Thoughts on the `Repacked' Neolithic Revolution. (Research)

By Thomas, Julian | Antiquity, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Thoughts on the `Repacked' Neolithic Revolution. (Research)

Thomas, Julian, Antiquity


In recent years a number of publications have made a case for the reinstatement of a view of the British Neolithic in which an integrated `package' of cultural innovations and economic practices was introduced abruptly from continental Europe (Richards and Hedges 1999; Schulting 2000). In its original form, this perspective presented the Neolithic as essentially composed of a subsistence economy, which was transported from the Near East to Britain in only marginally modified form (e.g. Cole 1965). This economy then provided a productive base, which allowed the development of ceramics, field monuments, and social hierarchies (Case 1969; Legge 1989). It follows that these cultural changes were epiphenomenal, and Neolithic subsistence practice relatively homogeneous. It may be that these revisionist arguments do not require us entirely to return to such a position. None the less, their claims deserve a degree of critical evaluation, given the criticisms that have been raised against the notion of a homogeneous Neolithic package over the past two decades (e.g. Pluciennik 1998).

Addressing the re-dating of a number of Neolithic sites which had hitherto appeared uncharacteristically early, Rick Schulting (2000) points to the increasingly sharp interface that is being drawn between the Mesolithic and Neolithic in Britain. Schulting calls on new evidence which implies that microlithic technologies survived into the later Mesolithic, and yet notes that there are no known examples of microliths and pottery occurring together (ibid.: 32). On this basis, he suggests that there was little overlap between Mesolithic and Neolithic ways of life in southern Britain. Moreover, he implies that there was little regional variation in the date of the inception of the Neolithic throughout the country. Schulting concludes that

   calls for the unpacking of the Neolithic `package' and the need to
   consider its constituents independently .... may be premature.
   Rather, it may be reiterated that the people of the earliest
   Neolithic in Britain built monuments for their dead, used novel
   technologies such as pottery .... and appear to have subsisted
   primarily on domesticated resources. This suggests that the adoption
   of `Neolithic' traits was for the most part an all-or-nothing affair
   in Britain (2000: 32-3).

These themes of the swiftness of the transition to the Neolithic and the significance of domesticated resources are also addressed by Michael Richards and Robert Hedges, in their study of stable isotope measurements from early Neolithic human bones, used as an indicator of diet (1999). Richards and Hedges argue that while they have little direct evidence for later Mesolithic diet in southern Britain, the existence of shell middens attributable to this period suggest that marine foods would have made a substantial contribution to nutrition, at least in coastal areas. They go on to assert that

   if [[delta].sup.13] analysis of Neolithic human bones indicates
   there is a lack of marine foods, then we can infer that there was a
   fairly rapid change in diet as marine foods were replaced by
   terrestrial foods, most likely the new domesticates that appear at
   this time (Richards and Hedges 1999: 892, emphasis mine).

And indeed, on the basis of analyses conducted on 78 human skeletons, it appears that no human skeleton dated to after 5400 BP shows any evidence that marine protein contributed to diet, as the relevant [[delta].sup.13] values are all close to -20 [per thousand]. Richards and Hedges contend that this pattern could be explained either by the replacement of one human population by another (presumably continental) one, or by a very rapid change of diet on the part of an indigenous population. However, a gradual change of diet, associated with a slow or piecemeal adoption of agriculture, is effectively ruled out (Richards and Hedges 1999: 894). …

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