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Agriculture And The Rise Of Civilization In The Middle East And Africa


The Middle East By 4000 B.C.: The Causes Of Civilization

As you have seen, one reason that civilization first appeared in the
Middle East was because agriculture had taken hold in this region. Over many
centuries agriculture became more common and productive in the Middle East; it
began to create the conditions for further innovations - including
civilization. But the first civilization also required an additional set of
stimuli, the new inventions and organizations that had taken shape around 4000
B.C.

Much time elapsed between the development of agriculture and the rise of
civilization in the Middle East and many other places. The successful
agricultural communities that formed were based primarily on very localized
production, which normally sustained a population despite recurrent disasters
caused by bad weather or harvest problems. Localized agriculture did not
consistently yield the kind of surplus that would allow specializations among
the population, and therefore it could not generate civtlization.

Even the formation of small regional centers, such as Jericho or Catal
Huyuk, did not assure a rapid pace of change. Their economic range remained
localized, with little trade or specialization. Most families who inhabited
them produced for their own needs and nothing more. It was important that more
and more regions in the Middle East were pulled into the orbit of agriculture
as the Neolithic revolution gained ground. By 4000 B.C. large nomadic groups
still flourished only at the southern end of the region in the deserts of the
Arabian peninsula. Even the knowledge of agriculture spread slowly, so the
gradual conversion of virtually the whole Middle East and some surrounding
areas was no small achievement. But the shape of agricultural communities
themselves in 4000 B.C. differed little from that of pioneering agricultural
centers 4000 years before.

Based on the expansion of agriculture in the Middle East, a detached
observer who lived a little before 4000 B.C. might have predicted the gradual
spread or independent development of agriculture in many parts of the world.
Portions of India, northern Africa, central Asia, and southern Europe were
already drawn in (though other nearby regions, such as Italy, remained immune
for another millennium and a half). A separate Neolithic revolution was
beginning to take shape in Central America. All this was vital, but it did not
assure the civilizational revolution within key agricultural regions
themselves.

Dynamic Implications Of Agriculture

Several factors flowed together to create the unexpected development of
civilization. While the establishment of agriculture did not guarantee further
change, it did ultimately co tribute to change by encouraging new forms of
social organization. Settled agriculture, as opposed to slash-and-burn
varieties, usually implied some forms of property so that land could be
identified as belonging to a family, a village, or a landlord. Only with
property was there incentive to introduce improvements, such as wells or
irrigation measures, that could be monopolized by those who created them or
left to their heirs. But property meant the need for new kinds of laws and
enforcement mechanisms, which in turn implied more extensive government. Here
agriculture could create some possibilities for trade and could spur
innovation - new kinds of regulations and some government figures who could
enforce them.

Farming encouraged the formation of larger and more stable communities
than had existed before Neolithic times. Most hunting peoples moved in small
groups containing no more than 60 individuals who could not settle in a single
spot lest the game run out. With settled agriculture the constraints changed.
Communities developed around the cleared and improved fields. In many early
agricultural areas including the Middle East, a key incentive to stability was
the need for irrigation systems. Irrigated agriculture depended on
arrangements that would allow farmers to cooperate in building and maintaining
irrigation ditches and sluices. The needs of irrigation, plus protection from
marauders, help explain why most early agricultural peoples settled in village
communities, rather than isolated farms. Villages that grouped several hundred
people constituted the characteristic pattern of residence in almost all
agricultural societies from Neolithic days to our own times. Some big rivers
encouraged elaborate irrigation projects that could channel water in virtually
assured quantities to vast stretches of land. To create larger irrigation
projects along major rivers such as Tigris-Euphrates or the Nile, large gangs
of laborers had to be assembled. Further, regulations had to assure that users
along the river and in the villages near the river's source would have equal
access to the water supply. This implied an increase in the scale of political
and economic organization. A key link between the advantages of irrigation and
the gradual emergence of civilization was that irrigated land produced
surpluses with greater certainty and required new kinds of organization.

It is no accident that the earliest civilizations arose along large
rivers and amid irrigation projects. Civilization in Mesopotamia and then
Egypt involved not only the central fact of economic surplus but also the
ability to integrate tens, even hundreds of square miles along rivers.
Regional coordination, based first on irrigation needs, could easily lead to
other contacts: shared cultures, including artistic styles and religious
beliefs; economic contacts, including trade; and common political
institutions.

Further Innovations: New Tools And Specializations In The 4th Millennium

The first civilization also required the technological developments whose
impact coalesced around 4000 B.C. These developments addressed problems faced
by agricultural peoples who were encouraged by opportunities available in
individual villages to share ideas and encourage inventive colleagues. Most of
the inventions thus occurred in regions where agriculture was best developed,
which for a long time meant the Middle East. At the same time, the new
inventions enhanced the productivity of Middle Eastern agriculture, creating
the consistent surpluses that would ultimately shape civilization itself. The
result was a recurrent series of technological changes. The first potter's
wheel was invented by about 6000 B.C. It encouraged faster and higher-quality
ceramic pottery production, which facilitated food storage and improved the
reliability of food supplies. Pottery production promoted the emergence of a
group of specialized manufacturing workers who made pots to exchange for food
produced by others.

Better tools allowed improvements in other products made out of wood or
stone. Obsidian, a hard stone, began to be used for tools in the late
Neolithic centuries. The wheel was another Middle-Eastern innovation. Wheeled
vehicles long remained slow but they were vital to many monumental
construction projects where large blocks of stone were moved to the
construction sites of temples. Shipbuilding also gradually improved.
Developments of this sort, enhancing production and possibilities for trade,
set the framework for the outright emergence of civilization with the rise of
Sumerian society along the Tigris-Euphrates.

A key technological change, which occurred slightly after the emergence
of the first civilization, was the introduction of metal for use in tools and
weapons. By about 3000 B.C., copper began to be mixed with tin to make bronze;
this development occurred around the Black Sea and in the Middle East. Use of
metal allowed manufacture of a greater variety of tools than could be made of
stone or bone, and the tools were lighter and more quickly made. The Middle
East was the first region to move from the Neolithic (stone tool) Age to the
Bronze Age. Other parts of the eastern Mediterranean soon made the transition.
Metal hoes, plows, and other implements proved extremely useful to
agricultural societies and also to herding peoples in central Asia. Again new
technology promoted further specialization as groups of artisans concentrated
on metal production, exchanging their wares for food. Widespread use of bronze
also encouraged greater trade, because tin, in particular, was hard to find;
by 2000 B.C. trade had become a motivation for extensive development of sea
routes.

 

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