Photograph by Volkmar K. Wentzel, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Women harvest wheat with sickles in Tras os Monte, Portugal.

Photograph by Volkmar K. Wentzel, Nat Geo Image Collection

What was the Neolithic Revolution?

Also called the Agricultural Revolution, the shift to agriculture from hunting and gathering changed humanity forever.

The Neolithic Revolution—also referred to as the Agricultural Revolution—is thought to have begun about 12,000 years ago. It coincided with the end of the last ice age and the beginning of the current geological epoch, the Holocene. And it forever changed how humans live, eat, and interact, paving the way for modern civilization.

During the Neolithic period, hunter-gatherers roamed the natural world, foraging for their food. But then a dramatic shift occurred. The foragers became farmers, transitioning from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more settled one.

Why settle down?

Though the exact dates and reasons for the transition are debated, evidence of a move away from hunting and gathering and toward agriculture has been documented worldwide. Farming is thought to have happened first in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, where multiple groups of people developed the practice independently. Thus, the “agricultural revolution” was likely a series of revolutions that occurred at different times in different places.

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A farmer winnows grain in a field near the Pyramid of Meidum, in Egypt.

There are a variety of hypotheses as to why humans stopped foraging and started farming. Population pressure may have caused increased competition for food and the need to cultivate new foods; people may have shifted to farming in order to involve elders and children in food production; humans may have learned to depend on plants they modified in early domestication attempts and in turn, those plants may have become dependent on humans. With new technology come new and ever-evolving theories about how and why the agricultural revolution began.

Regardless of how and why humans began to move away from hunting and foraging, they continued to become more settled. This was in part due to their increasing domestication of plants. Humans are thought to have gathered plants and their seeds as early as 23,000 years ago, and to have started farming cereal grains like barley as early as 11,000 years ago. Afterward, they moved on to protein-rich foods like peas and lentils. As these early farmers became better at cultivating food, they may have produced surplus seeds and crops that required storage. This would have both spurred population growth because of more consistent food availability and required a more settled way of life with the need to store seeds and tend crops.

Animal domestication

As humans began to experiment with farming, they also started domesticating animals. Evidence of sheep and goat herding has been found in Iraq and Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) as far back as about 12,000 years ago. Domesticated animals, when used as labor, helped make more intensive farming possible and also provided additional nutrition via milk and meat for increasingly stable populations.

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A man on a donkey leads sheep down a path in Syria.

The agricultural revolution had a variety of consequences for humans. It has been linked to everything from societal inequality—a result of humans’ increased dependence on the land and fears of scarcity—to a decline in nutrition and a rise in infectious diseases contracted from domesticated animals. But the new period also ushered in the potential for modern societies—civilizations characterized by large population centers, improved technology and advancements in knowledge, arts, and trade.