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5.1 Introduction
5.2 Sources of Study
5.3 Origins of Humans

5.3.1 Modern Humans (Homo Sapiens Sapiens)
5.3.2 How are Humans Different from Animals?

5.4 Invention of Tools and Discovery of Fire
5.5 Kinship

5.5.1 How did Kinship Emerge?
5.5.2 When did Kinship Emerge?

5.6 Exchange
5.7 Invention of Arts and Language
5.8 Hunter-Gathers – What Can We Learn from Them?
5.9 The Great Transformation
5.10 Pastoral Nomadism
5.11 Agriculture
5.12 Consequences of Agriculture

5.12.1 Birth of Village Culture
5.12.2 Increase in Population and Expansion of Settlements
5.12.3 Emergence of Tribal Communities
5.12.4 New Epidemics and Diseases
5.12.5 New Forms of Order and Disputes

5.13 Summary
5.14 Exercises


In history you never begin at the beginning. The units in this block were supposed to have covered roughly 2 to 4 million years of human history on earth. And yet scholars are not quite sure that they began their narrative at the beginning. This is because the scholars who are trying to discover evidences for Adam’s ancestors in the plains of Africa have to begin with a definition of human beings. They need a definition of humans not only in anatomical terms but in cultural and philosophical terms as well. That is not easy. Answers have been given by religious traditions and philosophers (humans having souls or the capacity to think), biologists (homo-sapiens evolved from primitive hominids), anthropologists (human beings are tool making animals or that human beings have language and art). Scientists searching for the evidence of the earliest ancestors have to decide where animality ended and humanity began. Where ever we begin the history of humankind we seem to be omitting the earlier history.

In this Unit we propose to present a review of the developments of human
68 cultures you studied in the preceding four Units. In Units 1 to 4 we separately

discussed the developments from the origin of humans to the stage of settled agriculture and sedentary societies. In this Unit we wish to synthesise all the developments. You may notice that many points discussed here might have been studied by you in earlier Units but here they appear to forge linkages of various aspects of development to provide a brief narrative of the evolution of human cultures and socities over millions of years. We hope this Unit will help you in understanding the development of human societies in a proper perspective.


The past which has been reconstructed belongs to an era when our ancestors did not know writing. Historians have learnt about our ancestors by studying bones, and stone tools of those times. Archaeology has borrowed from almost every discipline of science to decipher the meaning of objects from the past. A typical excavation team today consists of a network of scholars who will examine human and animal bones (medical and veterinary sciences), plants (botanists) and use radio carbon dating (physicists). To be able to understand the meaning of things, historians have learnt from the insights provided by studies of foraging societies surviving in the modern times. The study of contemporary foraging people whom we assume to be living in environments and patterns similar to our ancestors helps us understand the pre – literate past better. Studies of the
!Kung Bushmen carried out by anthropologists like R.B. Lee have given us many insights about the hunting- gathering mode of life. One new area of research which has helped historians is the study of the non-human primates. Scholars like Jane Goodall have studied the behaviour of chimpanzees in the wild. Earlier it was believed that humans were the only tool using animals. Goodall has shown that chimpanzees too use tools. It is in the mists of this past that some of the greatest landmarks of human history are hidden. We shall deal with some of the turning points in human history.


Humans originated in Africa. Our earliest known ancestors are called Australopithecus. Remains of the Australopithecines, have been found in fossils dating from about 2-4 million years ago at such sites as Laetoli in Tanzania and Hadar in Ethiopia. Analysis of skeletal material (of which the famous Lucy, discovered at Hadar, is an example), plus amazing footprints preserved in volcanic ash at Laetoli, shows that Australopithecus walked bipedally. Guess what was their height - about 3.8 feet - shorter than many eleven year olds of our times. How could such ape like creatures be called our ancestors? This is because among the animals of his kind humans alone walks on two feet. Other animals walk on all four. The bones of this ape like creature show that it walked on two feet. Except for their bipedal gait these Australopithecines probably looked a lot like modern chimps. It now appears that several different species of Australopithecines lived for a period of 2 million years or more in east and southern Africa. The diet of the Australopithecines consisted largely of gathered plant foods.

Experts do not agree as to which kind of Australopithecine was the ancestor of the next important fossil hominid, Homo habilis. The latter appeared around 2 million years ago in east and southern Africa. The brain of H. habilis showed a definite increase in size over Australopithecus. H. habilis made stone tools,
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some of which were undoubtedly used to butcher meat. They subsisted on plant food and meat, which they scavenged. H. habilis is considered ancestral to H. erectus, who appeared in Africa about 1.5 million years ago. In the next million years our ancestors moved out of Africa. Their remains have been found in China, Java and Europe. H. erectus showed a further increase in brain size and left evidence of more advanced tools, hunting of large animals, and use of fire. When our ancestors became non-vegetarians they tapped a new source of food energy. Animals like deer converted vegetation often not consumed by humans into meat. When they hunted migratory birds and animals humans began to draw food nutrients from a wide range of resources. Animals migrating from places far off were bringing food supplies from areas which lay beyond the range of human groups.

H. erectus lived for about 1 million years. About 350,000 years ago appeared another species called the Neanderthal man. They were short, stocky and had powerful physique. Nevertheless they too were not quite human. They used stone tools alright but they did not have language or art.

Our environment was shaped by natural forces which in turn shaped our evolutionary path. Nature created different kinds of environments like – hot or cold weather conditions, dry deserts or wet river valleys, sea coasts and mountains. Temporal variants produce changes and modifications some of which led to evolutionary changes.

5.3.1 Modern Humans (Homo Sapiens Sapiens)

The fully modern humans (homo sapiens sapiens meaning the thinking humans)
are present in the Klaiser River mouth caves in South Africa from 120,000 –
60,000 years ago. Theories based on DNA also support the idea of the African origins of humans about 200,000 years ago. They appeared in the West Asia around 90, 000 years ago. Earlier, our ancestors like the Homo-erectus and the Neanderthals had colonised areas of Africa, Southeast Asia, China and Europe. There were plenty of places in the globe where they had not reached. Siberia, Australia and the whole vast breath of the Americas remained untouched. Modern humans through their greater adaptability to climate managed to colonise every part of the globe where it is possible for humans to live. Moving out of Africa about 120000 thousand years ago they had reached Australia 60,000 years ago and America about 20,000 years ago. Many scholars believe that differences in skin colour, and body size belong to this age.

Modern humans seem to have introduced a range of innovations which are unique to humans. Some of these advances were art (e.g. paintings in Lascaux, France, ivory horse from Vogelherd, Germany), invention of new tools and tailored clothing.

The European examples which have been carefully studied show that the Homo sapiens sapiens appeared in that area in the interglacial period. This period was relatively warm and provided favourable conditions and niches for the early humans to evolve. These humans were carrying the knowledge acquired by their ancestors. They controlled fire and built shelters for themselves. These innovations gave them the flexibility to colonise new areas by adapting to changing conditions. With their improved weapons they were able to hunt down big game and exploit marine resources. All this indicates that by this time culture and acquired knowledge began to out pace simple biological adaptation.

5.3.2 How are Humans Different from Animals?

We have selected six defining characteristics of humans which make them different from other animals – 1) Humans make tools and eat uncooked as well as cooked food. 2) Humans have a large kinship system consisting of relatives by descent and marriage. This means that unlike other animals they have added social relationships to biological relationship in the web of kinship. 3) Humans barter and exchange with other human communities. 4) Humans communicate through a highly developed language. 5) Humans have invented arts. 6) Human communities grow food.

We shall try to trace the acquisition of these characteristics by our ancestors. Our reading of the past suggests that these characteristics were acquired in different periods of history. The other equally interesting fact is that the changes were not incremental in nature. There were large periods of very slow development followed by a period of rapid development.


Tool making is considered a defining feature of the humankind. Although some other animals like chimpanzees and crows are known to use tools, they do it rarely and in an episodic fashion. They do not shape their tools either. Australopithecines were probably the first tool makers. The earliest tools might have been made of bone or wood. They have not survived to the present. The earliest tools were probably made by women to make gathering more efficient. In addition, women devised containers to facilitate the transportation of gathered food and for hauling infants during gathering. About 2.5 million years ago our ancestors discovered that stone could be used as weapons. With stone tools they could kill animals and break shells of edible seeds. Tool making by our ancestors marked the beginning of technology. Think of the ways in which technology has made work easier. For example if you needed wood you would not wait for a tree to fall down but simply cut it with a saw. Also technology helps produce more goods. Before the invention of printing press books had to be copied by hand. As such books were rare and expensive. As our technology has changed, our way of life has changed. Just as early technology made it possible to hunt and cook in new ways, so too, the modern technology has made our present day lifestyle possible.

Discovery of Fire

Food can be cooked only if fire is available. The first evidence for fire is found
500,000 years ago at Zhoukoudien cave, China. It is associated with Homo erectus. The control of fire is one of the most important developments in human history. By doing so our ancestors could cook food and thus make it more digestible through chemical transformation. For example, starches in roots could be broken down and made easier for complete digestion. Toxins in plants could be destroyed; bacteria and other harmful agents in putrefied meat could be destroyed with heat. In addition, fire allowed expansion into new environments by providing light, warmth, and protection from predators. The potential for environmental change was present if fire was employed to hunt game and to burn plant communities.
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All human groups regulate marriage and kinship with other groups. Kinship has been defined as the recognition of relationships based on descent and marriage. Relations based on brotherhood or sisterhood is found among the primates. The well known anthropologist R. Fox maintains that the combination of “alliance” with “descent” in one system was a unique human innovation. Simply stated no other species has in-laws. This innovation allowed humans to link up and ally with other groups. By maintaining ties with a son or daughter who moved to another group after marriage, humans created relationship with the group to which the offering had moved.

The most important aspect of kinship is that it is not simply about biological relationship, it is about social relationship. Biological connections are very narrow. Kinship on the other hand, can be extended as far as the local conventions require. In many human communities every known person is treated as a kinsman so that marriages are simply renewals of links that have already existed. With kinship humans could depend on each other in times of food shortage or incursion by a hostile group. This also ensured sharing the knowledge of a large number of groups. Since, it ensures a healthy flow of genes over a large area, communities having kinship would have a greater chance of biological survival and expansion.

5.5.1 How did Kinship Emerge?

R. Fox believes that the emergence of kinship is related to the gradual shift to a non-vegetarian diet. This “hunting transition” was well under way by early H. erectus.

This had important consequences for the relationships among the early humans. The large scale hunting of the larger animals might have led to the creation of a more rigid sexual division of labour. This form of hunting required a mobility that would exclude women who were hunting or nursing young children. Foraging could be undertaken by the whole community and fully integrated with other social activities such as singing, chatting and child care. Hunting on the other hand requires stealth and silence and tended to become the preserve of able bodied men.

Men went for hunting, women for gathering. Earlier everyone foraged for himself or herself. With the new sexual division of labour came a need for exchange in food between male and female. This trade changed their relations with each other. Before this time there were all-male associations (as among chimpanzees) and all-female (with young) associations. With the sexual division of labor, however, men and women needed one another in a new way: for food, for the exchange of vegetables and meat. This trade, according to Fox, “is probably at the root of a truly human society.” This encouraged the creation of domestic units that would eventually bring together adult males, females and their young. There are two other distinctive features of human kinship. Most human societies practise incest taboo. Humans also invented exogamy, the rule whereby one must marry outside a certain group. Exogamy helped people to make connections with other groups. If a group forbids marriage within itself, it is forced to acquire spouses from other groups. When that happens, harmonious relationships between the groups are promoted by the fact of their interdependency for spouses. This was important to early humans armed with lethal weapons. As

groups expanded and bumped into one another, possibly competing for resources, the idea of kinship and marriages could be used to prevent hostilities. Modern ethnography suggests that kinship was tightly interwoven with economics, politics and religion.

5.5.2 When did Kinship Emerge?

It is difficult to write the history of kinship. Fascinating evidence for kinship comes from 17,000 years old settlements on the Kom Ombo plains along the Nile in Egypt. It shows a cluster of settlements of about 25 to 30 people each. Each of these groups made particular kinds of tools and their techniques of food gathering too, were distinctive. Considering the fact that these groups lived in close proximity for a long time, it is likely that kinship connected them all.

Ethnography suggests that one of the major functions of kinship is exchange of humans as well as goods. In the context of the prehistoric past the evidence for exchange can be a pointer to the presence of kinship. That is why we shall examine the evidence for exchange in prehistoric societies.


When Adam Smith wrote that humans have bartered and exchanged from times immemorial he was making a statement about a unique characteristic of the human communities. Unlike other animals’ humans barter and exchange goods with outsiders. It is relatively easier to write a history of exchange. This can be judged from the fact that if some objects (stones in this context) are found which are not available locally; one can presume that they have been procured from other communities who live in those areas. Although that, too, will not be true in all cases, this is because we know that hunting-gathering communities are mobile groups. This means that they might have picked up those stones during their seasonal migrations. When our ancestors realised the potential and possibilities of stone for shaping tools, they began looking for stones that could give sharper edge and had longer life. Obsidian is one such stone. But it is a rare type of stone. About 130,000 years ago two sites in Tanzania have yielded evidence for the use of obsidian. This stone had been obtained from Kenya’s Central rift valley located at a distance of 300 kilometers. Hunters moved around quite a lot. So, obsidian could have been obtained during a hunting expedition. It is a solitary evidence.

Flint is another stone which our ancestors found useful. Its crystalline texture helps produce sharp and efficient tools. Another stone which was chosen by our ancestors was quartzite. These stones are not available everywhere. Our ancestors tried to get them from distant places. For example it has been found that at the 20,000 year old site of Kostenki in Russia flint tool had been brought from a distance of about 160 km. Based on parallels with modern ethnographic evidence we can assume that these flint stones were procured by the people at Kostenki through a process of exchange. Modern foraging communities periodically gather in one place and exchange women and gift valuables to each other. There is a famous saying, “Gifts make friends and friends make gifts”. The available evidence does not permit us to take back the history of exchange of goods earlier than 20,000 BC.
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Probably, the surest characteristic of humans is their ability to speak. Language is unique to humans. Other animals can emit a limited range of sounds. For example a dog barks differently to register its happiness or anger. Other dogs too, understand these sounds. Same is true of all other animals. However, the range of voices produced by them is very limited. In the case of humans the range of meaningful sounds produced by them verges on infinity. Think of the large dictionaries in all the languages of the world. Each word represents a distinct meaningful sound. That is why language is considered unique to humans.

The beginnings of languages are hidden in the mists of the past. Human beings were anatomically ready to speak more than 150,000 years ago. However, unequivocal evidence for language does not appear for the next 100,000 years. For example we know that the modern humans who are found in Europe about
40,000 years ago had a language. This is proved by many related evidences. Anatomically, the arrangement of their oral and nasal cavities, their longer pharynx i.e. the section of throat just above the vocal cords and the flexibility of their tongues would have enabled them to shape and project sounds over a wide range. However, the evidence for this biological capability has to be combined with evidences that would indicate the ability for socially shared meanings. There is no logical relationship between the sounds of a language and the objects signified by them. These sounds are understood because the speakers and listeners have a socially shared meaning for them. Works of art are understandable to a community because it has a mutually understandable meaning for symbols like painting and icons. In short art appears when a group has acquired symbolic thinking. That is why art and language reflect each other. Both involve symbols that are not just the fancies of an individual but creations of a society.

Art is unique to humans. No other animal is known to paint and draw pictures. No other animal is known to understand or appreciate pictures either. Modern humans all over the world have left evidence of their art works. So beautiful are the paintings found in the caves of Lescaux in France and Altamira in Spain that the great twentieth century painter Picasso exclaimed, “We, (modern artists) have invented nothing.” The unequivocal traces for art and language found so far are not earlier than 50,000 years.

The invention of arts and language meant the acquisition of the capacity to conceptualise things remote in time or space. Planning, foresight, social organisation, rituals, complex exchange – in short a whole new world of possibilities emerged in its wake. It was these new forms of cooperation, this ability to plan in advance that enabled our ancestors to sweep across the globe in a very short time. It was the invention of language that enabled our ancestors to transmit knowledge to children about things they had not seen. It was the birth of idea and imagination.


Until 12,000 years ago virtually all humanity lived as hunters and gatherers. They stand at the opposite pole from the modern urban life. They have lived in

small groups, without centralised authority or standing armies. They have managed to solve their problems without war and without much violence. With relatively simple technology – wood, bone, stone, fibers – they were able to meet their requirements. Instead of the eight hour work schedule of the industrial societies they manage to collect a nutritive diet with two to three hours of work. No wonder the American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins calls them, “the original affluent society”. Hunter- gatherers have lived without destroying their environment. We live in societies divided into haves and have-nots. The ten thousand years of agricultural and industrial civilizations have brought us to the brink of environmental disaster. May be the surviving hunting-gathering groups deserve a rethinking. They might have answers to some of the central questions about the human condition – about social life, politics, and gender, about diet and nutrition and living in nature.


We reproduce extracts from a letter sent to the President of America by a Red Indian chief about 150 years ago. The American President wanted to buy land from the Red Indians. This letter shows the hunter-gatherer’s way of looking at nature.

How can you buy or sell sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memory of the Red man.

The White man’s dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the Red man. We are part of this earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers and sisters...

.......We know that the White man does not understand our ways...

He treats his mother the earth, and his brother the sky, as things to be bought, plundered and sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.

Let us sum up

Over the last three million years our ancestors learnt many things and there was also a visible change in their appearance. If our ancestor were to be brought to the modern world, he would recognise a deer or monkey. However, not for a moment would he suspect us to be his descendants. Biological changes, changes in stone tool technology, acquisition of language and invention of kinship moved hand in hand with the peopling of the earth. Long before Europeans discovered America and Australia our hunter gatherer ancestors had found routes to those places. About 30,000 years ago humans had the technology to enter and live in the Arctic. No habitat on earth was inaccessible. They had the tools to hunt animals to extinction and to transform whole biomes with fire. They were beginning to transform nature. Our discussion indicates that characteristics we
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associate with humans emerged over a long period of history. While tool making emerged about two million years ago, language, art, exchange and kinship seem to have emerged in the last two hundred thousand years only. The last characteristic we associate with humans i.e. food production still lay in future. Let us see how it came about.


The history of Homo- sapiens sapiens is one of progressive acquisition of new skills. They learnt to make tools combining wood and stone. They learnt fishing, boating and swimming. It was around this time that the Holocene era began. Weather became warmer causing different kinds of changes across the globe. For example in West Asia dry deserts replaced forests. In Europe on the other hand snow melted away and forests grew. Faced with these climatic changes our foraging ancestors devised new forms of adaptation. These new forms of adaptation moved along four different trajectories. Most of the communities continued their hunting- gathering life. They simply added new marine species and various seeds into their food kitty. In many areas forests and rivers could supply them food in plenty. Also many of these groups preferred the freedom and leisure of the hunting gathering way of life. That is why even in AD 1500 foragers occupied fully one third of the globe. This included Australia, most of North America, as well as large tracts of South America, Africa, and Northeast Asia. Even today hunter- gatherers live on in forty countries, in the presence of hundreds of thousands of descendants a generation or two removed from a foraging way of life.

In some parts of the world hunter–gatherers began cultivating plants but continued to live like nomadic foragers. Evidences have been found in China and Mexico that plants were cultivated by nomadic foragers. They did not settle down in villages. They continued to thrive in this mixed form of food acquisition for more than two thousand years. So, it cannot be regarded as a transitional stage.

There were two other forms of adaptation to the changes in environment had the potential for the development of human culture. These were pastoral nomadism and agriculture.


Some hunting gathering communities took up farming and herding of animals. Evidences from West Asia suggest agriculture and animal domestication emerged at nearly the same period. Some communities preferred herding of animals over agriculture. The Central Asian steppes consisting of countries like Mongolia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan etc. was an area where herding of animals was the dominant form of living until about three hundred years ago. There are indications for the domestication of dogs, pigs and horses from the Mesolithic period. It was the domestication of cattle, sheep and goat that imposed a new pattern of livelihood on the humans. Pastoralism generated a different lifestyle. The domestication of animals represented a radically new way of life. In the hunting gathering mode of life animals were killed and consumed immediately. Now animals were reared to act as walking larders that could be used in times of scarcity. Unlike the agriculturists who generally settled down

in villages, pastoralists moved from one place to another in search of pastures. Historically the nomadic people lived in the grassy plains of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, where the grasses provided the sustenance for their herds. Pastoral nomadism varied according to the type of domesticated animal chosen as the primary source of livelihood.

Cattle Herders, Horse Nomads and Others

Goat, Sheep and cattle herding was common in West and South Asia and throughout the plains of southern and eastern Africa. Cattle became the basis of wealth for many of these warrior-dominated societies. Hittites, Hyksos, early Greeks, and Aryans were horse nomads. The earliest horse nomads did not ride their animals, but fought from chariots.

Reindeer herding as a form of pastoral nomadism may have developed even before herds were kept on the Eurasian steppes. They were mostly confined to northern Europe and Siberia. These communities were at a distance from the main centres of contemporary civilizations. In Arabia and the areas around Sudan in Africa, camel nomadism became common in the early centuries of the Christian era. Able to subsist on limited water and fodder, camel nomads controlled trade routes that crossed the great Saharan and Arabian deserts. In the Andean highlands in America llamas and alpacas were domesticated and led to a limited pastoralism. Maintenance of herds was critical to the survival of nomadic groups. These animals supplied meat and milk to the nomads. Camels, horses and oxen also helped transport goods from one pasture land to another and to markets.

Modern studies of the nomadic groups in contact with agricultural societies have revealed some of the dynamics of these societies. It has been said that a true nomad is a poor nomad. Wealth is a burden to him. Everything he has must be light enough to be carried, to be set up every evening and to be packed again the next morning. If his herd increases beyond a certain number he is forced to move quickly from one place to another in search of pastures because grazing is exhausted very quickly. The increase in the number of animals hampers movements on the one hand and requires greater mobility on the other. That is why they are forced to get rid of some of their animals by exchanging it with some other goods. If they acquire wealth they cannot carry it. So, they are forced to settle down. Thus rich nomads settle down. Very poor nomads too cannot survive for long. Herds of sheep and goat are prone to infection and can die in large numbers. Herders can suddenly find themselves without any sheep or goat. In that situation they tend to take up jobs with settled communities. This inherent instability of the pastoral nomadic groups dictates its relationship with other pastoral or settled communities. A community suddenly finding itself without its herds can attack neighbouring pastoral or settled communities. Pastoral societies are characterised by the domination of warlike males bound to each other by ties of loyalty. Physical valor and courage are among the most valued attributes. Their mobility gives them significant advantages as warriors, even against the armies of sedentary peoples. Many scholars believe that early states emerged when nomadic groups conquered agricultural communities. Early Mesopotamian literature refers to nomadic groups who created kingdoms. Early Greeks and Aryans were nomadic people who shaped the nature of civilizations in Greece and India. The Hsiung-nu (known as the Huns in the West) destroyed the Roman empire and Indian kingdoms in the fourth- fifth century. The most
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famous leader of nomadic groups was Changez Khan. In the thirteenth century he created the largest empire hitherto known. Pastoral nomads often destroyed kingdoms in areas where sedentary agriculture was practiced. The capacity of the civilised centers to support vastly greater populations, to develop greater occupational diversity, and to produce lasting institutions has given agriculturists advantage over nomadic peoples. However, the impact of pastoral nomads has been significant in history.


In places like West Asia, Egypt, India and China climatic changes led to the emergence of farming as the dominant form of living. These people also domesticated animals. However, agriculture was the dominant survival strategy for them. When food production and animal domestication combined as a mode of life it was a revolution. The transition from foraging to farming is one of the turning points in our history. The seasonally mobile life of hunter-gatherers, who obtained their food from wild plants and animals, was replaced by the settled life of farmers, who cultivated crops and raised domesticated livestock. This shift to sedentary life led to the growth of population and village settlement, the development of crafts such as pottery and metallurgy, and eventually to states and cities.

Food production and animal domestication represented a changed outlook for food quest. It represented a planning not for a day but for a season – for the long term. This new agricultural economy expanded at the expense of the old foraging way of life. Slowly and steadily agriculture became the dominant mode of life. Even today it remains the dominant occupation of the majority of humans. Last two hundred years of industrial revolution have reshaped the contours of the world. However, even now in a country like India almost 75% of the people are agriculturists. The soil they work on is an artificial soil fashioned by thousands of years of labour.


The beginning of agriculture and its spread to large parts of the earth had far reaching consequences for the human societies. We discuss a few of these in this section

5.12.1 Birth of Village Culture

Hunter–gatherers moved their homes according to the seasonal migration of animals and availability of fruits and roots. Unlike hunting gathering, agriculture requires that the farmer stays in one place for a long period. He has to sow seeds, he has to water the plants and he has to protect the saplings from birds and animals. Only after four to six months are the plants ready for harvesting. This means that unlike hunting–gathering, agriculture encourages settling down in one place. That is why the beginning of agriculture is connected with the emergence of villages. Although, foraging communities founded villages and towns in some places where plentiful supply of food was available all the year round, such places were rare. In domesticating animals and plants humans necessarily domesticated themselves. This world covered with roads and paths, huts and houses, hamlets, villages and towns is a creation of our agricultural ancestors. These are the places archaeologists dig up.

5.12.2 Increase in Population and Expansion of Settlements

Settled agricultural populations tend to expand both numerically and territorially. Population growth is higher among sedentary communities. Crops provided farmers with more dependable supplies of grain based weaning foods such as gruel and porridge, as well as milk, once the goats and sheep began to be milked. The average interval between births would have been reduced, leading to increase in population. It has been estimated that in the Fertile Crescent the size of settlements increased ten fold in the transition to food production. Hunter
- gatherers lived in groups of twenty or thirty because large numbers could create food shortages. Farmers could grow more food than hunter-gatherers could collect. They could support more people on small plots of land. Unlike the hunter-gatherers, farmers could grow food which they could store for a long time. Thus, villages with population of hundreds of people came into existence.

The coming of agriculture meant that crops were sown in areas where they did not grow naturally. Thus, there was an artificial extension of the production niche. While hunter-gatherers depended on nature to provide them food, agriculturists actively created new landscapes of cultivated crops. Thus, cultivators colonised many new areas uninhabited in the earlier period. Agriculture also led to an increase in the carrying capacity of land. Various calculations suggest that a hunter-gather would need roughly four square kilometers of land to feed him in a year’s time. A very small chunk of land could support large number of agriculturists. However, the coming of agriculture also meant slavery for many people. Chiefs hungry for power and wealth forced other members of the community to take up cultivation and part with a part of the produce.

Domestication of plants is continuing in modern times too. Many of the colourful flowers growing in our gardens were brought from the Himalayas in the twentieth century. Similarly, many plants with medicinal properties have been discovered and domesticated in the present century. Everyday some botanist discovers some useful property in a plant and in many cases such discoveries are followed by growing those plants artificially. Unfortunately, because of the large scale destruction of forests many plants are destroyed even before their medicinal properties are discovered.

5.12.3 Emergence of Tribal Communities

Coming of agriculture is also related to the emergence of long terms patterns of cooperation. Hunting–gathering groups need cooperation for organising hunt. Once the hunt is over and game has been shared the group ceases to exist. Agriculturists need cooperation from sowing to harvesting. Unlike a typical hunting expedition which might last a day or a week, agriculturists have to cooperate in the production process lasting at least four months. While agriculturists are waiting for the crops to grow, they survive on the food produced by farmers in the previous season. So, there is a need for cooperation among food producing groups across the year. No wonder agricultural societies are characterised by large kinship networks which are the institutional frame for cooperation among the farmers.
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5.12.4 New Epidemics and Diseases

The coming of agriculture had some important consequences for the health and hygiene of people. While a regular supply of food seems to have increased their longevity (Australopithecus lived for 25 years only), sedentary life created ideal environments for mosquitoes especially when they started storing water, irrigating crops, or settling near swampy or marshy land. These mosquitoes were the carriers of diseases like malaria. The trash that accumulated around villages attracted pests, some of which were hosts for diseases. A famous, later, example was the medieval spread of bubonic plague through the infestation of rats whose fleas carried the disease.

5.12.5 New Forms of Order and Dispute

Permanent houses meant substantial investments in labour. Similarly, agricultural fields too required a considerable investment of labour. Agricultural communities would defend their fields and homes much more than the foraging groups. In case there is a conflict among foragers the losing side simply leaves the place. Agriculturists tend to stay in their villages even if the victors take away part of their produce or give them a subordinate status. Thus coming of agriculture changed the significance of war. It also paved the way for the creation of societies based on inequality.


Humans have lived on earth for more than 2.5 million years. However, they left only scant and equivocal traces. Because the evidence is scanty new excavations can change long held views. We are still unsure about the time when speech, art, kinship or exchange originated. Similar is the case of the consequences of the birth of agriculture. For example the ongoing excavations at Catalhoyuk in Turkey seem to indicate that people numbering in tens of thousands settled down there not for cultivation but for some still mysterious cultural reason (see There is no inevitability about evolution. All societies need not move along a given technological trajectory. Many communities can be happy being hunter-gatherers. Their developments might be in the direction of the extension of kinship networks and traditions of collective rituals of dancing and singing. However, in the field of technology there have been major changes which have given advantage to some communities in their struggle to wrest a comfortable life from nature. These advances in technology also made it easier to subjugate other human communities.

Some scholars have calculated that the total number of people who have lived on the earth since the coming of the Homo sapiens sapiens is somewhere between 70 to a 100 thousand million. All these people lived on earth, breathing, working and creating the world we have inherited. We are the most successful species on earth. Our control over the life on earth has come at a tremendous cost to other species. As humans became more and more successful hunters they drove many species like mammoths to extinction. This process has accelerated in the wake of the progress of the human civilization. In today’s world while the numbers of the homo sapiens grows phenomenally, jungles and wild life are disappearing with even greater rapidity. The debate whether we are fallen angels or risen apes will rage endlessly but we need to remember that the blood flowing in our veins is 99% like those of the chimpanzees. All living

species on this earth are at our mercy. We are tied to them by the web of life. Their destruction might prove fatal to us. The sooner we realise it the better.


1) Give a brief account of development of Homo Sapiens Sapiens.

2) What is kinship? How did it emerge?

3) What role did language play in the process of human development?

4) Write a short note on Pastoral nomadism.

5) Discuss in brief the consequences of agriculture.
Implications for the World


Early Human Societies



Carrying Capacity : The maximum population of a given species that can be supported by the food potentiality available to it from the biological resources of an area.

Desiccation : A climatic condition that is associated with dryness and lack of moisture.

Diffusion : The spread of ideas, traits or people from one area to another.

Ecosystem : The total living community of a single environment – the flora, fauna, insects and human beings - and the relationship of the constituent parts as well as their relationship with the non- organic environment.

Ethnography : Scientific description of different human races.

Fertile Crescent : It is the arc of the fertile land that is covered by the mountains and foothills of Israel, Jordan and Syria to the west, Turkey to the north and Iran to the east.

Holocene : The present geological epoch that set in with the end of the Pleistocene epoch.

Hybridization : A process of crossbreeding (in this case of cereals).

Loess : One of the wind-blown sediments, silt, which is derived from glacial deposits and is carried long distance before its deposition. Because of its exceptional fertility areas of loess were especially chosen for settlement by early farmers.

Megaliths : Large stone monuments, mostly tombs

Mesolithic : Relating to the period in prehistory immediately following the Ice Age when people still lived by hunting and food gathering but in some places had begun very basic farming practices.

Morphology : Scientific study of the form and structure of animals and plants.

Necropolis : A large cemetery

Neolithic : Relating to the New Stone Age or period of prehistoric farming before the introduction of metal- working.

Pleistocene Epoch : A geological beginning about 1.6 million years ago and ending about 10,000 years ago.

Prehistory : The study of the period of history before there were written records.

Reliefs : A three-dimensional carving or sculpture etc., in which features are represented as raised above the general plane.

Slash and Burn : The primitive form of agriculture that is also known as Swidden and shifting cultivation. It is one of the earliest form of cultivation. It consists of the clearance of small forest areas by the burning and cutting down of trees and bushes, followed by the planting of crops in the clearance.

Stock Raising : The breeding and maintenance of animals.

Upper Paleolithic : Relating to that part of the Old Stone Age
(Paleolithic) that lasted from approximately
40,000 to 12,000 years ago.


Early Human Societies



A.H. Dani and J.P. Mohen, Ed., History of Humanity, Vol. II, From the Third
Millenium to 7th Century BC, (Scientific and Cultural Development), UNESCO
– Rout ledge, 1996, New York
A.M. Khazanov, Nomads and the Outside World, translated by Julia, Crookenden, Cambridge, 1984
Amar Farooqui, Early Social Formations, Manak Publications, Delhi, 2001
Barbara Bender, Farming in Prehistory. From Hunter-gatherer to Food
Producer, London, 1975
Barth, F. 1965 Nomads of South Persia, London
Brian Fagan, People of the Earth: An Introduction to World Prehistory, Illinois,
Brian M. Fagan, People of the Earth: An Introduction to World Prehistory,
Illinois, 1989
Charles A. Reed ed., Origins of Agriculture , The Hague, 1977
D. Harris and G. Hillman ed., Foraging and Farming. The Evolution of Plant
Exploitation, Oxford, 1989
Fox, Robin. Kinship and Marriage: An Anthropological Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [orig. 1967] 1989
Goodall, Jane. The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.
Grahame Clark, World Prehistory in New Perspective Cambridge, 1977
J. Clutton-Brock ed., The Walking Larder. Patterns of Domestication, Pastoralism and Predation, London, 1989
Joachim Herrmann, Erik Ziircher (ed.), History of Humanity, Vol. III, From the Seventh Century BC to Seventh Century AD (Scientific and Cultural Development), UNESCO-Rouledge, Newyork, 1996
Lee, Richard B. What Hunters Do for a Living: Or, How to Make Out on Scarce Resources; In Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore, eds., Man the Hunter, pp. 30-48. Chicago: Aldine, 1968
Lewis Binford, ‘Post-Pleistocene Adaptations’ in New Perspectives in
Archaeology ed. by R. Binford and L.R. Binford, Chicago, 1968
M. Cohen, The Food Crisis in Prehistory, New Haven and London,1977
M.A. Al Bakhit, L. Bazin, S.M. Cissoko (Eds.), History of Humanity – Vol. IV,
From the Seventh to Sixteenth Century (Scientific and Cultural Development) Richard Leakey, The Making of Mankind, London, 1981
Robert J. Wenke, Patterns in Prehistory OUP, 1999. All references to Wenke in Unit 1 and 2 and illustrations are from 1984 edition of OUP .
S. J. De Laet ed., History of Humanity, Vol. I Prehistory and the Beginnings of
Civilizations, UNESCO-Rouledge, Newyork, 1994
Stone, Linda, Kinship and Gender, Westview Press, Harper-Collins, Boulder,
V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History, Harmondsworth, 1962 edition
Wilson, Peter,The Domestication of the Human Species. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1989

Indira Gandhi National Open University
School of Social Sciences
Ancient and Medieval

Early Human Societies 1


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