The Neolithic age followed the Paleolithic age and Mesolithic (or Epipaleolithic) as the last era of the Stone Age of human prehistory. Homo sapiens (the modern human species) experienced the Neolithic age; late-surviving relatives such as Homo neanderthalensis and Homo floresiensis died off in the Upper Paleolithic.
Its boundaries are not specific years but rather the onset of trends: The Neolithic began roughly with the advent of agriculture and ended with the adoption of metal tools, events that varied from place to place and culture to culture.
In Europe, for instance, the Neolithic lasted from roughly 9,000 years ago to 5,000 years ago in southern Europe, and 4,000 years ago further north. The regional cultures that had first developed in the Upper Paleolithic became more distinct as agricultural innovations allowed (and encouraged) hunter-gatherer groups to settle in permanent or semi-permanent settlements. Much of the technological innovation of the Neolithic pertains to building and pottery.
The Mesolithic Period
Between the long Paleolithic and the active Neolithic was the Mesolithic period, a barely 2,000-year-long transitional time during which the ecosystem, and the humans within it, adjusted to the environmental changes following the end of the last ice age.
The last ice age began its glacial advance around 70,000 years ago and lasted about 60,000 years. At its most severe, sheets of ice reached northern Germany and covered Canada and the northern quarter of the United States.
Denmark and Britain were connected by dry land, which the North Sea flooded into after the glacial thaw; the Baltic Sea became brackish when fresh glacial water diluted its salinity; and the Great Lakes and Niagara Falls were formed by glaciers scraping the Earth’s surface.
The end of the ice age coincided with the widespread extinction of megafauna, sometimes called the Ice Age Extinction or the Pleistocene Extinction Event. Megafauna, broadly speaking, are any mammals larger than a bull, and while once plentiful, they began dying off toward the end of the ice age and continued to do so after its end. The woolly mammoth, a shaggy relative of the modern elephant, is the best-known victim of the extinction event.
Nearly a dozen other species died off in Europe at the same time, including the cave lion and cave bear, while in the Americas nearly 80 species died, including the giant beaver, the dire wolf, and the five species of American horses.
Australia suffered a mass extinction of megafauna marsupials and giant reptiles about 50,000 years ago, roughly coinciding with the arrival of humans, though not necessarily the result of hunting. Climate change is a strong possibility for their extinction, as are plagues.
The term Epipaleolithic is often used to describe this post-Paleolithic, preagricultural period in regions where such environmental changes were minimal: The Natufian culture of the Levant, for instance, was unusual in that their Paleolithic predecessors had been little enough affected by the ice age that their technological achievements continued uninterrupted.
The Natufians developed building and permanent settlements before agriculture, reversing the order of most Neolithic cultures (in which agriculture is the initial reason for abandoning nomadism).
Natufian homes were partially underground, kept cool by the insulating earth around their walls, just as modern basements are; when necessary they were warmed with central fireplaces. Although floors were often stone, the majority of the structure was made of wood.
The Natufians were probably able to settle in the Levant without farming because of abundant fishing conditions and plentiful wild plants to forage. Though they must have hunted, unlike their nomadic forebears they would not have depended on following migratory herds. Foraged acorns, almonds, and pistachios supplemented their protein intake.
They domesticated dogs to assist them in the hunt (and may have attempted to domesticate jackals and wolves), made flint sickles to harvest wild grains and mortar stones in which to grind them for bread and were experts in making tools from bone, including harpoons and fish-hooks. Later in Natufian history, trade with other cultures is evident in the remains of Nile shells and Anatolian stone.
The Advent of Agriculture
Eventually the Natuﬁ ans and other Mesolithic and Paleolithic groups adopted agriculture—the seeding and harvesting of plants for food—more useful and difficult than foraging. The Younger Dryas event, or Big Freeze, was a 1,000-year period of sudden cold about 11,000 to 12,000 years ago.
This was not an ice age as such but an extremely rapid cooling that led to glaciation in many mountain ranges, the displacement of hinterland forests by tundra, and in more southerly lands like the Levant prolonged drought. Wild plants would no longer be plentiful enough to sustain either the Natufians or the animals they had hunted and fished.
It is likely that they understood some basic principles of agriculture through observation of the grains they had been harvesting but had lacked the incentive to sow their own fields—something they were now forced to do in order to maintain their settled, non-nomadic lifestyle.
Beyond the Natufian culture most groups were hunter-gatherers. They foraged and hunted, without domesticating plants or raising animals for food, and as such were generally nomadic, organized in bands of about 25 people and tribal groups of about 20 bands. Agriculture encouraged permanent settlements, a community life governed by the harvest instead of the herd, and cultivated land sustained much denser populations than wild land.
The adoption of agriculture led almost immediately to the rise of the first towns and of specialized building: granaries, family homes, tombs, temples, and megaliths. The megaliths are famous in the popular imagination: Monuments of large stone erected or stacked to some purpose include Stonehenge in England and the Monuments of Carnac in France. Some served as tombs, while others are hypothesized to have had significance to Neolithic astronomers.
In the archaeological record pottery is the most significant technological achievement of the Neolithic and is divided into the pottery and prepottery periods. Ceramics, unlike flint, were easy to fashion into containers, especially portable ones.
The advent of pottery greatly expanded humans’ craftwork repertoire. The prepottery technological periods in the Near East are divided into the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B: The first largely resembled Natufian culture, with sickle blades used to harvest wild grains, partially subterranean buildings with stone foundations and mud brick walls, and cooking methods using hot rocks as well as direct flame or smoke. In Pre-Pottery Neolithic B domesticated animals became commonplace.
The Paleo-Arctic culture developed at the end of the ice age among Siberians who had crossed the land bridge to Alaska and is noted for its specialized microblades and wedges. Contemporaneous with the Paleo-Arctic culture but slightly younger, originating around 9,000 years ago in China’s Yellow river valley, the Peiligang culture created the first Chinese pottery and bred pigs for meat.
In Europe the most significant pottery culture was the Linear Pottery (LP) culture, which lasted about a millennium and started 7,500 years ago. Pottery cultures tend to be named for some distinctive feature of the potter’s style rather than using a geographic derivation, as is done for tool industries: The LP culture decorated its products with incised bands.
They seem to have prized weapons less than many of their contemporaries, and their efforts instead went into cultivating wheat, lentils and peas, hemp, and flax and domesticating the sheep and goats they brought with them from southern Europe.
The flint and obsidian used in their tools came from two different parts of the continent, indicating some sort of long-distance commerce, a distinct shift from the opportunistic use of local resources that had marked earlier cultures.
Despite the LP culture’s deep cultural and technological impact on Europe, investigation of the mitochondrial DNA of 24 skeletons shows that their genetic impact on modern humans was minimal. It may have been native Europeans who furthered the cultures that followed the Linear Pottery, while the LP progenitors died off or migrated elsewhere, their descendants coming to an unknown fate.
Contemporary with the LP culture was the Yangshao culture in the Yellow River region of China, which started some 7,000 years ago. The Yangshao cultivated millet, wheat, and rice; raised pigs, dogs, sheep, cattle, and goats; built highly specialized tools; and were the first to cultivate silkworms.
At least some of their dead were buried in pottery jars, as was becoming increasingly common across the Neolithic world. Approximately 5,000 years ago the Yangshao were displaced by the Longshan (Lungshan), who left their mark on China with their walled cities and moats, pottery wheels and beautiful polished black pottery, and extensive rice cultivation.
Compared to the slow development of tools in the Paleolithic, Neolithic advancements were outright rapid, a fact generally attributed to the superior cognitive faculties of Homo sapiens.
In only a few thousand years humans went from crude cavelike dwellings to living near their new farms and then to fortified and defended cities with buildings for religious, commercial, and military purposes and the first roads.
The concept of specialization to that degree, which would have been incomprehensible to most Paleolithic humans, became integral to human development by the end of the Stone Age. A species that had once traveled with the seasons, following its food, now cultivated, improved, harvested, stored, and traded its own food goods.