The Neolithic is the most recent phase of the period loosely known as the Stone Age. The term "Stone Age" itself is now considered to be too generic to be of any real use in anthropological work, but its traditional subsets, the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic, remain meaningful terms, at least in the archaeology of Europe, Asia and Africa. Specialists in the archaeology of the Americas tend not to use these terms, in part because there was no Bronze Age or Iron Age for the purposes of contrast. Even the high civilizations of the New World were still using stone tools when the Europeans came; only the Incas were making practical use of copper for tools and weapons. In the archaeology of the Old World, however, the Neolithic is a readily identifiable phase associated with the most radical transformation of human existence to date: the growth of civilization itself.
The Neolithic period began about ten thousand years ago, closely following the end of the most recent Ice Age. The first stirrings of transformation began in southwestern Asia, from Turkey down the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean, and then east to Iran. In the western areas, newly settled populations developed high-yield strains of grain from the wild plants of the region; later, they also domesticated cattle. In the eastern areas, sheep and goats were domesticated first, and then agricultural developments followed. In either case, formerly nomadic hunter-gatherers settled into longer-term communities to develop and exploit these new resources.
Villages formed and grew. Such settlements were not necessarily intended to be permanent, especially among those communities that emphasized pastoralism as opposed to agriculture, but they were intended to be much more durable than the tents and simple huts of hunter-gatherers. This transformation amounted to a considerable investment of effort into the environment. Fertile fields for agriculture, especially when irrigated, and quality pasture constituted a kind of wealth; so too did stores of grain for winter consumption and spring planting, and the herds of cattle and sheep themselves. Conflict eventually arose among villages, and for defense many gathered in early towns, such as Jericho and Catal Huyuk.
These changes inspired other changes, and made still others possible. Agriculture required new tools, such as adzes and sickles. Refinements in toolmaking also produced other forms, such as axes, as well as improving the finish of existing forms. Another technological development tied directly to agriculture is pottery, which served to store food but soon became the focus of its own fashions and a measure of wealth and status. Early ovens for the baking of bread were also devised; after all, grain cannot realistically be consumed without preparation, as rice or American corn can. Nor were the pastures deficient in transforming life: the domestication of sheep provided wool for its herders, which was used in the weaving of textiles.
The Neolithic also saw significant changes in religious practice, corresponding to the shifts in lifestyle. Where before, rituals intended to provide a successful hunt seem to have predominated, Neolithic populations were more interested in bountiful harvests and strong herds. For that matter, population growth became something to serve the community, rather than a drain on its resources; accordingly, in many if not most cases people appealed to gods that were believed to oversee the fertility of fields, herds and humans alike. Recurrent themes such as gods with the horns of bulls and of goddesses giving birth are widespread in Neolithic sites.
Religious art and construction speak to yet another sign of incipient civilization: social stratification. Graves in Neolithic settlements, which are often placed just underneath houses, show an increase in social differentiation, with those connected with religious sites being among the better-favored groups. The construction of the famous walls of Jericho also speaks to the existence of other elites with a military role.
Finally, trade expanded significantly in the Neolithic. On a much smaller scale, trade had even existed in the Mesolithic, but it took on a new significance as well as a new scale in the Neolithic. Obsidian became a prized tool in a stone age context because of its hardness, but its volcanic origin limited the sources of obsidian deposits. Catal Huyuk in particular became known as a provider of obsidian on routes that extended to Egypt and the Aegean. Luxury goods became a stronger force in trade, as well, due both to the gathering of wealth that resulted from settled life and to the need for signs to demonstrate status in the context of increased social stratification.
Archaeologically, the Neolithic is clearly differentiated from the periods before it. Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites offer little more than bones, both human and animal, and pieces of flint that once were parts of tools. Exceptions such as the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira are dramatic but rare. Neolithic sites, on the other hand, offer a host of materials by which to assess the communities that they represent. Graves and tools remain very important, but there is usually ample evidence of the site's architecture, from the evidence of post-holes from long-decayed timbers to nearly complete mud-brick buildings. Cult centers are usually well-defined, and typically offer painting, relief or sculpture to teach us something of the thought and practice of the local religion. Pottery remains an important guide to the archaeologist. By now the fashions of pottery have been rather well mapped, which enables the archaeologist to estimate the age of a given find by the pottery discovered therein. Luxury goods teach us simultaneously about social relations within the community and commercial relations with the outside world.
With today's periodization, the establishment of great civilizations is considered to be a separate phase, alternately called the Chalcolithic and the Copper Age, but it remains that the building blocks of civilization were created during the Neolithic. Beginning with the retreat of the glaciers and ending with the creation of early states, the Neolithic is perhaps the period in human history marked with the most profound transformation of all.