Cutting a Long Story Short? the Process of Neolithization in the Dutch Delta Re-Examined

Article excerpt


The transition from an existence based on hunting and gathering to a farming way of life has been one of the major research topics of archaeology world wide ever since the days of Gordon V. Childe's agricultural revolution. This process of neolithization is traditionally perceived as one of the major steps in human cultural live. In the case of north-western Europe, the stage is set by the intrusion of farmers of the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) around 5300 BC. Thanks to excellent wetland preservation in the delta part of the Netherlands, the transition to farming is relatively well documented. This essay questions the traditional view that the process of neolithization was extremely slow and covered many centuries, using material gathered from a group of excavated sites (Figure 1).



The study of the process of neolithization starts with the definition of terminology. Foremost in the archaeological discourse of north-western Europe it is a custom to describe this process in terms of food production. The most influential model to describe the process of neolithization is the availability model of Zvelebil (1986). He divides the process into three stages: the availability phase, the substitution phase and the consolidation phase. During the availability phase, knowledge about domestic plants and animals is present in the hunter-gatherer communities, but their dietary contribution is minimal (less than five per cent of bone remains are from domestic animals). During the substitution phase, animal herding and crop cultivation become structural parts of the subsistence strategy (5-50 per cent of the bone remains are from domestic animals). In the consolidation phase, agriculture is the main source of food.

In order to determine the dietary importance of domestic animals, two assumptions have to be made explicit. First of all, one has to suppose that the percentages in a bone assemblage somehow reflect the dietary importance of the animals present. Because sieving has not been a standard excavation technique on most of the sites discussed below, small bone material (especially from fishes and birds) is certainly under-represented in the bone assemblages. For this reason, I confine the study below to mammal bones. Second, because the distinction between bones of domestic pig (Sus domesticus) and wild boar (Sus scrofa) is often difficult and historical sources suggest that domestic pig used to be purposefully interbred with feral pigs, it was decided to create one category in which all pig bones are taken together (following Gehasse 1995). In this way, the large variety in mammal bone assemblages was reduced to three major categories: wild mammals, domestic mammals and pigs (Figure 2 and Table 1). The distance between the sites in Figure 2 is a measure of the difference between the mammal bone assemblages.


The Swifterbant culture (5000-3400 BC)

The process of neolithization in the Dutch delta starts with the first contacts between indigenous Late Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and the LBK farmers in the loess areas to the south and the east. These contacts are documented through the presence of various LBK artefacts in a zone extending dozens of kilometers from the loess (Verhart 2000). Around 5000 BC, hunter-gatherers start the production of pottery, a new technique probably derived front their farming neighbours (Raemaekers 1999). This availability phase ends around 4600 BC. Sites from this phase have especially come to light during the last decade. Major excavations such as A27/ Hoge Vaart (Hogestijn & Peeters 2001), Polderweg (Louwe Kooijmans 2001a) and De Bruin (Louwe Kooijmans 2001 b) provided no evidence for the cultivation of cereals, but do reveal a small-scale introduction of domestic animals around 4600 BC. These finds include bones from domestic cattle, pig and sheep/goat for the phase 3 occupation at De Bruin (4700-4450 BC; Oversteegen et al. …