The Neolithic Agricultural Revolution: Commerce and War

agricultural revolution
Figure 1.--Countless repercussions flowed from the neolithic (agricultural) revolution. Two of the most consequential were commmerce and war--often closely related activities. And stange as it may seem, it was the humble donkey domesticated from the wild ass that played a major role in the development of both of these activies. Here we see three Egyptian children on a donkey in the 1920s. Photographer: Donald McLeish.

Commerce and war are two related developments that came out of the agricultural revolution of the late neolithic. Of course early man surely conducted trade tradeat a very eraly point. But there was no commerce in the modern sence unril people settled down anf began farming. Hunter gatherer bands had to take possessions with them, thus they could carry very little in the way of trade goods. There were no beasts of burden until millenia after the advent of agriculture. Thus trade was vitually non-existent until late in the neolithic area. Agriculture also meant that civilizations had something valuable to trade--grain. Transport was only posible by boat whuch restricted possible markets. Only with the domestication of the donkey (about 2800 BC), a way to transport goods other than riverine routes. There is avery close relationship between trade and war. If some has something you want, there is two ways of obtaining it, by trade or force. Anthropologists debate how such enounters transpired in the neolithic era. Some see early man as war like and violent. Yet ther are good reason to think that there may have mant peaceful encounters. War is dangerous and in a world in which th human population was samall, there was nuch to be gaimed from peaceful encounters, such as information, mates, and sacrce good. Yet throughout history a fine line separated trade and commerce. This was clearly evident with the ancient Greeks, but in more modrn history we see it with the Portugese, Durch, English, and others. And war as opposed to violent squirmishes could only begin with substantial populations and settled lands to defend. Af first only wars between neigboring people was possible. Waging wars at any distance required beasts of burden to transport weapons, food, and water. Again the domestivation of the humble donkey made this possible.

Violence in the Neolithic

Recorded history is a very minor part of man's existence. Thus until very recently we could only speculate about man's inherent propensity for violence and war making. Thus the issue was addressed by religious figures and philosphers. The Bible with Cain and Able story suggests an inherent propensity for violence. The subject was touched on by Roman authors (including Cicero and Lucretius) who were strong supporters of the Roman Republic. They became very popular as classical literature was rediscovered by the Renaissance humanists. English philospher Thomas Hobbes is perhaps the strongest philosophical voice postulating man's violent nature. Hobbes's vission was part of his justification of the doctriune of royal absolutism. [Hobbes] in Leviathan. There he wrote that the state of nature is a "war of all against all" in which men's lives are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". Europe at the time was encountering primitive people in Latin America, Africa, and Oceania. Some of these people were little removed from Neolithic man so Europe essentially came into contact with people of the Neolithic era. At the time Hobbes wrote, the religious and philosphical underpinings of absolute divine right monrchies were being undermined by the dreadful religious wars (17th century). And a range of European authors took issue with Hobbes. One of the first important author to speculate that in a state of nature that humans were essentially good was the Earl of Shaftesbury, an important Whig supporter of constitutional monarchy. And only a short time after Hobbes published Leviathan, the a Glorious Revolution transformed England and began the assault on royal absolutism (1688). Shaftesbury wrote a decade later at the onset of the Enlightenment that the moral sense in humans is natural and innate. He insisted that it was based on inate feelings rather than resulting from religious or moral teaching. A popular theme of the Enligtenment was the 'noble savage'. The term was first coined by John Dryden (1672). [Dryden] The term is often associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, along wih other Engligtenment authors, contended that man was born an innocent in a state of nature with the potential for goodness and that it was civilization which promoted greed, envy, and violence, a theme that appeals to the 2011 Wall Street protestors. The debate has been philosphical and most authors assumed that it was an unanswerable issue. Modern technology is, however, beginning to provide some definitive data on war and vilence in the Neolithic era.

Domestication of the Donkey

The donkey (burro) and camel proved valuable beasts of burden making trade possible over distances like the Silk Road. The donkey was the first beast of burden, millenia bfore the camel. The humble donkey may be thd most underappreciated of all animls. Not only was the donkey important in agriculture and trade, it was commonly unappreciated as a vital animal in warfare. The donkey actually made war, as opposed to localized raiding, possible. An army of any size could not move any significan distance without a way of transporting weapons, food, water, and other supplies. And the donkey provided a way to move these supplies. Geneticists believe that wild asses (Equus africanus asinusin) of northeast Africa which inhabited what is now Somalia and Sudan (Nubia) are the ancestors of modern donkeys. The humble donkey was vital in the spread of commerce and trading which also meant the spread and sharing of ideas. These animals appear to have been captured and domesticated in Egypt and western Asia (Mesopotamia) (around 2800-2500 B.C.). This was, however, just the beginning. It took another millenium that the donkey became the common means of transportation through the Old World (1000 BC). We know about the domestication of donkeys because it occured so early, perhaps about 3000 BC. Archaeological finds and ancient art tell us little until anout this time. King Tutankhamen's tomb contained depictions of wild ass hunts. Donkeys were used for a great range of purposes by ancient people. The animals were first hunted and then domesticated. Once domesticated They provided a means of transportation for agricultural goods, humans, and trade goods. The donkey was the firt beast of burden available to ancient people

Early Battle in History

Many great battles were fought in the ancient world. Some are lost to history. Others are known, but details are lacking. In most cases the information comes from the victors, thus our information is often biased. Ancient accounts site huge numbers of combatants. These may have been used primarily for literary affect. While these battles occurred in some cases over two millennia ago, they had a powerful impact on shaping our modern world. We have information about some of these battles about these battles as a result of a variety of sources. The first battle we know recorded in any detail by history is Megiddo (1479 BC), although information is still sparse. The first battle for which relatively detailed information exists is Qadesh (1274). Quite a bit of information is available on the battles of the Greek and Roman era. We assume that information on Chinese battles is available, but here we are not yet familiar with the literature. The relative isolation of China is notable, although China did influence developments in Central Asia which would affect the West. The trajectory of these battles with a complicated up and down pattern laid the foundation for the future rise of the west, although we end the ancient era with the fall of Rome. Two areas remained outside the general thrust of history. The Indian subcontinent was only tangentially tied into world history and Native Americans in the New World completely isolated.

International Commerce

Commerce in the modern sence of international trade was not possible until agriculture developed and settled communities developed. Hunter gathers were not traders. They could not carry quantities of goods as they moved about. This thaey had little to trade. As agricultural people did not move about like nomads, they were limited to locally available resources. With settled life, we have urban development and a range of technological innovations. All of this led to the need or demand for materials not locally available like furs, metals, salt, timber, and much else. The result was the birth of international trade. Cities located close to each other did not have much to trade. The basically harvested the same crops and produced the same goods. It was cities at distance from each other that had needed trade goods. What was needed for commerce was transport. Boats beginning with rafts have very ancient origins, but boats that could carry significant cargoes are much more recent. This probably meant planked boats which developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt (about 3000 BC). This permitted the efficent movement of goods any distance for the first time, but rivers often did go where the trader wanted to go even sea transport was developed. This problem began to be solved about the same time. With the domestication of the donkey land trade routes, meaning possible invasion routes. came into existence (about 2800 BC). The Assyrians were one of the great warrior nations of Mesopotamia. It is no accident that the Assyrians were also important traders. Some of the first documented records on interrnational trade come from Assyrian cuneiform tablets (19th century BC). They came from as Assyriam merchant colony at Kanesh in Cappadocia, central Anatolia. From that time. international trade has been and continues to be a major factor in world affairs. Yet throughout history a fine line separated trade and commerce. We belive that the first postulated war in history resulted from trade leading to war--the destruction of Tell Hamoukar (c3500 BC). This was clearly evident with the ancient Greeks, but in more modrn history we see it with the Portugese, Durch, English, and others. And war as opposed to violent squirmishes could only begin with substantial populations and settled lands to defend. Af first only wars between neigboring people was possible. Waging wars at any distance required beasts of burden to transport weapons, food, and water. Again the domestication of the humble donkey made this possible.


Dryden, John. The Conquest of Granada (1672).

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan Chapter XIII (1660).


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Created: 12:49 AM 3/19/2019
Last updated: 12:49 AM 3/19/2019