Back To CourseWorld History: Middle School
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Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
For thousands and thousands of years, people lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers and lived nomadic lifestyles, meaning they had to continually follow food supply and never lived in one single place. Then, everything changed. People realized that if they controlled the way that certain plants grew, and raised animals to live with them, they could stay in one place. This change, called a sedentary lifestyle, changed human history. Humans domesticated plants and animals and developed agriculture to help them grow food. The change from nomadic to sedentary societies is called the Neolithic era, or 'New Stone Age.'
Agriculture had a dramatic impact on human society. Rather than move around, people stayed in one place. For the first time, they had sturdy homes and other buildings. Villages, towns, and finally cities were the result. Thanks to agriculture, people could grow more food than they needed and save the extra for the future. This let the population size increase, and the small bands of hunter-gatherers turned into towns with hundreds of people.
Additionally, farming provided enough food so that not everybody had to devote their time to finding food. Some people didn't have to farm, so they could spend all their time building houses, making tools, or creating art. Suddenly, people had professions, and society became more complex. To govern these complex societies, there had to be rulers and officials to determine how food was divided and what was a fair value for trading. The first early human communities owed their existence to agriculture, and they quickly developed into complex societies around the world.
The first human cultures to develop agriculture were in the Fertile Crescent, an area in the modern-day Middle East between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The term 'Fertile Crescent' refers to the shape of this region, which is between two rivers and has very fertile soil. Across the Middle East, the long growing season with short periods of rain helped early humans grow grains that were large enough to support their population.
The oldest evidence of domestication of plants dates back almost 20,000 years ago, in modern-day Jordan and Lebanon along the Jordan River. With agriculture, these people could live in one place, and were able to plan for the future by growing more than they needed. These pioneers in agriculture grew wheat, barley, lentils, and chickpeas, and created some of the first sedentary societies in human history.
The humans of the Middle East and Mediterranean regions were not the only ones to start creating more complex communities. In Asia, the first evidence of agriculture and sedentary societies appeared in China around 8,000 years ago, in between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. Millet was the grain that inspired these people to settle down, and rice came later.
The Americas were not exempt from this revolution, either. The first people to start domesticating plants and animals in the Western Hemisphere were the inhabitants of Central Mexico in the fertile highland valleys where volcanic soil and mountain lakes provided the conditions for agriculture. These people domesticated maize, which is the ancestral form of corn, and squash. In a few centuries, they added beans to the menu. Agriculture spread south from Mexico into South America after a few centuries, north into the American Southwest.
These were not the only people to develop agriculture and were definitely not the only people affected by this change in society. The cultures we talked about were just some of the first to start settling in one place, but they influenced hundreds of other cultures to become sedentary within the next centuries. Even for cultures that decided to remain nomadic, the rise in agriculture changed their lives.
Agricultural societies always had a supply of high-quality food, so they often traded with nomadic cultures for the wild game that sedentary people might not want to chase after. Many nomadic cultures moved from city to city, trading items across the world. Trade items, people, ideas, and technology were spread around the world through this style of trade.
The Neolithic world was infinitely more complex than the world before humans developed agriculture. The small communities around the world grew and interacted with each other. Some were partners in trade, others competed for the best farming land and went to war. The importance of farming led people to use their creative thinking and make new tools that would help planting or harvesting, like pottery, and led to new inventions, like irrigation, to ensure that the harvest would be consistent every season. With a surplus of food, people could devote all of their time to thinking, imagining, dreaming, and creating.
In the Neolithic era, the period defined by the development of agriculture and the change to non-mobile societies, humanity entered an amazing stage of development. Before, all people were nomadic, meaning they had to continually move to find food. With agriculture, many humans developed sedentary societies, meaning they stayed in one place to build sturdy, non-mobile homes. Suddenly, the small bands of people grew into large communities and, eventually, cities.
The first cultures to develop agriculture lived in the Fertile Crescent, in the modern Middle East 20,000 years ago. Cultures in China and Mesoamerica also discovered ways to domesticate plants, introducing agriculture in those parts of the world. With the ability to grow food, and the growth of cities, people had time to spend thinking about other activities, and professional artists, builders, rulers, and philosophers became part of life. As more cultures developed agriculture and settled down, society became more and more complex. The world was never the same.
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Back To CourseWorld History: Middle School
20 chapters | 223 lessons