Neolithic populations

Archaeology has claimed that the major change in the prehistory' of south-western Asia and continental Europe occurred with the move from hunter-gatherer economies to those of agriculturalists. This change is taken to have involved the first cultivation of crops and the management of newly domesticated animals. It must have included all the ancillary changes that we might presume sustained new procedures of land, plant, and animal management (see Chapter 8). These included changes in the organisation and obligations of human labour and new techniques for the production of a wide range of cultural materials. Amongst the latter were the location and timing of the technologies that were employed in the preparation of food and its service. In other words, this was a fundamental change simply because it meant that new forms oflife had come into existence (cf. Henry' 2019).

The subtle implication of the archaeological language used to characterise these changes is important. By referring to the adoption of agriculture as the adoption of ‘new methods of food production’, rather than as a complex change in the relationships operating between the reproduction of plants, humans, and animals, the adoption appears to have been one that was instigated by humanity. This conforms with the traditional assumption that it is humanity, rather than animals or plants, that can be endowed with the role of a ‘producer’. This, in turn, has maintained the dominant place of humanity in the ‘adoption of agriculture’, resulting in archaeologists questioning ‘why human societies initially established and subsequently sustained relationships of domestication with some species’ (Smith 2007, 188). A very different perception is gained if we were to allow that ‘domestication’ marks a long-term process in which human reproduction responded to the ongoing evolutionary changes occurring in the plants and animals that had shared the landscape with them (Fuller et al. 2012). Domestication, from this perspective, was not something that humans ‘did’ to certain grasses and animals, but rather it was a condition that emerged within the evolving practices of the entire ecology' that extended across south-western Asia (cf. Rindos 1984, 141). Agriculturalists therefore emerged from within an ecology of evolving domestication. My point in what follows is not therefore to deny that other kinds of entity, a world of all things, emerged alongside particular kinds of humanness (cf. Crellin & Harris 2020, 45), but it is an attempt to understand what it took for a new kind of humanity (the agriculturalist) to have emerged between south-western Asia and Europe during the Holocene.

Stephen Shennan has sought to describe the establishment of the developing agricultural practices across the continent of Europe as the result of an evolutionary' process guided by natural selection (Shennan 2018). Shennan utilises a Darwinian model of evolution in discussing the possible historical development of biocultural systems of replication, and this will cause us some confusion in the way we might handle his work. By adopting a perspective that necessitates distinguishing between an evolving biological population that had randomly generated mutations in the process of its reproduction, and the natural process that selected for the reproductive potential of some of those mutations, Shennan pitches the status of the developing human biological population against that of an environmental base of plants and animals. It was this base, Shennan argues, that had selected for the variable reproductive success of the human population. He suggests that this approach prompts the need to understand the processes by which the biological reproduction of fanners had out-competed those of hunter- gatherers in Europe. Shennan proposes that ‘life history' theory’ enables him to assess this process by reference to the allocations of energy that the members of a human population might have made to take the best advantage of the resources that were available to them. In this model the exploitation of additional sources of energy, for a human population’s development, should have resulted in increased levels of fitness expressed by that population’s reproductive success. If the shift to agriculture marked an optimum allocation of energy' in a beneficial trade-off between the output resulting from the labour required by food production against the labour input required for the reproductive success of that population, then this would seem to explain the demographic growth that accompanied the transition to farming (Bocquet-Appel 2002 & 2011).

In this model, the seemingly unplanned but beneficial contrast of cultivation over foraging might be expressed in terms such that the positive balance achieved between the input of energy required for the procurement of food, and the energy that was then made available to be dissipated by the consumption of that food, was greater in the case of cultivation compared with that of foraging. This contrast therefore provided for increased reserves of energy' that could be appropriated, and then invested, in child rearing and in the elaboration of material culture production. However, it was on the reproduction of the evolved ecology' as a whole that the development of each form of life had depended, given that these were ecologies of co-dependencies, rather than each being a niche constructed by, and for, a human population. It was in this light that David Rindos, in discussing the role of plants in this period, made the following observation:

[t]oo little consideration has been given to the important role plants have played in establishing and maintaining the dynamics of agricultural systems. Plants have contributed as much to the evolution of the agroecology as have humans, for it was plants that created the situation in which certain types of human behaviours became selectively advantageous. (Rindos 1984, 142; see also Nealon 2016)

In his discussion of the evolution of agricultural origins in Asia, Rindos distinguished between the processes of domestication and those of agricultural management (Rindos 1980, 752, & 1984, 138-189). Domestication occurred in Asia as the result of an evolving symbiotic relationship between humans and certain plant taxa. An increasingly domesticated population of plants and animals thus emerged through their morphological and behavioural divergence from their progenitor communities, along with their increasing reliance upon the human control of land for their existence. The time taken for this divergence to have occurred amongst plants is likely to have been longer than Rindos allowed (Shennan 2018, 35-36), but his perspective upon processes of co-evolution reiterates the point also made by Shennan (2018, 36): the reproduction of these proto-domesticated plants did not imply any kind of ‘invention’ of agriculture by humanity. The transference of agricultural practices into Europe meant, by way of contrast, that they were carried by a system of land management, a very different process from the co-evolution of crops, human and animal behaviour in Asia. Amy Bogaard’s analysis demonstrating that central European agriculture was practised as an intensive garden-plot cultivation where plots could be maintained for a number of seasons by manuring, rather than as the shifting ‘slash and burn’ agricultural systems as was once thought (Childe 1929, 45ff), means that the rapidity of the colonisation of the loessic soils of central Europe in the sixth millennium BCE is now more difficult to understand (Bogaard 2004a, 161), and must depend in part upon a relatively rapid growth of agricultural populations.

The resources of domesticated grasses, cattle, goats, and sheep that were eventually introduced for human use across most of Europe therefore originated amongst the plants, animals, and people whose breeding patterns had evolved in southwestern Asia. If population growth does help us to explain the success and expansion of these agricultural populations, then it must indicate the effectiveness with which the fertility of the land was being released, stored, and allocated through the growth of the colonising and domesticated animal bodies, and in the annual harvested product that was derived from domesticated grasses (Barrett 2014b). The symbiotic relationship that had evolved between the emerging categories of humanness, along with those of plants and animals throughout the period of the Epi-Palaeolithic of south-western Asia (Zeder 2008; Asouti & Fuller 2012) meant that it was the evolution of plants and animals in Asia that had made humans into farmers.

The development of the isolated reproduction of a domesticated subset amongst the wider populations of plants and animals of south-western Asia was presumably facilitated by the emergent practices of land management on behalf of the human population which had encouraged changes in the morphology of the plants collected and the animals culled (but for animal populations see Zeder 2008). This allows us to begin to recognise the broadly contemporary nature (contra Bar-Yosef & Meadow 1995) of the phase change that had occurred as a region-wide process of niche formation within the complex ecologies of Asia (Smith 2007; Zeder 2011 & 2015). The Neolithic therefore emerged as an integrated form oflife, meaning that an assemblage of different practices was performed by practitioners whose work expressed the understanding of a commonly recognised logic. This conforms with the argument recently made by Despina Catapoti and Maria Relaki (Catapoti & Relaki 2020), who have argued that the Neolithic cannot be represented by a particular list of attributes. Instead they assert that the Neolithic emerged as a single and more general form of engagement with the material world. Their treatment of archaeological residues therefore requires that they abandon attempts to ground the archaeological record of a ‘Neolithic’ upon the possession of certain finished articles that might represent the individual workings of, for example, the processes of sedentism, agriculture, and pottery manufacture. Instead they characterise the key elements of a distinctly Neolithic assemblage as being those that were created by working within a common structure or chatne opiratoire. They argue that this commonality of making, or becoming (they use the term poesis), resulted from the general application of a ‘dough-based technology’:

we use bread as a shorthand for the variety of flour-and-water foodstuffs deriving from cereal processing; pottery, to indicate one of the main artefacts emerging out of working clay (which includes a broad range of other items, such as figurines, clay sickles, house models, etc.); and mudbricks to represent the huge variety of earthen architecture characterizing the Neolithic (e.g. mud walls, wattle and daub, plasters, floors, storage pits, etc....). (Catapoti & Relaki 2020, 3, original emphasis)

There was therefore a commonality in the performances that underpinned all these ‘operational sequences’ that were involved in the making of things. It was a commonality that helps to define assemblages of Neolithic material culture. It is in this way, they argue, that we can recognise that the Neolithic, as a whole, was a mode of practice (a form of life). This way of‘knowing how to act’ emerged in history' by means of its own evolved suite of practices, and the chatne operatoire that operated across technologies was not only a process that ordered techniques, but one that also ordered ‘at the same time gestures and tools’ (Leroi-Gourhan 1993, 114, my emphasis). It is Leroi-Gourhan’s reference to gestures that reminds us that it was through the sequential making of things that bodies were also made. They were made by teaching, learning, and adopting a common routine of performance, an obligation of how to behave in a way that was recognisable to others. Neolithic bodies were therefore made through their relationships with things, land, animals, plants, and others: a commonality of understandings by which others could be recognised as being similar to the self (see page 85). And, as Catapoti and Relaki suggest, this means that while we can prioritise that which was shared (a similar technics) over that which was distinct (diverse material outcomes), we must also prioritise the becoming of life over its being.

The origins of an agricultural commonality of practice was the product of a lengthy ecological evolution that occurred in south-western Asia and that charted the direction of plant, animal, and human development (Boy'd 2018). It was this tradition that brought forms of life into existence and that spread westwards, perhaps driven by a complex, systemic interaction between an increasing population size amongst humans and the greater risks posed to the entire system given its investment in a limited set of increasingly localised food resources (Rindos 1984, 271-285). It is a version of this system of agricultural management that eventually reached the west coasts of temperate Europe, arriving in Britain and Ireland around 6,000 years ago.

The European continent sustained existing populations of hunter-gatherers throughout the period of its colonisation by agricultural practices, although the density of these earlier populations will have varied considerably in their distribution across the continent. A geographical frontier was therefore likely to have existed, periodically, between the two modes of existence (Dennell 1985). Radiocarbon chronologies and distribution patterns support this expectation, along with evidence for a ‘leap-frog’ colonisation of domesticates into areas of forager exploitation (Bogucki 2003, 267-268). The overall speed of the dispersal of‘domestic’ ecologies across Europe seems to have been rapid, although there also appear to have been lengthy periods of stabilisation along some of its various frontiers (Bogucki 2000, Fig. 8.1). Indeed, the patterns of initial colonisation by the new forms of life, accompanying systems of agricultural management, are more likely to have been represented by a patchwork of occurrences (e.g. Hofmann et al. 2013) than by a broad frontier wave of advance across the continent as a whole (Ammerman & Cavalli-Sforza 1979). It was across the patchwork of frontier zones that Marek Zvelebil and Peter Rowley-Conwy had originally envisaged the slow adoption of agricultural resources by the existing hunter-gatherer populations (Zvelebil & Rowley-Conwy 1984). Their ‘availability model’ proposed that a long-term ‘substitution phase’ of exchanged materials existed between the two systems, resulting in the eventual adoption of farming by foraging communities (Zvelebil & Lillie 2000, 59; Zvelebil & Dulokhanov 1991). The behavioural changes that supposedly drove this adoption of farming by the indigenous communities in continental Europe have been variously explained as being prompted by the depletion of traditional resources (e.g., Rowley-Conwy 1984), or by the pressures of social competition (e.g., Bender 1978). In other words, these models assumed that agriculture was adopted as a strategic initiative by the indigenous populations of hunter-gatherers. It was this general model that Rowley-Conwy came to reject, a rejection that was based in part upon his recognition that no such substitution phase could be identified in northern Europe (Rowley-Conwy 2004, 97). There are other problems associated with the suggested uptake of agricultural practices by hunter-gatherers, not least the so-called ‘scheduling crisis’ in which autumn sowing (Bogaard 2004a, 50-59) would coincide with the maximum availability of wild plant foods and hunted fauna. Bogaard concludes that while these activities are not necessarily mutually exclusive:

[t]he decision to sow cereals in the autumn rather than in the spring implies that cereal cultivation displaced these other activities to some extent. The implication is that the indigenous adoption of agriculture would have entailed a rapid commitment to a new farming way of life. (Bogaard 2004a, 162)

The model of an indigenous adoption of agricultural practices is now further questioned by the recent mitochondrial and aDNA analysis (Bramanti et al. 2009; Lipson et al. 2017; Mathieson et al. 2018). This more recent work implies that agriculture was established across Europe from the tenth millennium BCE onwards not only as the result of Europe’s colonisation by populations of domesticated plants and animals, but also as the result of the colonisation of the European human DNA lineages by haplogroups, all of which had derived ultimately from southwestern Asia. It is important to repeat that while we should accept the plasticity that has always been involved in the construction of human communities (as argued in Chapter 6), DNA haplogroups are themselves currently understood to have been spread by interbreeding. The DNA evidence is therefore taken to indicate that the colonisation of Europe by cultivated plants and domesticated animal stock was also accompanied by an incoming human population.

The idea that farming resources could be adopted by hunter-gatherers would seem to maintain the claim for a human exceptionalism because it assumes that humans stood in opposition to, and acted on, the environments that they occupied. This is to treat foraging and farming as two alternative technologies for extracting energy from the environment, a view that treats humanness not as something created through its practices with things, but as a constant and inherent capability

(humanity) that acted on things simply by changing the organisation of its behaviour and the technologies that it had employed, once the more effective technology of farming had been demonstrated to it.

The archaeological indicators for the adoption of farming in Europe have long been assumed to have been accompanied by other technological developments that include such things as the early use of ceramics, new forms of lithic working, and the creation of complex domestic and monumental architecture. Andrew Jones and Emilie Sibbesson (2013) have argued, with reference to the British sequences of material, that the grouping of all these changes, along with the adoption of domesticates, into a single chronological horizon of change that is equated with the beginning of the Neolithic, expresses nothing more than an archaeological expectation that a dramatic horizon of change must have existed at this time, an expectation that has resulted from archaeology’s failure to explore the possibility that the material changes arose from a long-term and diverse set of behavioural changes. Jones and Sibbesson’s argument aligns with that of Julian Thomas who has characterised the European Neolithic as having emerged as ‘heterogeneous assemblages of persons, animals, structures, and artefacts’ resulting from ‘new relationships between people and material things’ (Thomas in Robb 2013, 678). But the new assemblages of things must have sustained a new assemblage of practices within which a new kind of humanness will have emerged (cf. Henry 2019; Hofmann 2013, 156ff.). Thomas has argued that in Britain and Ireland these heterogeneous relationships arose as the result of the, presumably ad hoc, adoption of new technologies, including the management of domesticated plants and animals, by members of the indigenous population (Thomas 2013), although this argument, as we have indicated, can be questioned. My own point would be that the emergent European biocultural populations associated with agriculture were no more an indigenous population of hunter-gatherers who had become farmers than they were colonists who had travelled from south-western Asia.

The human DNA haplogroups that are currently associated with the spread of agriculture were the consequence of long-term processes in the biological mixing and migration of DNA lineages that, by the fifth millennium BCE, had left their trace on the human bodies recovered from the burials that are distributed across large parts of the European continent (e.g. Hofmann 2015). Given the increasingly detailed archaeological resolution that is now available from all other cultural and biological data for early farming communities at this time (cf. Bickle & Whittle 2014), along with the uncertain attempts to generalise about the migratory dynamics of entire populations based upon current aDNA data (cf. Mathieson et al. 2018), the uneven sampling of the limited assemblage of Epi-Palaeolithic skeletal material from Europe (although see Hofmann 2015, 458), and our recognition of the complexity of the subsequent analytical processes (Reich 2018, 99-114), it is tempting to hesitate in any attempt to draw too firm a picture of human population dynamics for this period. Nonetheless, the link between the dynamics of human population growth, its resulting expansion westwards, and the colonisation of Europe with agricultural practices is one that is by now widely accepted (Shennan 2018). The link between the factors of biological, cultural, and economic reproduction implies that whilst hunter-gatherer populations were likely to have been subsumed within the reproduction of the new agricultural populations, the spread of farming in Europe was not the result of the adoption of the available domesticates of plants and animals by the indigenous populations (e.g. Brace et al. 2018; Gonzalez-Fortes et al. 2017; Olalde et al. 2018). Alongside any attempt to model the complexities of the processes of colonisation, we also need to understand why hunter-gatherer populations on the European continent did not achieve their own transformation by adopting the practices of agriculture that had become available to them across the boundary conditions to which Dennell and Zvelebil drew attention. In this regard it is important to recognise the very considerable input of energy that is initially required if systems of agricultural management are to realise their potential in terms of food production (Nelson pers.comm.). This, and the possible seasonal conflicts in scheduling labour-intensive activities involving the practices of both hunter-gathering and farming, would certainly count against the kind of ad hoc adoption of agriculture by hunter-gatherers.

The reproductive isolation of areas of plant growth, of animal grazing, and the human interpretation of food and drink preparation and sendee, were the mutually reinforcing components of the kind of energy system that contained the means by which a ‘humanness of domestication’ could develop (cf. Goody 1976 & 1982). Each form of life maintained, in its different ways, the flows of energy and information which sustained the different kinds of ecology that were the fields of security and growth inhabited by certain kinds of plants, animals, and human practices. If, as Deacon has argued (1997, 72-73), all humans had, long before the adoption of agriculture, evolved the additional potential to develop a symbolic reading of these various ecological relationships, then it was the relationships between plants, animals, and people that were experienced as the reproduction of the values that brought forth the different categories of people that were further mediated by the preparation and service of foodstuffs. It was thus different kinds of humanity that were mapped onto the land over which those different communities held rights, along with the kinds of work that they did, and the food and the drink that they were served and that they consumed, and who occupied the spaces provided by the increasingly complex forms of architecture that were constructed by early agriculturalists (cf. Watkins 2010; see also Chapter 8).

Agricultural practices were thus a kind of behavioural grammar and syntax, as Catapoti and Relaki have argued. This grammar had evolved in south-western Asia, as a human intentionality that evolved alongside the plants and animals of Asia, directing itself by such means as the production, preparation, service, and consumption of food and drink (cf. Braidwood et al. 1953). Archaeologists have created distinctive domains separating out the processes of subsistence, adaptation, cultural production, and social evolution, and readings of the surviving patterns of different material residues might indeed signify such things, but they would have been meaningless from the perspective of those who engaged with materials in ways that embodied their own forms of life. The complex process ofbread production recently attested at Shubayqa 1 in north-eastern Jordan at around 14.6k-l 1.6k cal. BP, a production that was occurring before the development of systems of agricultural management in that region (Arranz-Otaegui et al. 2018), was as much a semiotic process as it was the product of subsistence practices. The same realisation must also accompany the interpretation of the cult site of Gobekli Tepe in south-eastern Turkey with its monumental architecture dating to around 10k cal. BP. This site appears to have witnessed the production of beer and the consumption of meat, presumably in feasting ceremonies (Dietrich et al. 2012). The gods were not born along with these origins of agriculture as Jacques Cauvin suggests (2000), for the simple reason that their presence could always have been recognised indexically in the ways that they had created the form of the landscape and of the cosmos. What was new was that with the symbolic representation of sacred cosmologies in the sculpted form as in the stones at Gobekli Tepe, it had become possible to experience the presence of that cosmos under the controlled conditions of the more localised and restricted space of a building.

The hunter-gatherers of continental Europe could not have become a halfway stage on a path towards the Neolithic by the exchange and adoption of some elements of the neighbouring ‘farming strategies’, as Marek Zvelebil once suggested (Zvelebil 1986). The demands of agricultural production are simply too onerous. Hunting will still have occurred amongst early agriculturalists, but the demands of resource management and production would surely have meant that agriculture and foraging were mutually exclusive regimes. Each population of foragers and of agriculturalists will therefore have maintained their own, quite different, ways of becoming human by the processes of interpreting the land, plants, animals, and cosmos of their different ecologies. It was within these ecologies that they extracted the food requirements that had sustained them. The argument that different forms of life are embedded in different ecologies goes some way to explain why a clear distinction exists between the archaeological residues resulting from the indigenous lives of hunter-gatherers and those resulting from the lives of the agriculturalists that spread across the European continent (Rowley-Conwy 2004 & 2011).


If we were to restrict our understanding of the newly won aDNA data to signifying various population dynamics, as if these populations were defined simply by their biological inheritance, and if we then employed those dynamics to explain such things as the origins of European agriculture, we would not understand the ways that the lives of those populations were lived. The means by which we claim to know the past must include both our readings of the signs of the past that we see around us, as well as our interpretation of the ways that others might once have experienced and interpreted those same material signs. Symmetrical analysis was introduced by David Bloor who showed that all forms of knowledge must be understood ‘symmetrically’, as the different ways of becoming part of the world (Bloor 1991). The present does not explain the past, but if we were to recognise the dissonance between our own perceptions of the residual materials, and that of the forms of life that brought themselves into existence with reference to those materials, then we might begin to engage more effectively with the lives that archaeology enables us to study.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >