Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Neolithic art, part 2: From hunter-gatherers to farmers

Paleolithic humans had wandered the landscape seizing whatever food came to hand: foraging for berries and nuts, or hunting wild animals. When food was short we had to decamp and move elsewhere. Some writers like to look nostalgically upon this ‘golden age’ but this is not the Marxist position. Even if we did have leisure time and relatively secure food sources, our poverty degraded us as human beings, because it did not allow us to develop our full human potential.

By 11,000 years ago humans had spread to most regions of the planet, but every community across the world shared basically the same mode of production. By a ‘mode of production’ Marxists mean the method of producing the necessities of life. We have discussed briefly Engels’ theory of a period of ‘primitive communism’: this period was dominated, at first, by hunting and gathering.

However, over time humans acquired, through perfection of technique, the beginnings of a social surplus product — this term, derived from Marx’s Mehrprodukt or ‘excess product’, refers to whatever is produced in addition to the amount necessary to support the members of a given society. In the Stone Age context this meant a permanent reserve of food over and above what we needed simply to subsist. This breathing space meant that plants and animals, instead of being consumed immediately, could be nurtured for long-term food use, which in turn made possible systematic animal husbandry and agriculture. These two techniques, which for a long time must have existed side by side with the hunter-gatherer economy, were the motors of the Neolithic Revolution.

In an brief introduction like this, generalisations are inevitable, but there is no smooth transition from one system to another, a unilinear model that applies to all cultures. Some cultures develop certain Neolithic innovations during the Paleolithic, others never make the transition at all. Marxists recognise that reality is a rich mixture of processes, which combine and contradict in all sorts of ways.

Why did it happen?

Why humans moved into agriculture is disputed by archaeologists, perhaps because the precise causes varied in different parts of the world. But we can identify a number of likely key factors [1].

Around 12,000 years ago, the Pleistocene epoch came to an end, giving way to the Holocene in which we still live today. Rising global temperatures saw a rise in sea-levels — creating for example the Bering Straits, the probable means for human colonisation of the Americas — a corresponding reduction in land area, and the growth of dense forest across former open plains. Whether as a result of climate change or over-zealous hunting (or both), a number of large game animals, most famously the mammoth, became extinct.

A drier climate and increasing forestation meant falling numbers of game animals. Forestation made hunting more difficult, as forest animals tended to be smaller and live in smaller groups. At the same time, a greater abundance of naturally growing cereals made crop harvesting more productive: in fertile areas there was less need to wander in search of food.

In addition, our population was expanding as a result of the improvements made during the Paleolithic. We turned to the hugely more productive methods of agriculture because we had no other way of supporting a population already augmented by better organisation, tools and technique.

In some parts of the world, hunting and gathering remained a viable way of life, but in others there was no other choice: agriculture was our answer to the problem of how to feed ourselves in new conditions.

How did it happen?

There was of course no point at which humans decided that they needed more food production and so needed to invent agriculture. Agriculture was the outcome of a long, slow process of experimentation, accident, and gathering of knowledge about the natural processes that surrounded us. The dividing line between the harvesting of natural crops and deliberate planting is a very difficult one for scientists to draw.

From centuries of harvesting wild food plants — barley and wheat in the Middle East, rice in China, corn in South America — we acquired the tools and techniques required to process and cultivate them. We learned that those plants had a pattern of growth that could be exploited for our benefit. Cultivating crops encouraged us to settle in one place, usually near a source of water. We learned that goats, sheep and pigs, instead of being killed instantly for meat, could be kept near these settlements for when we needed them. Domesticated animals provided us with milk, butter, meat — each animal thus yielded far more calories overall than if we ate it straight away — and also fertiliser for crops.

In time we learned how to store and preserve surplus food as a resource for winter or other times of scarcity. Our mastery of agriculture was furthered by the discovery of irrigation, the use of animals to carry loads and pull ploughs, and the practise of letting land lie fallow. By observation, experiment and practice, we were learning more and more about nature’s resources and taking them under human control.

Even hunting and gathering can involve a certain management of the land. But collecting fruit, fishing, and hunting the animals one found to hand was still relatively passive compared to the hugely more productive use of labour, whereby we could extract more calories per acre, and support 10–100 times as many people per acre, than before. Humanity had invented a new mode of production.

At first this mode of production existed side by side with hunting and gathering, and it did not fully mature until the advent of class society around 5000 years ago. (For this reason, Marxism considers the Neolithic broadly as still belonging to ‘primitive communism’.) The spread of the Neolithic Revolution across human cultures was uneven: some societies came to it independently, others copied it, and some were aware of agriculture but felt no need to adopt it. Nonetheless across humanity as a whole there was an immense shift from the old economy to the new. Although its actual historical unfolding was complex in its details, the broad pattern of development is clear.

The very earliest evidence for food production comes from the Levant and is associated with the Natufian culture from around 12,000 BCE, which practised hunting and gathering side by side with agriculture. Besides agricultural tools such as sickles and grinding stones, there are semi-permanent settlements and signs of formalised group burials. This took place inside the region known as the ‘Fertile Crescent’ [2] in the heart of the Middle East. The abundance of wild species of plant and animal in this region, such as naturally growing cereal crops, probably accounts for the success of agriculture there: humans just needed to take the step from merely gathering these abundant natural resources to cultivating them.

The Fertile CrescentThe ‘Fertile Crescent’. Map created by NormanEinstein (Wikimedia Commons)

More systematic agriculture is believed to have emerged in Syria and Iraq around 9000 BCE (making the Middle East the probable original ‘cradle of civilisation’). It developed quite independently in China around 7000 BCE, in Mesoamerica around 5000 BCE in Mexico and Peru, and in the east of what is now the United States around 2500 BCE. Other independent developments, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, are possible.

The social consequences of the Neolithic Revolution

After hundreds of thousands of years of hunting and gathering, depending upon what nature provided and with limited populations, we could now plan in advance, keep stores, support specialists and build communities.

“Increase of wealth,” wrote Gordon Childe, “is usually accompanied by increase of population.”[3] Hunter-gatherer social groups were small. Subsistence conditions meant that our rates of childbirth were constrained by the number of children we could physically carry until they were old enough to walk. Also, social groups struggled to support members who made no contribution to its income; such groups would sometimes even commit infanticide rather than have extra mouths to feed and endanger the group as a whole. The social surplus product, however, meant that people who once would have died, or even been killed, could now be supported. From living in roaming bands, we developed systems of clans or tribes occupying a defined area of commonly-owned land. These were still based upon kinship, either of one group of broad relatedly persons or several in a loose confederation. As productivity increased, population could grow exponentially. The world’s human population, estimated at around 10 million at the close of the Paleolithic, soared to over 100 million over a span of a few thousand years.

The creation of food surpluses also made possible a more advanced division of labour in which some members of the social group could be spared, at least partially, from food production to devote themselves to improving technique. This made possible further innovations, both social and technological, and was later to allow full-time specialists such as priests, millers, bureaucrats, weavers, kings... and artists.

It is likely that in areas where wild crops were abundant, such as the Fertile Crescent, humans built permanent settlements next to those food sources even before they began to cultivate them. There is no strict demarcation between ‘roaming’ hunter-gatherers and ‘sedentary’ agriculturalists: some hunter-gatherers may have been relatively sedentary, and some agriculturalists will have moved on when the land they were working became exhausted. But in general, it was the combination of higher population and people spared from food production that led to the establishment of the first real towns, and from those evolved the first city-based states. One of the earliest towns known to archaeology is Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, Turkey, dating to around 7000 BCE. Home to several thousand people, it consisted of mud-brick houses, and the site yielded murals and clay figurines as well as evidence of plant cultivation. Another was built on the river Danube at Lepenski Vir. Built by a culture that peaked around 5000 BCE, this was a town of 59 houses of wood and stone, each with plastered floors and a hearth and carefully planned to form a geometric pattern. A cemetery, village square and religious idols provide evidence of a more complex social and cultural structure than the Paleolithic.

Floor of a house at Lepenski VirFloor of a house at Lepenski Vir. From the flickr account of dimitrij

The Neolithic saw the transition away from a technology based principally upon stone. Humans were more free to satisfy their extraordinary curiosity and to experiment with natural materials. Farming and rearing animals required new inventions such as the grinding stone, hoe and plough, and provided us with materials such as leather and wool. We realised that we could use the technique of ceramics, discovered in the Paleolithic, to make pottery with which to store our surplus food. By putting stones into fires by accident or design, we discovered metals — copper, tin, and then, by mixing the two together, bronze. These were excellent materials for tools, and for historians they signal the end of the Stone Age. Pottery and metals also proved to be excellent new materials for creating art.

The great ‘mistake’?

Society had become far more productive, but there were disadvantages to the new way of life. Large sedentary populations created new problems around sanitation, and living side by side with animals exposed us to diseases such as smallpox and influenza. Stocks of surplus food, tools and other objects made us liable to violence from other groups that coveted them — thus introducing war into human experience. In a seeming paradox, the amount of work required of each person increased, and the average level of nourishment went down, probably because the big increase of population outpaced the new levels of productivity. For reasons we shall consider later, the shift to agriculture also created sexism and despotism. This prompted Jared Diamond to ask if the Neolithic Revolution were not ‘the worst mistake in the history of the human race’![4]

Engels’ analysis of the change is also, in one sense, very bleak. After describing ‘primitive communist’ society, he goes on:

The power of this primitive community had to be broken, and it was broken. But it was broken by influences which from the very start appear as a degradation, a fall from the simple moral greatness of the old gentile society. The lowest interests — base greed, brutal appetites, sordid avarice, selfish robbery of the common wealth — inaugurate the new, civilised, class society. It is by the vilest means — theft, violence, fraud, treason — that the old classless gentile society is undermined and overthrown. And the new society itself, during all the two and a half thousand years of its existence, has never been anything else but the development of the small minority at the expense of the great exploited and oppressed majority; today it is so more than ever before.[5]

The transition to a new mode of production released all manner of evils from Pandora’s mythical box. Yet the ‘primitive communist’ mode of production had to be overthrown in order for human society to progress — I will return to the question of progress, and how it relates to art, in another article. By 7000 BCE farming already dominated in the Middle East. The great compensating factor for the problems introduced by the Neolithic Revolution was that the increase in material wealth provided the basis for civilisation.

Listen to an excellent summary of the Neolithic Revolution on YouTube: part 1 and part 2 (both 10 mins).


[1] These and other issues on the Neolithic Revolution are dissected in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (1998) — a valuable source for this blog post — which offers a powerful materialist explanation for the emergence of agriculture and why the uneven development of human societies is environmental, not racial, in origin.
[2] It may seem surprising to us that the ‘Fertile Crescent’ should be so called, as today we know it as an arid region. But archaeologists have confirmed that in Neolithic times, this was fertile, forested land. It was centuries of human exploitation that reduced great tracts of it to semi-desert.
[3] Gordon Childe, The Dawn of Civilisation (1925).
[4] Jared Diamond, The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race (first published in Discover magazine, 1987).
[5] Friedrich Engels, Chapter 3 of The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884).

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