Gardening, Foraging and Herding: Neolithic Land Use and Social Territories in Southern Italy. (Research)

By Robb, John; VanHove, Doortje | Antiquity, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Gardening, Foraging and Herding: Neolithic Land Use and Social Territories in Southern Italy. (Research)


Robb, John, VanHove, Doortje, Antiquity


Neolithic land use: Economy or culture?

Most discussions of Neolithic land use and settlement start from one of two premises. Traditionally, the Neolithic has been defined economically by the use of agriculture and stock raising. Neolithic land use is essentially seen as reflecting the needs of farmers for farmland and herding land (cf. Higgs 1975), and a persistent explanation for the spread of agriculture has been the constant need for new farmland under demographic pressure on resources (Ammerman & Cavalli-Sforza 1984). But recent critiques have argued that Neolithic societies cannot be viewed as passive reflections of their economies (Thomas 1991; Whittle 1996). One line of critique is based on the continuing use of non-domestic resources in Neolithic societies, most evidently in Britain but also elsewhere in Europe. But even when a Neolithic society made extensive use of domesticates, its use of space may have been based upon other factors such as cultural or social preferences for mobility (Whittle 1996) or the use of space as a symbolic resource (Hodder 1992; Tilley 1994).

The goal of this article is to explore relations between culture and land use. Culture and social relations can be envisioned as affecting land use in several ways. On a symbolic level, people's experience of their landscape is culturally conditioned, a line of argument well-explored in recent phenomenological analyses (following especially Barrett 1994; Thomas 1991; Tilley 1994) which we do not pursue further here. However, culture and land use must also be theorised from other perspectives. Central to any full theory of practice is the question of human-environment interaction. Put most simply, humans do not simply respond to environmental stimuli, but neither can they act freely without external constraint. Rather the relationship is inextricably reciprocal. The 'objective conditions of existence' (Bourdieu 1977) provide a context within which humans make decisions influenced by perception, symbolism, social relations, and many other factors. These human decisions have unintended consequences which alter extra-cultural conditions and hence the context of social action in the future. A full agency-oriented exploration of either phenomenological or environmental aspects of cultural land use is beyond current GIS capabilities, but GIS can profitably be used to explore specific aspects of the question.

Here, we focus on one link of the inextricably reciprocal relationship between human agency and resources mentioned above: how cultural choices affected land use and the resulting human landscape. Neolithic Italian people knew how to farm, herd, hunt and gather. All of these were potentially viable activities in most environments. How Neolithic people decided to allocate their work between these activities must thus have involved cultural choice as well as environmental practicalities. We use GIS to trace out the implications of this cultural choice systematically. What would the resulting landscape have looked like? What areas would have been used for farming, herding and foraging, and where would they have been located? What would the implications have been for site spacing and for potential conflicts over resources? Does this provide any support for economic or cultural theories of the Neolithic spread? Ultimately, this may provide material for symbolic interpretation as well. Given the mosaic of areas used for different purposes, what possibilities would the resulting landscape have afforded for symbolisms such as 'wild' zones? Can we infer anything about patterns of use and the associated values put on sectors of the landscape?

To anticipate our conclusions, we argue that even in overwhelmingly agricultural Neolithic communities, the greatest amount of space was used for non-agricultural purposes, and space between settlements would have been a valuable economic and social resource. Theoretically, this implies that Neolithic land use cannot be reduced to the economic needs of agriculture, but must have involved both the use of wild resources and considerable cultural and social choice. …

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