The Great Domestication: The Sweep of Technology in the Neolithic Era

April 20, 2018

Understanding the changes brought about by technology in the neolithic era

In the Neolithic era, roughly about 10,000 to 5,000 BC years ago, humankind moved beyond being hunter-gatherers to also cultivating crops and raising animals. People went from gathering food to systematically planning for an intended harvest in the future.

The transition brought some amazing advances for human thinking. "Infinitely more was accomplished in this line of inventions in the five thousand years before the Bronze age than has been achieved by civilization in an equivalent period since," wrote philosopher Lewis Mumford, in his 1966 book "Technics and Human Development: Myth of the Machine Vol. 1."

It also put women on equal footing with men for the first time.

Scenes from roadtrip through the American South

First, there was horticulture, where attention as paid to the details of making a single plant of desire thrive. "Central to the whole process of domestication was the garden," Mumford wrote. Gardening led to farming, as the practice of agriculture replicated this focus on nurturing plants moved to larger yields. And with the farming also came a similar herding and breeding of animals.

In turn, the fruits of these stay-at-home efforts helped stabilize life. Grain provided a form of "potential energy," thanks to a corresponding new technology in storage: clay pots. Grain also provided an early form of currency. And with a predictable source of food, humankind was free to pursue other interests.

Scenes from roadtrip through the American South

And with this turn of thinking came a corresponding shift in power from men to women. At first men may have continued to hunt or fish, as women stayed back to tend to the garden. Women, already way moreso than men, were better suited at nurturing life, in all forms. After all, the womenfolk had the patience for regular tending, a discipline that man, used to the excitement of the hunt, had no time for.

"Paleolithic males, if we judge by most surviving hunting peoples, had an aristocratic contempt of work in any form: they left such drudgery to their womenfolk," Mumford wrote.

Scenes from roadtrip through the American South

This new trait of industriousness was "the capacity for assiduous application to a single task, sometimes carried over years and generations," and became the dominant determiner of success, Mumford wrote. Such practice, once found within, provided a whole new way of meeting life's challenges and taming them. In effect, the agricultural age was one of "domestication," a practice that would prove fruitful in most all human endeavors.

The influence of domestication reverberates also into the art that people made at the time. Both insects and birds occupied people's imaginations. Mumford speculated that it was that both were instrumental to the growing process: Insects fertilized plants and the birds scattered the seeds. Greater attention to birdsong may have even inspired people to voice some music of their own.


from Lewis Mumford's The Myth and the Machine Volume One: Technics and Human Development"

“In general, the mobile, dynamic processes are of male origin ... while the static processes are female and reflect the predominant anabolism of woman’s physiology.” #LewisMumford on the birth of the #Neolithic era

“The creation of moisture-proof, leak-proof, vermin-proof clay vessels to store grain, oil, wine, and beer was essential to the whole ‘Neolithic’ economy.”

“One of the signs of domestication still visible in art is the part that birds and insects both begin to play in the human imagination: an interest that may have been stirred by the important role one plays in scattering seeds, the other in fertilizing annuals.”

“Birdsong itself may have awakened the latent musical gifts of man.”

“The domestication of the herd animals came [about along with] seed agriculture, and one would hardly have been possible without the other.”

Quotes first posted on Twitter.