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UNIT 4: Agricultural and Urban Revolutions



For tens of thousands of years, humans survived by foraging and hunting. Then, about 10,000 years ago, they began to settle down in permanent communities. Scholars refer to this transition as the Neolithic Revolution. This revolution was not sudden, however: It took place over thousands of years and in many different places. Its course, therefore, followed many different patterns and cannot be explained through any single model.

This unit explores the transition to agriculture and then to urban life between 10,000 and 2,000 years ago. Efforts to track this transition by pinpointing the earliest agricultural crops, however, have been hampered by the nature of the plants themselves. Cereal grains, which are hard-shelled, were often burned (carbonized) during preparation and were thus preserved in archaeological deposits. Root crops like yams and potatoes, in contrast, lack hard, burnable parts, making their preservation unlikely. Because of this, it is possible that root crops could have been domesticated even earlier than cereal crops.

Bearing these limits of interpretation in mind, it seems clear that during the Neolithic period relatively large populations dependent on grain-based agriculture emerged in nearly every distinct geographic areas of the world. Deliberate agriculture, in turn, gave rise to impressive population increases. The resulting pressures caused by rising population then led to the spread of agricultural peoples to new areas of the world.

Although no comprehensive model can explain the transition to agriculture in all or even most societies, it is safe to say that the nature of this transition in every society was conditioned by the characteristics of specific physical environments. It is also clear that the transition to agriculture nearly always involved a movement toward greater social complexity.

This complexity usually meant increasingly sophisticated means for controlling and exploiting environments to achieve greater food production, technological innovation, and social stratification. As populous, agricultural areas became urban centers, they were increasingly defined by the power and privilege of those who were able to exert their authority and control over others. Such hierarchies resulted in intensified inequalities based on gender, class, and status.


Time Period: Foundations, especially 12,000 BCE to 100 CE

The earliest evidence for the human transition to agriculture dates from about 10,000 BCE, although it is likely that there was experimentation before then. By 5000 BCE agriculture had become well established in several places, including southwest Asia, southeast Asia, east Asia, and the Americas. In this "Neolithic" period — or new stone age — the transition to agriculture depended on climatic conditions and the availability of domesticable plants and animals. As a result, not all of the peoples of the world made, or were able to make, this transition. Once societies shifted to agriculture, social and political life was transformed. Stable, sedentary settlements allowed population growth and the development of more complex social structures. This, in turn, led to the development of social stratification and labor specialization, as well as the emergence of pottery-making, metallurgy, and textile production.

AP Themes:

  • Explores change and continuity by looking at the ways societies changed as they shifted to an agricultural way of life.
  • Examines technology, demography, and the environment in that the transition to agriculture altered all three: it encouraged the development of technologies such as metallurgy, it caused populations to expand, and it changed the natural environment as a result of human interventions.
  • Discusses cultural and intellectual developments because the transition to agriculture caused cultures to become more complex and socially stratified.
  • Pays attention to changing functions of states because the transition to agriculture was critical in the development of states.


  • Question 1: What are some of the different patterns by which human societies around the world domesticated plants and animals?
  • Question 2: When did human societies begin to settle down in urban centers, and what was early urban life like?
  • Question 3: When human societies became more complex, how did this affect the ways people thought about social differences such as gender, status, and class?
  • Question 4: What impact did urban technologies such as metallurgy and pottery-making have on the environment?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

All early agricultural societies shared a common need to feed their growing populations.

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

The movement to an agricultural, urban life followed many different patterns in different parts of the world. In addition, as these societies became bigger and more complex, they all increasingly differentiated individuals on the basis of gender, class, and status, which led to greater social and economic inequalities.

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