Three revolutions

The Three Revolutions


History consists of three revolutions. Two of them are widely accepted, but the third revolution – the ‘money’ revolution  – is something that I must persuade you is every bit as important as the other two revolutions.

The first revolution is the Neolithic Revolution – the introduction of farming, when man went from being a mobile hunter and gather and decided to settle down to become a farmer and herder.

At the other end, the third revolution is the Industrial Revolution of 17th, 18th and 19th centuries: we are still going through part 2 – the computer revolution.

But in between these two revolutions comes the Middle Revolution – the revolution caused by the invention of money and the market economy.  The Middle Revolution introduces an entirely different and indeed revolutionary way of living, one which changed the whole structure of society entirely replacing the former hierarchical pyramid society with a flatter and more open, and more democratic society.

The first revolution is the Neolithic revolution when man changed from being a hunter and gatherer into being a farmer and herder. The term ‘revolution’ is today out of fashion among archaeologists, but it was very fashionable in the 1930s and was very much associated with the new generation of archaeologists lead by Gordon Childe and Grahame Clark. It was originally known as the ‘New Stone Age’ when the chipped thin axes of the Stone Age gave way to the polished stone axes of the New Stone Age.  But then in the 1920s and 30s archaeologists realised that this was but a minor part of a much bigger economic revolution – the beginning of farming.

Gobekli Tepe, in Turkey, the earliest Neolithic site

The earliest Neolithic Revolution took place in the Near East, in the mountain ranges to the east of Turkey and the north of Iraq, to the north of the area known to archaeologists as Mesopotamia.  It is here that the wild grasses and other plants are found that were the ancestors of modern wheat and the wild goats that are the ancestors of the modern sheep. Subsequent revolutions took place in other parts of the world – notably in China which saw the origins of the rice civilisations, and in America with the origins of maize. But the first and best study was in Mesopotamia for it was here that farming spread down from the mountains into the land between the two rivers – Mesopotamia and from thence to Egypt and the Mediterranean.

In this  ‘fertile crescent’, the Neolithic revolution began soon after the end of the Ice Age and rolled on slowly for a couple of millennia,  However in much of the rest of the world, especially in Europe, there is a gap between the end of the Ice Age and the beginning of farming that is known as the ‘Mesolithic’. Indeed here in Britain the Mesolithic lasted nearly 5,000 years, almost as long as the length of time between the end of the Mesolithic and today.  But it is in the succeeding Bronze Age that writing and the habit of living in big towns gradually developed, and a new type of society. And the first part of this book will be devoted to studying the societies of the Bronze Age, particularly Egypt and the Minoans, to understand how these societies worked and how they differed from the succeeding market economies of Greece and Rome.

 The 4 stages

This period is divided up by archaeologists into four stages, bands, tribes, chieftains and states. This was a classification of the 1970s which is no longer fashionable, but which still I think lingers in the subconscious of most archaeologists and is a convenient framework for categorising of what happened.

The band is the simplest form of human society – essentially a family grouping of up to twenty or thirty people counting children and grandparents. This is the social structure of the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic and until quite recently could still be found among the Swahili desert of Southern Africa. With the Neolithic came the tribe – the fashionable term is now ‘segmentary society’ —  a larger grouping of perhaps a hundred or more people, in effect three of four families grouped together in a village. Tribes tend to be very popular among anthropologists because they are supposed to be democratic and egalitarian, where everyone, or at least all adult males, had an equal say. Archaeologically they are buried in cemeteries where there is little or no differentiation between rich and poor – all the graves are equal.

The next stage up is the Chiefdom – a big man emerges who is the chief. When he dies he is buried in a more elaborate grave, with more grave goods than the others, providing him with more food and drink to take with him to the next world. The village becomes more complex and can even become a town with up to  20,000 inhabitants.

The final stage comes with the full emergence of kingship, with the full emergence of towns, with writing and  bureaucracy.  Society now becomes totally pyramid shaped society with the king at the top, nobles beneath him, local rulers beneath them and the mass of farmers, workers, surfs and slaves at the bottom.  It is often a caste society, where you are born into your given caste in which you remain for the rest of your life. This is the structure of Egypt and the Minoans and the main function of this book is to contrast it with a very different society of Greece and Rome.

I find that economists in particular tend to be ignorant of this basic analysis. They tend to starts with Hobbes and his concept of the noble savage and go via Charles Darwin and a crude form of social Darwinism that seems quite ignorant of the existence of chiefdoms and kingdoms and the structure of these complex societies.  I hope this book will give economists some idea of how  in practice societies actually did develop.


But what is ‘civilization’? Click here for the classic definition given by Gordon Childe