Sunday, 1 February 2009

Neolithic art, part 1: Children of the Neolithic Revolution

The relative consistency of Paleolithic art across continents and millennia demonstrates how similar human concerns were across the prehistoric world, and the reason it did not change is simple — the course of human development was slow, and no major change in the structure of society took place that made us see ourselves and the world differently. It is in the later Stone Age that we see, after thousands of years, the first significant change in art. This change was the result of the biggest ever transformation in human society — the Neolithic Revolution.

The Neolithic era, or New Stone Age (from the Greek neos, ‘new’ and lithos, ‘stone’) succeeded the Paleolithic around 11,000 years ago [1]. It is more a description of technology and social behaviours than a precise dating system. The key difference between the Old and the New Stone Ages is the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals. As we shall see, it was impossible for art to remain unaffected by such a profound transformation in social conditions.

The beginning and end of the Neolithic era cannot be dated precisely, because the very concept of a ‘Neolithic era’ is a construct designed to help us study patterns of development, and depends upon our interpretation of those patterns. It also varies because the agricultural and technological advances represented by this stage of human society appear at different rates in different parts of the world, making it a phase of development rather than a fixed time period — the Maoris were still using Neolithic tools in the year 1800. But broadly we can say that the Neolithic is the final phase of the Stone Age, spanning the period between the Paleolithic and the rise of the first great civilisations. The next significant period is defined by the widespread use of advanced metalworking: in copper, in bronze and then in iron. In the near East, the working of bronze dates to around 3300 BCE, in India to 3000 BCE and in Europe to 2500 BCE. Around this time the city states of ancient Mesopotamia are established, and the invention of writing signals the end of prehistory.

The term ‘Neolithic Revolution’ was coined by Vere Gordon Childe [2], the great Australian archaeologist whose books on the development of civilisation, heavily influenced by Marxism, were among the most important and influential archaeological works of the twentieth century. Childe’s view was that the discovery of agriculture and animal husbandry represented an immense qualitative leap from hunting and gathering into a new, higher stage of society [3]. This view is uncontroversial among Marxists and I will use his term here. He also proposed a subsequent ‘Urban Revolution’ — also broadly accepted — to mark the transition to civilisation, based in towns and characterised by a state, writing, class society, long-distance trade and so on. His scheme is similar to Engels’, who proposed a progression from ‘savagery’ (the primitive communism of hunter-gatherers) to ‘barbarism’ (the Neolithic era) and then to ‘civilisation’ (dating from the establishment of the first city-states)[4].

Childe’s concept of Neolithic and Urban ‘revolutions’ has been criticised by some archaeologists, who point out that the advances made during the Neolithic were incremental. Certainly they were incremental, and several millennia do not seem to coincide with the common view of a revolution as an abrupt transformation — but this is to misunderstand the issue. It is not a question of how long in absolute figures the process took but of how long it took relative to the overall timescale of human development and, more importantly, of the significance of the qualitative change. The 6000-year period between the first agriculture and the first city states is a fraction of the 2 million-year hunter-gatherer history of human species from Homo habilis to our own. Even a non-dialectician should be able to recognise that the process which introduced the makers of stone tools to cities and the modern world is a revolution by any standards. Without it, none of the subsequent advances, such as the more famous Industrial Revolution, could have happened.

Some societies never advanced beyond Stone Age technology. Agriculture developed independently in several parts of the world, but elsewhere, as in Aboriginal Australia, people either saw no need, or did not possess the necessary animal and plant resources, to advance beyond a hunter-gatherer economy.The indigenous peoples of South America, for example, had not progressed to metallurgy before the Europeans arrived in the fifteenth century, leading to the impotent contest of wooden weapons against steel armour. This was not, contrary to racist arguments, because those people were less intelligent or inventive than Europeans, but down to geography, the available natural resources and other material factors, explained in detail by Jared Diamond in his excellent book Guns, Germs and Steel.

The Neolithic world planted the seeds of many great civilisations, such as the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians in the Middle East, the Kushites and Egyptians in Africa, the Indus valley people in southern Asia, and the Huang He valley civilisation in China. It is not my intention to explore each civilisation individually, or to provide a complete chronology. For such information, readers may reach for the latest textbooks. Rather, I am interested in explaining principal issues and decisive stages of development in art and what dialectical materialism can offer towards its interpretation.

Before we can explore the art of this period, we need to understand the seismic shifts brought about in human economic and social life, and the relationship between such shifts and art. To begin, we shall explore the change in our material circumstances initiated by the agricultural revolution.

[1] Between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic archaeologists sometimes place a period known as the ‘Mesolithic’ or Middle Stone Age. This is characterised by very small tools called microliths and a semi-sedentary economy where hunting and gathering existed alongside the first animal husbandry and early agricultural techniques. For this blog I don’t consider it important to consider the Mesolithic separately.
[2] See Vere Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936). He is normally known simply as Gordon Childe. Childe’s method and data weren’t perfect, but his work put history and archaeology upon a firm materialist basis.
[3] I wrote in an earlier article that ‘Marxists have no time for utopian hankerings after a “golden age”.’ Marxists believe in progress — the constant expansion in human productivity and the movement towards reason and a fully-realised humanity — because of the immense improvements it brings to the living standards of human beings. The challenge is to make the benefits of progress available to all: after 500 years of capitalism, one billion people in the world still do not have access to a glass of clean drinking water.
[4] See Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have found your blog today and have spent most of the day reading it. I am quite shocked. Your level as a Marxist is obviously very high, and your knowledge I think is unprecedented in this field - art. Who are you? I would like to get in touch as I am also interested in writing about Marxism and art. lena at

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