New Light on Neolithic Revolution in South-West Asia

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Introduction

Gordon Childe's famous notion of a Neolithic revolution saw the switch from hunting to herding and from gathering to cultivation as the pivotal agent of change. It was a model subsequently followed by many scholars. Today the imperative is different: not economic but cultural and cognitive. Already from about 23 000 years ago, we see groups of hunter-gatherers in parts of south-west Asia begin to transform their settlement and subsistence strategies and develop large, permanently co-residential communities well before the beginning of agriculture. This new form of social life implies that the cognitive and cultural faculties of Homo sapiens had become capable of managing cultural systems through external symbolic storage, or monumentality, an essential instrument of social complexity.

Having rejected Childe's model of farming as an adaptation necessitated by climate change and environmental desiccation, Robert Braidwood asked 'Why then? Why not earlier?' That question has mostly been overlooked, but it applies to the emergence of new, permanent communities as much as to the adoption of farming practices. Braidwood's prescient hunch was that perhaps culture was not ready (Braidwood & Willey 1962: 332). The answer I propose is: (1) only at a certain point in human cognitive evolution did it become possible for Homo sapiens to transcend certain biological limitations of the human brain by cultural means; and (2) this increased mental facility was made necessary by the reliance on larger and more cohesive social groups, itself a product of hominin evolution.

This long story, covering the 16 millennia of the Epipalaeolithic and early Neolithic periods in south-west Asia (23 000-7000 BC; see Table 1) can be told briefly in three parts. The first concerns the transformation in subsistence strategies as small-scale, mobile, hunter-gatherer bands became large, permanently co-resident communities. The second part focuses on those large, permanent communities, their extraordinary architecture and the associated symbolic representations and practices. The third part sets those processes in the wider context of long-term population growth and the cognitive, cultural and social evolution of Homo sapiens.

Hunting, harvesting and sedentism

The early Epipalaeolithic site of Ohalo II (Figure 1) is remarkable for its early date (around 25 000 BP, in the heart of the Last Glacial Maximum) and the conditions of organic preservation (Nadel & Hershkovitz 1991; Weiss et al. 2004). Many of the characteristics that have generally been thought to be typical of the late Epipalaeolithic of the southern Levant are present from the very start of the period, more than ten millennia earlier. Ohalo II was a structured settlement that extended over at least 2300m2 area. It consists of a cluster of brush huts whose interiors show signs of repeated cleaning out and renewal. Refuse and waste were dumped to the east of the huts; as well as a small, central hearth in each hut, there were extensive open-hearth areas, perhaps for communal cooking. One burial has been found among the huts, that of an adult male.

The subsequent submergence of the site led to extraordinary preservation of organic remains. To date, 142 botanical taxa have been registered, and more than 19 000 grass seeds, including wild wheat and barley, have been identified. Heavy ground stone equipment is found at the site, and traces of starch were found on the working surface of one stone that was examined; it was found carefully set into the floor of Hut 1 (Weiss et al. 2008). The stored seeds imply that people were certainly there from early summer for several months. The combined floral and faunal data show that people were using the site all year round, even if they may not have been in residence year in year out. The faunal remains are the classic profile of the broad-spectrum strategy--plenty of gazelle and fallow deer, but also fox, hare, many species of birds, lots of fish and some tortoise. …