Chapter Summary and Key Concepts

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students should be able to:

  • understand how environmental change after 11,500 years ago led to new human responses and opportunities
  • explain how changes in human population size and the availability of certain plant and animal species are related to the development and spread of cultivation, domestication, and agriculture
  • trace the relationship between larger communities and social complexity
  • understand the reasons why some people continued to hunt and gather while others established cities and states
  • describe the differences and similarities in the conditions leading to the emergence of states in different parts of the world: Mesopotamia, Africa, South and East Asia, and Central and South America
  • explain and critically evaluate the many theories postulated for the origins of sedentism, agriculture, social complexity and state formation
  • describe how writing originated and was used in different states
  • appreciate why archaeologists focus equally on the spectacular achievements of states and the activities of ordinary people, including those who continued to live as simple farmers or hunter-gatherers.

Chapter Summary


Between 18,000 BC and 9600 bc, the world slowly warmed. During the Holocene, temperatures became similar to today, and “megafauna” characterizing the Pleistocene died out, possibly resulting from human predation and dramatic climate change. 


During the early Holocene, rises in sea level would have been perceptible, while in the north isostatic uplift (as the land rose when the glaciers melted) changed shorelines dramatically. Islands were created worldwide, and continents became divided. Dry land was drowned, as shown by artifacts dredged from underwater regions. Humans remained connected by developing navigational skills and they exploited new conditions through increasing use of marine resources. By around 5000 bc, landmasses were similar to today.

In Europe and North America, boreal, then deciduous forests spread north as tundra shrank, perhaps playing a part in megafauna extinctions. Woodland species appeared, offering new prey for hunters. The Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone moved over the Sahara, creating lakes and grasslands, rather than today’s desert, and by the 9th millennium bc, pottery-using fishers and hunters had settled there. 

Hunter-gatherer Adaptations to the Holocene

Human communities benefited from a warmer, moister climate and the changes it engendered, spreading from tropical and sub-tropical zones, where they had been most numerous, to temperate zones: North America, Europe, and Asia. The technology and material culture of early postglacial groups was developed directly developed from late Paleolithic traditions. Flint microliths were inserted into wooden or bone hafts to make composite tools. In Europe, microliths distinguish the Mesolithic; they were used much earlier in Africa.

People harvested plants with stone knives and digging sticks, and hunted animals with spears and bows, moving around the landscape in small groups, following seasonal resources, occasionally attending larger gatherings at places with abundant resources. Despite their small scale and mobility, ethnographic parallels suggest a complex culture and network of kinship. Certain groups of foragers had begun to procure food in new ways, through intentional propagation of selected plants, beginning the process of domestication and cultivation.


Agriculture is an artificial ecosystem in which selected species of plants and animals are cultivated and reared. Its two basic premises are the intentional propagation of food and the isolation of the domesticated species from their wild relatives, leading to changes (intentional and unintentional) in their morphology.

Domestication, cultivation, and storage are usually associated with sedentism, and sedentism with agriculture. However, communities in resource-rich areas already had relatively permanent settlements while still hunting and gathering, unlike today’s remaining foragers. Paleolithic hunter-gatherers also intentionally and unintentionally manipulated plant species on which they relied in substantial ways, verging on domestication.

The success of farming led to its expansion and species were carried beyond the geographical range of their wild ancestors: cereals domesticated in Southwest Asia are found in northern Europe. Agriculture leaves archaeological traces such as grindstones, sickles, storage facilities, plows, field systems, forest clearances, terracing, and irrigation.

The Geography of Domestication

Only 14 of 148 available large terrestrial herbivorous mammals have been successfully domesticated, among them sheep, goat, cattle, pig, horse, camel, water buffalo, and llama. Smaller species, including chicken, turkey, rabbit, and guinea pig have also been domesticated. Others do not breed readily in captivity or are difficult to herd and manage.

Domesticated plants are more numerous, and include grasses, tubers, and pulses. Wheat and barley were the first staples in Southwest Asia, millet, rice and yams in East Asia, maize in Mesoamerica, and pearl millet in Africa. These carbohydrates are combined with animal or legume proteins, depending on available species: both plants and animals in the Old World, but in Central and North America where no suitable animals were found it was the “Three Sisters” – maize, beans, and squash.

Agriculture arose independently in at least seven different regions of the world – Southwest Asia, East Asia, the New Guinea highlands, sub-Saharan Africa, Andean South America, central Mexico, and the eastern United States, at different times, with different species.

Why Agriculture?

Early theorists assumed that agriculture brought such advantages that only ignorance prevented its earlier adoption. They also assumed that hunter-gatherers were constantly threatened by starvation, that farming was easier and more secure, and that once “invented” farming would have spread rapidly. In the 1960s, ethnographic studies showed that foragers had abundant food and more leisure time than peasant agriculturalists or working adults in western societies.

Researchers then examined factors that might have forced postglacial communities to adopt farming, focusing on demographic increase and environmental change. The global pattern and chronology suggest that agriculture may have been adopted for different reasons in different places under certain conducive conditions that occurred at different times around the globe.

Recently, the concept that people were forced by external forces (environmental change or population growth) to invent or adopt agriculture has been challenged, as it de-emphasizes social factors and does not match ethnographic observations. Thus, agriculture may have been adopted for diverse reasons, including social competition as well as demographic growth and instability of food resources.


Once established, farming expanded rapidly east–west across Eurasia, where geography and similar conditions enabled an easy transfer; it spread more slowly to the north and south. The two mechanisms of spread were the adoption of farming by hunter-gatherers from their neighbors, and the displacement of hunter-gatherers by expanding farmers.

Studies of linguistics and human genetics have been used to try to identify migrations associated with farming. Geographical patterning of languages might also reflect the expansion. DNA evidence has recently been used to shed new light on the spread of agriculture. They confirm the rapid expansion of the human population in the centuries following the introduction of agriculture.


The consequences of agriculture were more than demographic. Farming leads to different forms of settlement, social complexity, material culture, increased warfare, and eventually to agricultural intensification.


Agriculture created larger and denser populations that sometimes coalesced into states, with their populations concentrated in cities. Cities and states did not always rise for similar reasons, nor are they all of the same type. When early states emerged, most people worldwide still lived in non-state farming societies, and many continued to hunt and gather. Archaeologists reject the progressivist view, which considers state societies as somehow “better” than farming or hunter-gatherer societies.

Many early states invented writing technology independently. Writing was invented and used for differing reasons. Short Chinese inscriptions on “oracle bones” recorded divinations. Egyptian and Maya texts record religious and royal activities. Mesopotamian clay tablets record administrative and economic transactions.

After early states were established, they developed subsequently elsewhere, and warfare resulted in larger and larger political entities. Causal factors may include conquering enemies to increase security, economic gain, or the personal ambition of rulers. In a recurrent worldwide cycle, individual states became powerful and achieved regional dominance, only to collapse and fragment.

Box Features

Key Controversy: Explaining Agriculture

Key Controversy: Cities, States, and Civilizations Defined and Explained

Keywords and terms

Environmental change

  • last glacial maximum
  • Bølling/Allerød interstadial
  • Younger Dryas
  • Holocene
  • interglacial
  • rise in sea level
  • extinction
  • megafauna
  • Wrangel Island
  • eustatic sea level rise
  • isostatic uplift
  • creation of islands, continents
  • Sundaland
  • Doggerland
  • Dogger Bank
  • refugia 
  • expansion of plant and animal species
  • pollen zones
  • Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone

Human responses

  • sedentism
  • development of agriculture
  • natural selection, human selection
  • unintentional selection
  • spread of agriculture
  • cultivation
  • herding
  • domestication of plants and animals
  • reduction in animal body size
  • increase in seed, tuber size
  • new farming economies
  • larger communities
  • more substantial architecture
  • household individualization, hidden activities
  • wealth accumulation
  • social differentiation
  • kinship, non-kin authority
  • demographic increase
  • social complexity
  • achieved vs. inherited status
  • trade
  • status objects
  • personal ornaments
  • organized violence
  • conflict, warfare
  • technological development
  • technologies of cultivation
  • technologies of the landscape
  • spread of farming
  • adoption of farming by hunter-gatherers from their neighbors
  • displacement of hunter-gatherers by expanding farmers
  • distributions of language families
  • Austronesian languages
  • Bantu languages
  • Indo-european languages
  • agricultural intensification
  • technologies of intensification
  • irrigation, plowing, and terracing
  • patterns of human genetics
  • urbanization
  • state formation
  • city-states, territorial states
  • states: gather revenues, create obligations, offer protection, reserve the right to use
  • force central institutions override kinship
  • beneficent vs. exploitative state
  • empires
  • continuation of hunting-gathering 


  • Levant
  • fertile crescent
  • hilly flanks
  • river valleys, fertile plains
  • Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Indus, Ghaggar-Hakra, Yangzi, Yellow River 
  • Mexican basin, Andean rivers 


  • Lewis Henry Morgan
  • Edward Tylor
  • Jack Harlan
  • Richard Lee
  • Ester Boserup
  • V. Gordon Childe
  • Robert Braidwood
  • Lewis Binford
  • David Rindos
  • Barbara Bender
  • Brian Hayden
  • Karl Wittfogel
  • William Rathje
  • Robert Carneiro
  • Bruce Trigger 


  • microliths
  • composite tools
  • reaping knives
  • digging sticks
  • spears
  • bow
  • domestication
  • cultivation
  • herding
  • agriculture
  • intensification technologies: plow, irrigation, terraces
  • writing


  • progressivist view
  • savagery, barbarism, and civilization
  • concept of farming as easier, superior
  • agriculture as giving “leisure time to build culture”
  • !Kung bushmen, the “affluent forager”
  • monocausal vs. multicausal theories on agriculture origins
  • oasis theory 
  • “Neolithic Revolution”
  • the hilly flanks hypothesis
  • natural habitat zone
  • demographic theories
  • marginal zones
  • evolution and intentionality
  • co-evolutionary process
  • incidental domestication
  • specialized domestication
  • agricultural domestication
  • non-intentionality
  • the feasting hypothesis
  • social competition
  • competitive feasting
  • luxury foods
  • monocausal vs. multicausal theories on state origins
  • urban revolution
  • agricultural surplus and craft specialization
  • the hydraulic hypothesis
  • the trade imperative
  • warfare
  • multicausality: coercion, insecurity, elite dominance, agricultural intensification, heightened social competition, social differentiation, wealth, ambitious individuals, writing

Archaeological features of states

  • scale
  • labor input
  • houses, modest and crowded vs. spacious and wealthy
  • temples
  • storerooms
  • palaces
  • defensive walls
  • layout: grid-plan vs. loose organization
  • monumental public buildings
  • propaganda seen in statues, palaces, tombs, architectural settings of rulership
  • luxury objects, royal graves 
  • written records for central administration