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But now we encounter a paradox. If archaeologists like myself regard the
explanation of change as their main task, why do we spend so little time
establishing what we mean by change?
The Neolithic Revolution 25

Explanations abound for the appearance of literacy, urbanism and
plough agriculture. They deal with the magnitude of change as well as the
tempo, fast or slow. Competing explanations, be they social, functional,
ecological or ideological, are fully debated (Table 1.1). And this is the
problem. We think we know change when we see it, which is why the
Neolithic Revolution has made sense for such a long time. However, when
is a change really a change and not just variation on an existing theme?
That is precisely the criticism directed by Higgs and Jarman at the list of
traits and the timings of their appearance used to identify the Neolithic
Revolution. Rather than a neatly bounded package of first appearances for
items such as pottery, ornaments, villages, domestic animals and cemeteries
there now exists a picture blurred by both time and geography. We shall see
in the next chapter that the criticisms are even louder for the Human
This was the unique perspective of Childe: by concentrating on
the entwined historical relations between Europe and the Near East,
he provided one of the few explicitly drawn contexts for understanding
change as the transfer of political power between two different continents.
His terminology and analytical approach to prehistoric evidence was
directed towards uncovering this evolving international relationship.
The context he set is rarely acknowledged beyond his interests in the
Neolithic and Urban Revolutions and the distinctive contrasts between
Europe and the Orient. Those who have followed have concerned
themselves more with the transfer of elements, most notably livestock
and crops, the regional variations on village and urban settlement plans and
the local development of metallurgy and other craft skills. These are
changes in the sense of novelties that appear for the first time but they are
not changes in that bigger political sense which should be commanding our
The archaeology of change personified by Childe is therefore the subject
of international relations. Here political change has been defined by
archaeologist Ken Dark as:

the origin, growth, decline, cessation or reorganization of political
systems, structures and units at any level of analysis from the intra-state
group to the global system. I also mean the generation, modification or
cessation of those events and processes which cause these changes . . . I
refer to that which is ˜fundamental™, in that it affects the very character of
polities and of international relations.
(Dark 1998:4À5)
26 Origins and Revolutions

I would agree with Dark™s insistence on the ˜fundamental™, in Williams™
(1965:10) terms a ˜genuine revolution, transforming men and institutions™,
which elsewhere I have identified as social life. Therefore, I understand
change as organisation based on novel social premises. By contrast,
variation is the accommodation of novel conditions within existing social
premises (Gamble 2001:174). Dark™s examples of change deal with non-state
to state societies and the emergence and collapse of international
systems. Consequently, he contends that millennia as well as decades are
appropriate time scales to study change.
As Dark (1998:8) points out, change can be analysed, using this
definition, in terms of temporally discrete events, structures (frameworks
of action) or as a process with different modes and types of change. It can
also be studied contemporaneously (synchronically) or through time
(diachronically) in terms of continuities and dis-continuities. But there is
no predicting the when, where or magnitude of change, especially at the
vast scale of the big question of human origins.
But Dark™s political definition of change raises a further dilemma for
archaeologists. Re-creating the past in the form of the present has quite
rightly worried us for the last forty years (Chapter 3). If our understanding of
change is, as Dark shows, part of the modernist project, expressed in a
variety of guises under the banner of international relations, then how does
the study of change in the past escape from the concerns of the present? My
short answer is that it can™t and shouldn™t. Our continuing reluctance to
discuss what we understand by change means we have already fallen into
the presentist trap. We have produced imaginative archaeologies that only
make sense when related to the structures regulating the interaction
between different cultural worlds. The way to avoid such pitfalls is to
understand better the cultural context in which this archaeological
knowledge has been produced. The paradox of change in the past is that
nothing changes unless it has significance for the present.

Three current revolutions
Where does this leave the Neolithic Revolution? The concept remains
shorthand for a widely recognised turning point in human prehistory but
has been replaced as an analytical device based on Childe™s analogy with
the Industrial Revolution. The terms now used are deliberately broad À
food production, plant and animal exploitation, for example À to allow the
worldwide investigation of transitions in subsistence economies (Byrd 2005;
Gebauer and Price 1992; Harris 1996b; Harris and Hillman 1989; Price and
The Neolithic Revolution 27

Gebauer 1995; Sherratt 1997b). The term ˜Neolithic™ only has relevance to
archaeologists working in Europe and Southwest Asia. The Americas,
Australia and the Pacific do not use it, and increasingly African and Asian
archaeologists prefer the historically more neutral alternatives. In a sense
everyone now participates in the study of the Neolithic Revolution, and as
a result the term is no longer required.

The secondary products revolution of 1981
The continuity backlash has become the new orthodoxy. Kent Flannery
declared in 1969 that it was erroneous to believe that early cultivation was
either an improvement or a drastic change (1969:74). This seemed to settle
for good any return to the great leap forward that Childe and many others
had envisaged.
However, revolutions are still alive and retain the rhetorical power to
grab the headlines and set the agenda. Andrew Sherratt (1997b:156) owned
up to this strategy when he decided in 1981 on an ˜ugly title™ with revolution
in it as a necessary evil to give his concept legs. His ˜secondary products
revolution™ (Sherratt 1997b:158À98) stressed the character of the transition
to farming in the Old World where the interaction between plant and
animal domesticates was crucial. In the Americas some herd animals
became important pack animals but none of them were ever ridden or
pulled ploughs and carts. Similarities between the Old and the New Worlds
existed in that wool for textiles and milk were secondary products, meat
being the primary one. Sherratt showed how the use of animal traction, and
its importance for further agricultural intensification, came much later
than the initial domestication of cattle and equids. These secondary
products revolutionised the societies of Europe as they spread from a zone
that stretched from southern Russia to the Nile delta and eastwards to
Mesopotamia. ˜Plough and pastoralism™, the more handsome handle to the
same article, summed up the transformation and re-positioned the impact
of domestication and the resulting transformation of society at about five
thousand years ago. Sherratt concluded that the axis of Old World
development from Europe to India was a direct result of the diffusion of
these new forms of energy by exchange and contact. And where they
touched existing cultures these were transformed, ˜their character was
completely altered by the secondary products revolution, which created
many of the basic features of the modern world™ (Sherratt 1997b:198).
Sherratt™s revolution has been criticised by Alasdair Whittle (2003:83) for
lumping too much together as it searches for those broad historical patterns.
28 Origins and Revolutions

Instead Whittle (2003:166) favours a retreat from such grand narratives
(Sherratt 1995), with their predilection for the single story of directed
change, and argues for a move towards different kinds of history in which
varying patterns of local diversity and density produce the complexity and
layered nature of Neolithic ways of life.

The broad spectrum revolution of 1969
Two recurrent themes have followed accounts of the origins of agriculture:
climate change and environmental circumscription (Sherratt 1997b).
Childe (1934 (1952):25) had favoured an oasis or propinquity theory that
brought potential domesticates and people together, while Braidwood
(1960) had argued on the basis of his fieldwork in Iraq that nuclear zones,
or hearths of domestication, existed (see also Sauer 1952). Desiccation had
the effect of concentrating people in these favourable habitats where in
Sherratt™s phrase ˜agriculture was an accident waiting to happen™ (Sherratt
1997a:283). More recently the detailed climate curves that now exist for the
period have been interpreted by archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef (Bar-Yosef
and Belfer-Cohen 1992; Bar-Yosef and Meadow 1995) as evidence that the
transition to agriculture was a punctuated event. The Younger Dryas cold
phase that occurred between 11,500 and 12,650 years ago saw temperatures
plummet across Europe (Renssen et al. 2001). For those Near East
populations that had already become sedentary, Bar-Yosef argues, the
local effect of the Younger Dryas was to select for an intensification of food
production. Selection for change was felt most strongly in those settlements
in the highly diverse but geographically compact habitats of the Levantine
corridor (Bar-Yosef 1998). Sherratt has argued that such punctuation À and
one thousand years qualifies in prehistory as a true revolution À has to be
matched with centricity, where it happened. The Near East, he claims,
in the tradition of Childe, offers a rare mix of opportunities that:
gives the region its reticulate aspect: not just stark environmental contrasts
but their intimate admixture, providing refuges and opportunities for
unusual conjunctions À all subjected to rapid and large-scale climatic
(Sherratt 1997a:284)

But such a re-affirmation of climate change and environmental
circumscription have only recently re-surfaced. Climate change was
discounted in the 1960s following large-scale fieldwork. Instead the locus
of change was placed among the hunters of the Upper Palaeolithic
The Neolithic Revolution 29

(Flannery 1969:74) and the question asked was framed by human ecology:
why do cultures change their modes of subsistence? In an influential paper
Lewis Binford (1968) combined a more sophisticated appreciation of what
hunting entailed with an account of how intensification leading to
agriculture might have occurred. He put forward a demographic argument
to counter environmental determinism and asked what selective pressures
led to changes in the structural organisation of cultures to their environ-
ments. His answer, greatly elaborated since (Binford 2001), took into
account the changes that arise from an increased packing of social units
into the same geographic space. Binford™s concern is to understand why,
by settling down, hunters lost their key adaptive tactic, mobility, that helps
solve the problem of uncertain supplies.
Binford directed attention to the geographical margins rather than the
centre as the places archaeologists should look for these changes. These
ideas were elaborated very effectively by Kent Flannery (1969), who applied
a cybernetic model in which stable populations situated below carrying
capacity evolved mechanisms to counter disequilibrium. This allowed him
to answer the question from human ecology about why subsistence
practices changed. Flannery outlined a model of transitions that invoked
intensification through a process he termed the broad-spectrum revolution
(1969:79) in which the environment remained constraining, but the key was
an increase in diet breadth that raised carrying capacity and hence
population. On ecological and energetic grounds Flannery argued that
broadening the subsistence base to include smaller prey and plants, while at
the same time domesticating larger species, would have had a revolutionary
effect. His choice of revolution takes the emphasis away from the selective
forces operating on a small group of field and farmyard staples and shows
how harvesting from the full array of wild resources can produce dramatic
results. No one set out to invent agriculture. Instead they followed
ecological rationality by broadening their resource base and this led to
unintended consequences.
More recently Mary Stiner (Stiner et al. 2000) has shown when this
broad-spectrum revolution might have happened. It is not so much the
size of resources that is important as the work involved in their capture
that is in turn conditioned by their speed of flight. Furthermore the resil-
ience of species to predation, the pace with which their numbers
bounce back, is critical in conditioning patterns of predation. Tortoises
and hares, for example, demonstrate very different flight strategies and
resilience. So when and in what order do we see them become a regular part
of the diet?
30 Origins and Revolutions

The effects of broadening the subsistence base starts with the
Neanderthals and their predation on tortoises. But their predation pressure,
as revealed by the large sizes of the animals they caught, was never very
high, and Stiner (Stiner et al. 2000:56À7) interprets this as indicating small,
dispersed human populations well below the environmental carrying
capacity. It was during the Upper Palaeolithic that the reduction in size
of these slow-moving prey starts to reflect heavier harvesting. As the
easy-to-capture prey declined through the period so more difficult-to-catch
species such as hares and birds are found among the food remains. Human
numbers had increased and selection for a greater diet breadth now
proceeded. The broad-spectrum revolution is therefore deep-seated and
provides an example of continuity that would gladden Higgs and Jarman
and other supporters of gradual change.
In his comment on Stiner™s paper, Flannery (2000:64) reminds us that the
˜broad-spectrum revolution was essentially a change in ethno-scientific
classification by hunters and gatherers™. What had to happen was that some
foods, such as wild cereal grasses that were ignored because they were costly
in terms of time and effort to harvest and process, had to be promoted
up the desirability list so that by the time they finally got to first choice,
˜they had paved the way for a truly profound change™ (2000:65).

The symbolic, sensory and sedentary revolution of 2001
The last of the current revolutions is itself a trinity, closely in step with
Childe™s Neolithic Revolution. Indeed, archaeologist Jacques Cauvin
(2000:67À72) wrote that the Neolithic Revolution was a transformation
of the mind. This, Cauvin forcefully argued, was a ˜revolution in sym-
bolism™ (2000:71) that he traced through the art of the period. He contrasted
a mythic world of hunters with a divinity personified in Neolithic art and
figurines. A new distinction, he claimed, lay at the heart of human
imagination where a social order was now expressed as an ˜above™ and
a ˜below™. Most importantly Cauvin saw this psychological restructuring
impacting on the economy. But questions remained:
How can we realise the real relationship which would unite the revolution
in symbolism with the production of subsistence materials which shortly
followed it? May we attribute to this transformation in the structures of
the imagination a dynamic sufficient to engender this series of changes?
Or again . . . in what way were these changes another means of making
manifest the transformation of imaginative constructs?
(Cauvin 2000:71)
The Neolithic Revolution 31

Prior to Cauvin™s revolution, anthropologist Peter Wilson (1988) had
argued that the built environment rather than the art was the touchstone to
this symbolic revolution. Neolithic domestic societies, he wrote (Wilson
1988:153), live their lives by reference to a structure whereas hunters and
gatherers do not. Farmers invest buildings with their metaphors for living.
People are merged with places and in this way domestication anchors
a person with a location (Wilson 1988:71). This process of domesticating
humans by building houses had an unintended consequence on the senses,
particularly vision. The basis of attention so critical to social interaction was
now changed in what, to paraphrase Wilson, might be termed a sensory
revolution. What resulted were novel social conditions of intimacy and
privacy as houses were internally partitioned (1988:179). A poetics of
architectural space (Bachelard 1964) was therefore created that transformed
society not only through its means of economic production but through its
sensory experience.
Wilson™s message is clear. We domesticated ourselves into a different
social species by living behind walls, around courtyards and in modular,
cell-like villages and towns, which archaeologist Trevor Watkins (2004a) has
aptly described as ˜theatres of memory™. The very act of niche-construction
transformed us in a revolutionary way, although Wilson does not use that
terminology. Watkins (2004a:19), however, goes further, concluding that
˜the world™s earliest village communities were also the first to develop fully
modern minds and a fully symbolic culture™. To explain why they did not
appear earlier, Watkins repeats Robert Braidwood™s (1960) claim that
culture was just not ready.
It is this act of self-construction, making culture ready, that Colin
Renfrew (2001; 2003) has termed the sedentary revolution. He spells it out
with his customary clarity, combining all the revolutions involved in the
The first great revolution or transition in the experience of our species was
the sedentary revolution. It was then that humans entered into a series of
new relationships with the material world. It was then that they built
houses, fashioned images of deities and constructed shrines . . . The key to
this process was the development of material symbols À symbols of power,
symbols of rank and prestige, coveted materials that were the repositories
of value.
(Renfrew 2003:115)

The genesis for this sedentary revolution was people exploring the
symbolic and cognitive structures of their new, more densely populated
32 Origins and Revolutions

material worlds. The built environment carried all before it. Those first
houses were foundation stones indeed.
But before we get swept away with the rhetoric, there are wider
implications to consider. Was this sensory, symbolic and sedentary
revolution really what made us human and conclusively defined our
humanity? If so, then history begins with the Neolithic, whose greatest
secondary product we now see was our distinctive humanity. But where
does that leave the rest of prehistory, before these varied revolutions took
place? Is it the case that our universal humanity is only as old as a collection
of mud-brick houses by a dwindling water source with a dry wind blowing?
Or is an imaginative archaeology at work here? If that is the case then the
place that is described is not universal but instead one where the West and
the East can, for the first time in history, be prised apart. And by prising
them apart the Neolithic Revolution becomes the origin point of the
modern project of European history and culture that gained definition by
opposing and containing the Orient.
chapter 2

The Human Revolution

HOMO nosce te ipsum
Carolus Linnaeus Systema Naturae 1800

One, two, three.
Hominid, hominin, human, me.
One is the lot plus the chimpanzee;
Two are the lot on the family tree;
Three is the lot, looks a lot like me.
One, two, three!
Playground rhyme c. 2000

What it was to be human
Human beings have many identities and revolution, when the prospect
for change is realised, is just one of them. But where do these identities
reside? Are they a result of our minds and the spectacular evolution
of our brains, or are they part and parcel of our bodies, living in the
world? We carry our evolutionary history in our biological makeup,
while every day we go about our lives using hard-won ancestral skills
that now seem second nature. When it comes to deciding what it is to
be human and even more when we ask what constitutes humanity, our
bodies are as important as our cultures, our minds as significant as our
But interpreting evolutionary clues, whether from bodies or culture, is
never easy, nor are the results definitive. Answers to any question about
ourselves will always be informed by contested issues such as race,
intelligence, politics, gender and age. In such company, the concept of
revolution is just another arena in which differences are defined, but an

34 Origins and Revolutions

important one for establishing identity. At issue is the tempo of our
appearance, slow or fast, and whether we À as humans À are a recent or
ancient phenomenon. And the answer matters not only because it points to
our capacity for change but also to what we think we share with others,
past and present.
Identity, whether of self or society, is traditionally an exercise in drawing
boundaries and the identification of revolutions has provided a useful
hammer to drive in the historical posts. But there are different revolutions
for different jobs. The Human Revolution draws the line between ourselves
and the ultimate other, the outgroup which defines us and gives us meaning
as a species and as humans rather than animals. But unlike the Neolithic
Revolution, where social strangers live among or alongside us, with the
Human Revolution we only glimpse those others in the rear-view mirror
of prehistory. What I question is whether these revolutions are the
correct conceptual tools for understanding change, because the outcome
of our evolutionary journey has left humanity equally at home in an
urban metropolis and a tropical rainforest, and in societies of millions or
Consider for a moment the position of evolutionary psychologists on this
issue (Barkow et al. 1992). In their imaginary geography of long-ago, which
they awkwardly call the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, the
time depth for humanity is very ancient indeed. They argue that our
psychology was shaped by natural selection on those East African savannahs
where we evolved more than three million years ago, and they demon-
strate this, not by archaeological evidence, but by showing photographs of
landscapes to test-subjects and asking them which they feel safest in. Results
show that people like open landscapes, so long as there are no lions and it
looks warm. This is sufficient evidence for many evolutionary psychol-
ogists that we carry our history in our minds and our big task is therefore
to reconcile our ancient savannah psyches to the pathology of modern
urban life.
Now contrast this view with the sedentary revolution that I outlined at the
end of the previous chapter (Renfrew 2003). Here it is implied the
significant change in human experience was precipitated relatively recently
by our own actions as bricklayers. If village life was the true Environment of
Evolutionary Adaptedness then we should get even better results in photo
tests by showing subjects pictures of thatched cottages and other rural idylls.
But presumably we should only show these to members of Peter Wilson™s
(1988) settled domestic societies and not to the peripatetic hunters and
gatherers of the world.
The Human Revolution 35

These two contrasted standpoints nicely illustrate that human beings
have many identities and that the timing of our history, ancient or recent,
is a crucial aspect in determining which are significant. In this chapter I will

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