Thursday, January 13, 2011

World History (3): Two Revolutions -- Agricultural and Civilizational

The following "conversation starters" were developed for my world history students at Aquinas College and Grand Valley State University, beginning in 2008.

Agricultural Revolutionaries -- Nameless Innovators of a Radically New Way of Life

For more than 100,000 years, human beings lived as gatherers of wild plants, fish, and game. Then suddenly....

Suddenly about 10,000 years ago, after the glaciers receded, some of our ancestors radically changed their behavior in the earth's warming environments. "For the first time, human intelligence refashioned nature to meet human needs" [Tignor, 24]. Cultivating plants, domesticating animals, and making airtight pottery for storing food, these innovators undertook a revolution that fundamentally changed the way people lived. In scarcely one tick of the cosmic clock, revolutionaries began the transformation of Homo sapiens sapiens -- very wise people -- from gatherers to producers. It was an intended change.

Do you realize how radical these nameless innovators were? Or how utterly dependent we are on those who made this Agricultural Revolution? The next time you sit down and have a bowl of cereal, or enjoy a serving of rice pilaf with your meal, remember that these simple pleasures were made possible by nameless revolutionaries some 10,000 years ago.

Here is the remarkable thing. Revolutionaries brought about this change of behavior independently, in separate regions of the world. Scholars have confirmed independent revolutions in five of these regions -- Southwest Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Mesoamerica, and northeastern America.

Following is the chronological development of the Agricultural Revolution:

  1. Starting in the Fertile Crescent 10,000 years ago, revolutionaries began producing crops of barley and wheat, as well as domesticating sheep, cattle, goats, and pigs.
  2. In various regions of Central and South America, about 10,000 years ago, revolutionaries began producing crops of maize, squash, yams, manioc, potatoes, and palms, and they domesticated llamas and guinea pigs.
  3. About 9,000 years ago in southeastern Europe, revolutionaries produced the same foods that had been developed in the Fertile Crescent.
  4. Around 8,000 years ago in China -- on the Yellow and Yangzi rivers -- revolutionaries produced millet and rice.
  5. About 5,000 years ago in North America -- in the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri river valleys -- revolutionaries started producing squash, then maize.
  6. In the Suhel region of Africa around 4,000 years ago, revolutionaries began cultivating millet and sorghum.

Civilizational Revolutionaries

Something to think about: Material civilization ceases to advance when people become content with the answers they've inherited, and quit asking questions.

In science, answers belong to the past, questions to the future.


Robert Tignor, Jeremy Adelman, Peter Brown, et al., Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, 3rd ed. (New York: Norton, 2011.)

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