Of course, living in an agricultural community would be more comfortable than constantly roving, but as you point out the risks of disease were much more common once humans began living in such close conditions.

  9. Having the comparison of the human species during the Neolithic and Paleolithic was quite intriguing because it was a critical period of time in human history. It is astonishing to read about the human species during the Paleolithic Era and how they lived in egalitarian societies. But what stood out to me was the fact that human species was able to survive about two hundred thousand years with things like medicine or technology. This article seems to be well put together and was able to capture a brief period of time in human existence.

  10. Joshua Breard

    This article was very interesting s it provided us a lot about our human history. Today things like food and water are easy for us to access but to those who were hunter-gatherers, it was not so easy. Reading articles like this make me feel very blessed and grateful for what I have today. After reading this article, I feel more appreciative of what I had. I thought that this gave a great story about what life was like for those hunter-gatherers. Great job!

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