Agricultural Turning Point
By: Jim Virkler
With respect to major turning points in human history, none is more significant than the Neolithic Revolution. Literally, neolithic means new stone age. The term stone age has a connotation of an exceedingly primitive human culture. In terms of our modern culture, primitive is a generally appropriate description. Neolithic culture, however, was the beginning of a startling change in human living conditions. Perhaps no human revolution has been more significant.
The main characteristic of the Neolithic Revolution has been linked with the switch to agriculture over the former hunter/gatherer means of subsistence. If we could identify a trigger for the switch to farming, it would be the transition of humanity from the Ice Age. Significant climate warming made agriculture feasible. During the cold conditions of the Ice Age, modern agriculture was not feasible. If contemporary society were to become unable to sustain agriculture, especially the agriculture developed in the last few hundred years, famines would wipe out much of humanity. Humanity could not endure a return to the hunter/gatherer culture which sustained humanity for tens of thousands of years prior to the Neolithic Revolution.
Within several thousand years the warming climate enabled humans to transition to an agrarian society. In the transition to agriculture, much of early human society slowly became more centralized, urbanized, and hierarchical. In the years following 10,000 BC, central political structures began to appear. The change was enabled by the move toward agriculture. The population gradually embraced the new knowledge of specialized food crop cultivation. The human population grew. In the harsh days of the Ice Age from which man had emerged, survival was a challenge. Food supply was not their only challenge.
In the previous several tens of thousands of years while the Wisconsin stage of the Ice Age was still in progress, the catalog of giant animals roaming the earth would read like science fiction literature. These animals are known as Pleistocene megafauna (giant animals). Before the Rise of Civilization, late Paleolithic humans coped with many types of giant animals on our planet. Early man was a hunter—a hunter of megafauna among other prey. In order to be counted as megafauna, animals must be over 44 kg in mass (100 pounds). Worldwide, over 90 genera of megafauna comprising hundreds of species perished from our planet as the dying gasps of the Ice Age caused oscillations of temperature up to 16ºC. Climate change joined with human hunters and disease to hasten the extinctions.
In 2004 my wife and I visited The Mammoth Graveyard museum of Hot Springs, South Dakota, a late Pleistocene excavation site from which remains of 61 mammoths have been excavated along with thousands of other Ice Age creatures. In 24,000 BC the Hot Springs site was located only a few hundred miles south of the greatest extent of the Wisconsin Ice Sheet. Large collections of Ice Age megafauna became entrapped in a warm (hot springs) pool. They were preserved and now testify to the reality of plentiful Ice Age animals in North America a few millennia before humans crossed from Asia. Sea levels were hundreds of feet lower as sea water was locked in ice, creating a land bridge between Siberia and North America for humans to cross. The land bridge disappeared when the ice sheets retreated.
We return to discussion of the Neolithic Revolution. Following the end of major Ice Age events about 10,000 BC humanity experienced an agricultural revolution. Hunter/gathering was no longer the main characteristic of human society. Domestication of plants and animals became the normative trend. Without the rise of agricultural practices and domestication of plants and animals modern society would not exist as we know it.
When God created modern humanity our planet’s Ice Age persisted in full force. Periodic interglacials—milder climates between two glacial periods—came and went. When the harsh Wisconsin glacial episode came to an end, human civilization began to resemble our modern civilization in a major respect: man’s healthy survival depends on agriculture. In today’s society we assign importance to other revolutions. For instance, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century and the Digital Revolution of the 20th century may appear to be more significant for human survival and well being. The Agricultural Revolution birthed other revolutions.
In the third chapter of Genesis God instructs newly created humanity in their choice of food in the Garden of Eden. An outgrowth of Adam and Eve’s errant food choices led to the spiritual fall of man. We cite this passage to highlight the importance of physical food rather than to spiritualize the passage. In the New Testament another passage stresses the importance of food. I Tim. 6:8 instructs: “But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” The provision of physical food is a paramount divine gift to humanity. It overwhelms the potential of many other divine gifts which also are given for humanity’s enrichment.
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.