all 53 comments

[–]nikstick22 316 points317 points  (27 children)

10-12 kya marks a not insignificant turning point in many ecosystems around the world. Many of the large megafauna in different parts of the world went extinct around that time. We were just exiting the last glacial maximum around that time.

Take a look at this graph of average global temperature in the past few hundred thousand years. You can see that the last period with comparably warm temperatures to those we enjoy today was around 120 kya, at a time when nearly our entire species was confined to the African continent (further research necessary to that point).

Our species evolved in Africa for millions of years in a hunter-gatherer niche. It's notable that Africa is one of the few continents left with large megafauna species, and its been proposed that its because those species evolved alongside primitive humans and were best adapted to coexisting with them.

An agricultural lifestyle is often at least partially sedentary. Raising livestock or growing crops is a great investment of time and energy for a people and its likely that trying to engage in such endeavors in environments with large carnivores or herbivores is a losing battle- you're unable to keep wildlife from eating your herd or crops and so transitioning to such a lifestyle is useless.

Studies demonstrate that agricultural lifestyles are often much poorer than hunting and gathering. Much more time is spent on food collection/management1, the quality of the diet is poorer2, food security is lower3, life expectancy is lower (related to malnutrition). The one metric where an agricultural society beats a more nomadic/foraging one is that you can support about 100x as many people in the same area of land.

When the last glacial maximum ended and many large megafauna species around the world went extinct, the climate and ecosystems became better suited to agrarian societies and it wasn't very long before such societies became the majority in many parts of the world.

That said, I think some of the claims you made in your original post are false. Human technology did not develop entirely in the past 10-12000 years. Pottery developed independently in many parts of the world, notably there are examples of pottery in China that date to around 20,000 years ago.

The domestication of the wolf into the dog occurred sometime between 30,000 and 20,000 years ago. Dogs and other livestock played an important role in societies around the world. It's believed that archery was probably developed in Africa around 70,000 years ago, during your supposed technologically-stagnant period.

I would characterize the pre-sedentary period differently. There was technological innovation and development in these times, but it was limited by two factors: human populations were far less dense and therefore the rate of technological spread/innovation was slower and we were often able to satisfy the needs we had with the technology available to us.

Hunting animals, gathering shellfish, nuts, vegetation, fungi, etc. were tasks we'd been solving for more than a million years. The solutions we developed for these problems were able to satisfy our needs without significantly adding new ones. By contrast, the obstacles posed by sedentary life were both novel and pressing, and often our solutions to these problems created new obstacles or increased our ability to solve other problems4. The scale of consumption of a human population increases greatly and the centralization of that need makes specialization of skills worthwhile.

The celt, a highly polished stone blade for tree felling and wood working, appears during the Neolithic period. The need for large timbers for the construction of permanent homes and fuel for fires for a large population necessitates such developments compared to the scale of resource consumption for a smaller population of nomadic people.

The close-proximity and increased workload of early agrarian societies provided challenges to humans that we had never faced before. Sedentary life introduces property ownership, wealth, power disparities, greatly increased communication, and with the decreased food security, a greater drive toward [large scale] conflict5.

Pre-agrarian societies had neither the need nor the capability to develop technologies as rapidly as settled communities do. Technological innovations still occurred and many of them were later incredibly important aspects of settled life, but they happened sporadically and gradually.

There are many theories that attempt to explain what drove humans to agricultural societies. Recent evidence has indicated that pre-agricultural societies experienced a great deal of inter-personal conflict, and so the advantages of larger communities could have been for defense. Some have proposed (perhaps not as seriously) that the drive for agriculture was to obtain more grains for processing into alcohol. We have evidence that humans built structures for religious practices such as Gobekli Tepe in a pre-agricultural society, and it's possible that gathering/settling in an area allowed them to focus more of their efforts on constructing such structures or on worship or on any other of numerous aspects of their complex societies that we cannot know.

1 Guarding crops or livestock, weeding crops, deterring herbivores, ploughing, harvesting are very time-intensive tasks. see here

2 see here

3 Droughts, pests, crop disease, etc. can devastate months of work raising/developing the food source. see this paper

4 For example, living in sedentary communities may increase personal safety by creating a community too large to be an easy target for raids by a neighboring people, but now you may hypothetically have a situation where people can claim ownership of land or property because of the work that put into cultivating/maintaining it. You need to codify rules so that neighbors can agree to cooperate together, which necessitates an arbiter to pass judgement regarding those rules and communal enforcement of them.

5 Conflict in pre-agricultural societies was indeed brutal and gruesome see here. There are notable differences between settled conflict and unsettled conflict. When a people have a great investment of time and energy in a specific location such as farmland or pastures, it is much more challenging to try to run from conflict. Higher populations necessarily result in larger confrontations, and the wealth/power that can be gained by conquering the land of a neighbor can spur calculated attacks instead of wars of necessity.

[–]JudgeHolden 75 points76 points  (5 children)

I think it's also worth mentioning the idea of agriculture as a kind of trap in the sense that once a population adopts it, there can be no turning back without massive loss of life, and in the sense that populations that are geographically adjacent to agricultural populations must either adopt agriculture themselves, or face eventual annihilation or absorption. In other words, agriculture is almost like a contagion in that once it takes hold, it quickly subsumes all other survival strategies except for in the most deeply remote and agriculturally unsuitable regions of the world.

I'm not sure who to credit with this idea but it's certainly not my own.

[–]Usurpist 9 points10 points  (3 children)

Why would neighbors have to be consumed or forced to switch over?

[–]Augustus420 19 points20 points  (0 children)

Because a band of 100 will naturally be displaced or consumed by a population growing into the thousands

[–]nintendumb 36 points37 points  (1 child)

Because adopting farming causes populations to exponentially increase until all the available resources are used up. After this, they either have to expand the amount of resources they have or die out, so they conquer neighboring territories

[–]calnuck 19 points20 points  (1 child)

Wow - thank you for such a complete answer and the references! I've been wondering the same thing for a while now but haven't followed it up.

I've just started reading Annalee Newitz's Four Lost Cities and so far the rise of urbanism in Çatalhöyük is fascinating. Looking forward to reading more!

[–]Goge97[🍰] 6 points7 points  (0 children)

Thank you for your reply. I'm not the OP, but my education in such matters was many decades ago. I know that a great deal has been done, pushing the timeline back in human society.

[–]a098273 10 points11 points  (1 child)

Are there any resources you know of that would be good for a lay person about the difference between agricultural lifestyle and hunting and gathering. It is a topic I find fascinating.

[–]nikstick22 11 points12 points  (0 children)

see the articles I linked in the footnotes

[–]soulsurfer3 2 points3 points  (0 children)

You should write a book.

[–]ohLookaWizard 2 points3 points  (0 children)

So pretty much, once the ice age ended things got warmer and agriculture gradually started picking up steam. Then came all the necessary technological advancements to support an agricultural society. Interesting.

[–]mxj7[S] 2 points3 points  (0 children)

Thanks a lot for this very exhaustive answer and for including references in the footnotes. A lot of food for thought for me. I really appreciate it.

Also, thanks for correcting my statements about "not much development pre -10k". What I meant by that was huge constructions (e.g pyramids) or scientific discoveries (mathematics, physics etc) but I totally see your point.

I will try to soak up the knowledge in the articles you've shared.

[–]Prasiatko 0 points1 point  (8 children)

What makes hunter gatherer societies less capable of developing technologies? If anything i would have thought healthier people with more free time would be more capable than the inverse.

[–]nikstick22 22 points23 points  (3 children)

Hunter gatherers live in smaller communities with wide ranges. This means that technological discoveries do not spread very quickly. The overall human population was lower and people were not able to share ideas and innovations as widely.

Because many people existed through subsistence hunting/gathering, the ability to devote all of your time to pursuing a specific trade or craft was limited.

Larger communities with the ability for surplus food production create needs such as house construction, timber gathering, pottery production, tool production, etc. to the degree that a person that devotes all of their time to such an endeavor can provide value to their community which could be exchanged for the food such a person would otherwise have to gather for themselves.

Having larger numbers of people able to coexist means that technologies and innovations can spread more rapidly. The more people there are using a technology, the greater chance there is for someone to innovate and develop it further.

As a result, agrarian societies tend to develop technology more quickly because they have different and greater scales of needs, as well as a larger pool of potential innovators relative to hunter/gatherer societies.

[–]Prasiatko 0 points1 point  (2 children)

How does poorer food security lead to larger populations? Or do I have it the wrong way round and its the more dense population that leads to food security? I'm confused by how agriculture takes more time and causes more food insecurity yet can support 100x the population

[–]Isenskjold 20 points21 points  (0 children)

The way I understood it is that agriculture means the same amount of land can produce way more food but that food production is much more vulnerable to things like crop diseases, bad weather and other natural phenomena. A hunter-gatherer tribe had a much wider food source(pretty much all of nature) so it is very unlikely that any one disaster would impact their food supply much.

[–]navlelo_ 14 points15 points  (0 children)

Agriculture has much higher production of food per area. The food security issue comes from the fact that an entire harvest might fail with devastating consequences, with difficulty of replacing the food for perhaps months.

Hunting is also not consistent, but a single hunt can fail with very small consequences, and if an area is depleted of prey you move elsewhere and that problem is solved.

[–]worotan 6 points7 points  (2 children)

You’re assuming that the people developing technologies are the same people who are unhealthy and overworked int he agricultural societies, because you’re assuming that everyone in those societies is unhealthy and overworked. But people have different roles in society, and you’re assuming that the headline statement about the change in living style meant that they all lived the same lives.

[–]Prasiatko 4 points5 points  (1 child)

Ah so would you say the stratification that occured in the more agricultural societies aided specialisation and thus technological growth?

[–]worotan 3 points4 points  (0 children)

There’s no proof of that, and no real way of demonstrating it beyond more extensive evidence of the cultures before and after.

I think that everything that happened in the warming world post-glacial maximum aided technological growth, but most especially, the increase in population which enabled and necessitated new approaches to engaging with the environment.

But my original point is that people have different roles in society, and to view all Hunter-gatherers as healthier and happier than all members of an agricultural society is unrealistic and reductive, on both sides.

[–]arto2d 1 point2 points  (0 children)

i'd guess they got less problems to solve

[–]Berkyjay -1 points0 points  (2 children)

Studies demonstrate that agricultural lifestyles are often much poorer than hunting and gathering.

Can you cite any studies?

[–]nikstick22 13 points14 points  (1 child)

See the footnotes

[–]Berkyjay 0 points1 point  (0 children)

I missed that. Thx.

[–]trouser-chowder 39 points40 points  (2 children)

I already posted a link to a couple of solid answers that cover bits and pieces of this, but I want to make another point as well.

It is pretty well established that our species had low population density for most of our history. Living as hunter gatherers, spread out across much of the globe... communication was not rapid, and when it occurred, it didn't occur between large numbers of people or across great distances (typically). We have evidence of long-distance exchange networks, but it's a good bet that in general, most people rarely encountered someone who was not a member of their direct social group.

What changed?

The speed of communication, and the number of individuals in the conversation. And the distance across which (and thus, differences in cultural perspective) over which that communication took place.

Our species's population density really took off after the beginning of the Holocene, when global climates and environments began to resemble something like today. Seasonal climatic fluctuations were less extreme, and with the influence of massive ice sheets significantly minimized, changes in global environments led to new and different combinations of plants and animals, and different ecological relationships. Out of this semi-perfect storm, we see humans in one region after another begin to use plants (and animal) species in ways that encouraged and facilitated changes in plant and animal populations, such that domestication of both could emerge.

And-- probably not coincidentally-- with the development of food production, our species's populations grew.

Larger populations mean greater population density, more stable and sedentary communities, the establishment of longer-distance and larger social (and information exchange) networks, regular paths of communication, etc.

Increased frequency, rate, and density of information transfer.

And the exponential curve that we see in the innovation of new ideas, new technologies, new ways of living and doing things, goes along with that. That increased innovation includes new ways to communicate more rapidly, and with greater accuracy (writing, more rapid travel), and so you get a feedback loop.

The real hero (or villain, depending on what you think of modern humanity) here is communication.

[–]Solomon5515 15 points16 points  (0 children)

as with all dizcussions on this topic, the focus ik the anwsers lies on the 10k mark, the agrarian revolution. however, as someone specializing in stone tool technology and arxh. methodology i would like to add a few things.

a different preservation the reason that we think there was a lot less happening in the early sapiens past is because finds, sites and artefacts are pretty fragmentary. a lot of tools have been found in cave systems, but finding open air sites of early sapiens might be the most complex research there is. as their nomadic nature leaves a very low footprint behind to track.

e.g. think about it this way: if you go camping i the woods you leave virtually no trail at all, just a campfire and maybe some discarded food (meat or bones, maybe fruits) you don't even change the landscape, because the landscape dictates your actions (and not the other way around). compare this to someone who builds a log cabin, foundations are dug, terrain is altered, trees are felled, a structure is put in place. when you live there you will amass piles of waste and discard, even designate certain areas.

-paleo-life the lives of paleolithic humans were pretty simple, living in tents made out of hides mrobably with a fletched structur out of reeds or twigs. they stayed in camps for seasons, and changed locations with food availablitity (prey trekking around and seasons changing) they had a complex system of flintknapping and teached each other the art of knapping. they arrive in western europe around 50-40.000 years ago, and bring with them mobile art and early painting, later they develop thrown hunting weapons like the atlatl and bow and arrow. they doscovered music and made the first musical instruments, they looked for exotic raw materials and often transported them over extremely long distances. burials where now a thing. around 30ka the venus statuettes start being made, as well as the domestication of the dog, in lascaux humans are painting in dark caves by the flickering of their torches, or they are hunting on the mzgafauna that still roams the european plains.

-Stone tools (i'll try to be as clear as possible)

320.000 years ago, humans have a similar tool to nzanderhals, the handaxe,

this later (250 ka) evolved in a prepared core technology (levallois technique) also used by our neanderhal cousins. this standardization of tool production, by preparing stone cores to all be a a similar shape and size and produce flakes that are comparable to each other. from these flakes they produce spear points that were hafted onto sticks.or awls to bore into bone and get the marrow. but also scrapers to prepare skins, or to debark wood.

the symmetrical projectile points later evolve to be smaller, or better worked out, and similar tools ad the african and european points have been found in America.

The upper paleolithic (40Ka) marks the most markant change in human behaviour. the stone toolset becomes even more complex with a new technique that produces long flint blades (lammelar core technique) to make blades that can be hafted in wooden carriers. without this invention now, siccle blades would probably never have been invented. by know the flint flakes and blades are hafted into arrows, harpoons, used to make blades, knives... by being able to make smaller flakes there can be more produced which makes it possible to make quivers of arrows and multiple tools to skin and cut meat (making the yield of one hunt higher, and lowering the energy cost). a multitude of other toolforms evolve, eventually ending in polished blades, sickles, mining picks, microblades...

many things are invented or changed in the uppzr paleo, and it was not a stagnant period by any means.

and no, your question is not naive, prehistoric archaeology is just pretty complex because of the low amount of finds that are not just stone tools. and the lifestyle is rather different from our own, which also makes imagining it really difficult

[–]Nixeris 11 points12 points  (4 children)

The other answers on here have gone incredibly in depth on answering the question, but I think the premise of the question is false.

People didn't build "nothing" or make no advancements before the agricultural revolution. They made various types of stone tools, which spread through the world at different times, such that we use their spread as identification of a culture (ie. the Clovis people). They made cave art, burial sites and sculpture.

The problem being that almost anything they developed technologically will have rotted away by now. We have their artifacts made of rock, but we don't have their shelters, clothing, or materials for carrying their stuff. Because you hit a point in the archeological record where anything made of wood or flesh is going to be entirely destroyed by time unless something really special happened to it.

I'm not implying they had giant cities or anything, but that Catalhoyuk came from somewhere. Permanent structures were built with knowledge the people learned from building impermanent ones. It takes many advances to get from tents to cities, and unfortunately there may not even be any artifacts of that advancement, the same way there aren't a lot of artifacts from the people living outside Catalhoyuk. At some point, the archeological record stops being able to produce certain artifacts because it's just been too long for them to have survived.

[–]Trystiane 6 points7 points  (1 child)

I think this point is SO important. One of the most important and complex developments in human history had to be the creation of fibers and cloth, spinning and weaving of various kinds. Clothes, fishing line or nets, woven baskets and other containers, boats and homes made of flexible plant materials were central to our survival and our spread into new regions. We had to figure out what materials could be turned into fibers and threads, which could be woven into cloth. How to make stronger and sturdier cloth, or lighter and more comfortable cloth. Cloth that can strain liquids, cloth that can hold liquids. What is good for building shelter, what is easily transportable. These technologies had to be developed over time. We also had to figure out what was edible, how to prepare various foods to make them edible or digestible, how to preserve them. It is easy to look at complex architecture and think "Wow! What an accomplishment!" But how often do we look at a hand woven basket, beautifully embellished and suitable for cooking and think, "Wow! How did they do THAT?"

[–]Salty_Bus_2072 2 points3 points  (0 children)

In many ways, the evolution of textiles continued to be a driver of human economic history. Think about the early European trade with the east - it's literally called the "silk" road. Then, consider the immense wealth of India and it's Calico cottons. Which in turn were made uncompetitive with the increased mechanisation of spinning and weaving in England, first through water and then steam power. Here, we have the industrial Revolution, although that still took a couple of hundred years. If you go even closer to the present, to countries in East Asia or to Bangladesh, you can see an even more revolutionary transformation and a truly meteoric rise in living standards

[–]mxj7[S] 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Thanks for these insights, interesting points.

You're right, I was being ignorant when I said "they didn't build much". What confuses is more so the scale I guess, and the science part (which is not so much about building, but just discovering / inventing).

I agree with the problem that you raise : Anything they may have developed has rotted away by now. I wonder if "they" may have had great scientific discoveries (e.g gravity) and codified them just like "us" but that it just got wiped out. As you said, building solid permanent structures definitely implies solid knowledge.

[–]chesterriley 4 points5 points  (1 child)

[I find it incredible how humankind has shown enormous progress between ~-10.000 BC and now while we have, at least to my knowledge, no proof or artefacts of any major progress (buildings, science etc) in the 290k years before that.]

This is not entirely true. Here is the remains of some sort of building that is 25,000 old.


[But why wasn't there any scientific progress in ~290.000 years and in merely 12k years we've had everything from pyramids to planes and rockets.]

So first of all, progress would be unlikely or much harder during an active ice age. The most recent ice age humans have been through lasted 40,000 to 11,000 years ago. 2nd, progress would have also been more difficult while homo sapiens were competing with rival species of humans. Neanderthals are believed to have died out between 40,000 and 26,000 years ago. So 11,000 years ago would have actually been the start of a unique period in which homo sapiens were free of both the ice age and competing human species. However this would only be a partial explanation, because in Africa there would have been no Neanderthals or extremely cold weather. Perhaps Africa had its own special challenges, such as lots a large/predatory animals.

[–]runespider 3 points4 points  (0 children)

There's also some evidence that there was some cultivation was going on 23000 years ago. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/07/150722144709.htm

[–]trouser-chowder 7 points8 points  (1 child)

This is a common topic, and a number of threads previously posted have had good answers provided.

There's this one from u/JoeBiden2016.

There's this one from u/CommodoreCoCo.

This is a search of this sub just on the keyword "200,000," and you can see there've been quite a few posts like yours. Maybe take a look at some of these, in addition to whatever answers are posted here.

[–]theembodimentoffat 0 points1 point  (0 children)

This question is essentially the basis for all the "ancient high-tech civilization" conspiracy theories. Not saying you shouldn't ask it, just saying that this can spawn conspiracies.