Childe’s Play: Neolithic Revolution or Evolution?

I’ll forgive Gershom his faux pas in referring to the laws of thermodynamics when he meant Newton’s laws of motion; after all, I’ve the science beat on this blog. The slip-up shows, however, how important terminology is. Gershom wanted to make a point about how every action produces a reaction. The first law of thermodynamics says that the change in the internal energy of a closed system equals the heat inserted into the system plus the work done in the system. That produces a very different political metaphor.

A political word, “revolution,” gets used in a lot of scientific contexts without sufficient attention to the meanings it bears with it. In this post I want to address one of those contexts, the period in prehistory called the Neolithic revolution.

(I was reminded of the interesting provenance of this term by a talk given by Rachel Pear, a graduate student in the Science, Technology & Society program at Bar-Ilan University, at the annual conference of the Israel Society for the History and Philosophy of Science in Jerusalem on March 16. I’m making some use here of the paper she was kind enough to send me, but the argument and conclusions are my own.)

The Neolithic, or New Stone Age, began about 10,000 years ago. Up until then, humans had lived solely as nomadic hunters and gatherers, eating what they could find and kill and moving from place to place in search of food supplies.

While there is evidence that this transition occurred several times, in different places, and independently, the most important and best-studied Neolithic sites are in my neighborhood, the Levant; some of them are located here in Israel. The people who inhabited these sites learned how to cultivate grain, and a bit later to domesticate animals. They also formed sedentary communities. Their communities begin to display specialization; while most inhabitants were farmers, some were craftsmen, even artists. And eventually a ruling class appeared. Here were the beginnings of the social structure that later produced city-states and civilizations of the ancient Middle East.

The transition was first called a “revolution” by Vere Gordon Childe (1892-1957), an Australian philologist and archaeologist. In addition to being respected among scholars for his works in these fields, he was a talented writer of books that explained archaeology and human development to a general audience.

Childe called the Neolithic innovations a “revolution” because the changes it brought about in the way people lived were undeniably dramatic and far-reaching. But he had another reason for using the word—he was a committed and politically active Marxist who saw human development through a Marxist lens (Here’s an interesting account of Childe as a Marxist in a Trotskyist publication I wouldn’t normally read). So he was predisposed to seeing history progress by revolution, and to seeing the original Neolithic humans as a vanguard who went out to spread their revolution around the globe. (In fact, Childe’s initial identification of the Neolithic vanguard with the Nordic race was, to his chagrin, cited by Hitler as “scientific” proof of his doctrine of German racial superiority.)

Furthermore, as a Marxist, Childe emphasized the economic aspects of the Neolithic innovations—the period in which humans first developed the means of production. He believed that economic necessity produced the revolution, and that the other changes that took place in Neolithic society were the products of this economic transformation.

But Neolithic sites provide evidence of a host of other changes in human society and perceptions at the same time. For example, some sites contain evidence of cult and ritual activity, such as the plastered and adorned skulls found in Jericho and masks at Nahal Hemar, near the Dead Sea. As best we can tell, people seem to have started thinking about themselves and their place in the universe in a different way then.

So other theorists have suggested that the economic changes—the turn to agriculture and settled societies—were not the cause but the product of this new way of thinking. They point in support of their argument to the fact that some of the earliest Neolithic sites seem to have been devoted solely to ritual purposes, visited seasonally by pastoral nomads.

In fact, art—that is, the use of symbols to represent objects or ideas or desires or accomplishments—was not a Neolithic innovation. Art appears well before, in the Upper Paleolithic, the last part of the Old Stone Age. If the appearance of art marks some sort of cognitive change in the human mind, and if symbolic thinking produced the economic and social changes of the Neolithic, the change was not sudden but gradual.

In trying to understand how our ancestors of thousands of years ago saw and understood the world, we can only speculate and try to ground those speculations in the material evidence we find. The fact that we often don’t understand how the world looks to other cultures in our own time should give us pause in jumping to any conclusions about prehistoric man. But certainly the careless use of the word “revolution” to label what happened in the Neolithic transition can prejudice the argument.

“Revolution” is a word, a symbol, and as such by nature subject to imprecision. It can bear positive connotations to some people, negative to others; it can hint at a vanguard carrying a new idea out into the world by conquest, or a popular movement that spreads by communication and diffusion. When we use it, or any similarly loaded term, it’s important that we use it carefully and be explicit about what we mean.

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