About this author
Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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December 10, 2003

Plows, Bronze and Wheels

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Posted by Zack Lynch

A piece from my book, that may soon become a note...

Around 10,000 years ago humans began to take advantage of their natural landscapes in ways that their ancestors could not have imagined. The agricultural revolution began in fits and starts across many generations before incremental innovations began to improve agricultural productivity. But it wasn’t until the discovery of copper and the invention of bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) that food production really took off.

Copper and bronze tools easily surpassed stone tools in strength and durability. The malleability of bronze made possible tools that couldn’t be made with stone or wood. Copper and bronze tools represented a radical change in the general technology system of the day and were a motive force in transforming agricultural productivity.

The development of bronze plow pull by an ox around 4000 BC was the greatest labor saving device of its time. For the first time in human history animal strength was substituted for human muscles as the primary generator of energy. The ox-drawn plow made possible the merging of the previously disparate economies of animal husbandry and plant cultivation, forming an entirely new economic system: field cultivation. Combined with complimentary techniques like fallowing and irrigation, plow agriculture cemented humanity’s breakthrough to civilization.

To make bronze, copper and tin ores had to be mined collected, often from distinctly distant sources, placing new emphasis on enhancing transportation technologies if use of these new materials was to grow. This pressure led to another critical invention of this period, the wheel. First developed around 4000-3500 BC in southern Asia, the consistent production of wheels was made possible by the resilient bronze tools that could consistently cut through wood. The world’s first wheeled transportation device was the two-wheel chariot. Built around 3500 BC, this chariot increased the speed of travel over land.

The social impact of the technologies made possible by bronze was profound. Now communities could accumulate large agricultural surpluses to support workers who did not have to be directly involved in food production, leading to whole new professions like tradesman, pottery makers, teachers and priests. As trade deepened and communities accumulated more wealth, chieftains, kings and queens, employed their amassed surpluses to build monumental structures to enhance their position in society and maintain control over their growing populations.

The rise of urban societies centered in impressively wealthy cities were entirely based on the food surpluses of plow agriculture which ultimately relied on the low cost input that had wide scale availability: bronze.

By the time the industrial revolution rolled around in the 1700s, the technologies developed throughout the agricultural revolution enabled the human population to soar from a mere 4 million around 8000 BC to nearly 400 million. Moreover, average settlement size grew from a mere 200-300 people to cities with over a million people. In a few thousand years, our ancestors tackled the first environmental constraint limiting their ability to feed, clothe and shelter themselves, and in the process transformed their daily existence.

Comments (3) | Category: NeuroWave 2050


1. coolmel on December 11, 2003 8:02 AM writes...

excellent history lesson...

with regards to industrial revolution, this is the period when slavery was outlawed. technology jumpstarts evolution (for better or for worse) in both the sujective and objective domains.

any word on when the book will come out? how can i can i get a signed copy? ;)

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2. Al Billings on December 11, 2003 12:13 PM writes...

At this point, I just think of Daniel Quinn's Ishmael and the leavers and takers...

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3. SM on September 12, 2004 2:49 PM writes...

As a trained and teaching archaeologist I would advise that you stay very far away from issues relating to social transformations in history and prehistory. It's just the kind of vulgar colonial neo-evolutionary thinking that you've demonstrated in the notes above that results in the kind of behaviour and attitudes toward other humans beings that American marines demonstrated on prison duty in Iraq all too recently. I suggest that if do wish to continue with this project you engage not just with the material (and not 'facts') but also with the critical debates surrounding materials and their interpretation.



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