The Invention of the Neolithic

on June 29, 2004

As long as prehistoric hunter-gatherers were regarded as simple-minded savages, it was difficult to imagine how they could have come up with the radical innovations that marked the onset of the Neolithic. The typical response of twentieth century archaeologists to this problem was to deny that any genuine creativity had been involved. Instead, they did their best to reduce the profound social and technological transformations of the early Neolithic to an almost entirely automatic process, driven by impersonal environmental forces and requiring little or no actual thought or planning.

The primary model on which archaeologists based this analysis was that of Darwinian evolution. Each small step towards agriculture was considered as a kind of random mutation which one hunting group or another could have stumbled onto by accident. In accordance with the principle of survival of the fittest, those groups which adopted practices that increased their food supply would have prospered as the expense of those which did not. In the course of time, the natural superiority of farming would have ensured its dominance over hunting.

This scenario may have seemed convincing to twentieth century materialists, but there were any number of problems with it, not least the delicate question of just what constitutes evolutionary fitness. Recent studies of both ancient and contemporary hunters and farmers have shown that farmers work harder, have a less nutritious diet, and die younger than hunter-gatherers. Rather than taking the superiority of farming for granted, archaeologists are now struggling to answer the question of why hunters would have voluntarily given up their freedom and leisure in order to become peasants bound to the soil.

But perhaps the most profound difficulty with the standard twentieth century account of the Neolithic was the way it cast this dramatic retooling of human society as being the work of terminally clueless idiots. Farming, for example, was supposed to have resulted when some half-bright caveman noticed useful crops flourishing on the trash-heap of a former campsite and got the daring notion that they had grown there from discarded seeds. Pottery was similarly supposed to have been discovered when a lump of clay accidentally fell in the fire.

The possibility that the innovations of the Neolithic might have been developed systematically by people with a particular goal in mind and a profound knowledge of the resources at hand was never even considered. And yet it ought to have been obvious. Who, after all, would know the habits and breeding requirements of animals better than hunters? Who would know the patterns of growth and most favorable conditions for plants better than gatherers? Who would know the properties of rocks and mud better than the people of the Stone Age?

The real roots of the Neolithic stretch far back into the period known as the Epi-Paleolithic — the several thousand years preceding and just following the end of the Ice Age. This was the time when hunter-gatherers began to settle to the land, to use local resources more intensively, and to acquire the knowledge and skills that would be essential in the practice of agriculture.


A listing of all my posts on deep prehistory can be found here.

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A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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