Thursday 23 April 2020

The True Dawn of the Neolithic Age: an Evolution, not a Revolution

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In his 1936 book, Man Makes Himself the Marxist archaeologist V. G. Childe coined the term ‘Neolithic Revolution’ to describe what was seen as a massive, even abrupt, change in society with the advent of the Neolithic Age and later the rise of cities. A 'revolution' became the the main metaphor to describe the Neolithic transition for the remainder of the Twentieth Century and yet it was not till the post-war period that Kathleen Kenyon, in her excavation at Jericho, gave us our first glimpse of this transition period.
What Kenyon found at Jericho (from 1951) was absolutely stunning.
It showed frequent visits from nomadic hunter gatherers  and then a long gap during a severe cold dry period which was followed by a permanent village of rounded mud huts sunk into the ground.
The village became very large (2,000 -3,000 people) with a truly massive tower and a great stone wall.
The massive PPN-A Jericho
Kenyon was looking at an impressive Neolithic people from the very dawn of Neolithic times and yet they had not yet invented pottery, previously thought to be one of the hallmarks of the Neolithic  period. She called them Pre-pottery Neolithic A, PPN-A (10,000–8,800 BC).
It seemed that nomadic hunter-gathers in the Levant were the very first people to turn to Neolithic farming, and it was in response to this severe and prolonged drought.
But is this what really happened?
That nomadic hunter-gatherers with no experience of cultivation suddenly become sedentary and planted their first crop (and then waited and hoped) in response to running out of food in the midst of a millennial drought seems an unlikely explanation.
The problem with Jericho is that it only showed nomadic hunter gatherers and there was a gap of 1200 yrs between their presence and the PPN-A.
Coming back to nomadic hunter-gatherers. They already have an incredible knowledge of beneficial plants, berries, nuts and seeds in the wild and how and where they grew. They know not to denude areas of beneficial plants, and leave some to grow back for their next visit. Further more, they know to scatter beneficial seeds, nuts or mushroom spores in suitable places for next year, or when they returned, and they know about fire. Even the hunter gathers of this time knew how to fish, build reed and wooden boats and canoes. They knew enough to try cultivation but, to be able to wait around for their crop, they had to build permanent settlements.
To do that. they had to find enough forage locally to allow them to settle in one spot and build permanent settlements. How did this come about?
The oldest evidence so far. 
Fishing villages were likely to be amongst the first permanent hunter-gatherer camps. The 1989 and 1999 excavations of a small fishing village on the shore of Galilea (‘Ohalo II people's camp’) found remains that dated to 21000 BC, an incredible eleven millennia before the PPNA. The villagers lived in brush huts. They had grinding stones and sickles and there was conclusive evidence of crop cultivation of ‘wild’ varieties of emmer (wheat), barley, and oats. see here
the ancient Levant
The climate in the Levant is not a good one for preserving evidence of cultivation but this site was unusually well preserved, having been charred and covered by lake sediment, sealing it in low-oxygen conditions. Previous evidence of grinding stones, grain, sickles, bread making (and even beer production) several millennia before PPN-A were stubbornly dismissed with claims the grain had simply been foraged. The Fisher folk of Ohalo II were hardly Neolithic farmers, they likely had (relatively) small ‘wild’ gardens to supplement their main occupations (fishing and hunter-gathering) still this shows how agriculture first developed.
The LGM and the Mesolithic Age 
Estimated temps,Greenland Ice cores, Wiki
The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) marks the last (recent) time when glaciers were at their peak. It lasted 7,000 years, being coldest up to the end which was (roughly) 16,000-17,000 BC. (I will use BC. To convert to BP remember the 2,000 year difference).
In Europe during the LGM, most life retreated into small remaining refuges. Elsewhere most, not all,  of the rest of the world was considerably drier and seas were at a low levels.
As the glaciers began retreating, the world became warmer and wetter. There was a period (12,670 to 10,890 BC) of rapid warming. In the middle East, deserts shrank (to far less than we have today) being replaced by forests and cereal-rich grass lands.
In Europe, animals and people began moving back in as the glaciers retreated. Now, there was a profusion of lakes, rivers and marshlands (offering lots of fish, birds, water weeds and reeds) and the sea was kinder. Land based life also teemed. Villagers of sedentary hunter-gathers abounded. 
The ‘Mesolithic Age’ had arrived.
The new sedentary hunter-gatherers could build permanent structures and larger communities (100-150 people). In general there was a movement away from heavy reliance on hunting larger animals to more general hunter gathering. They used improved, smaller, lithic tools. They could have more possessions, and they could build long term food storage, a major advance. Of course, they could do all that because there was enough forage, and they had the techniques to harvest and store it so they didn't have to employ a nomadic life style.
It was the Mesolithic settlements that formed a clear bridge to the Neolithic. The Swedish archaeologist, Kurt Stjerna used the term ‘Proto-neolithic’. Some use ‘Epipalaeolithic’, but this term is broader and less precise.
Note: Even in Neolithic times, there was a mix of fishing villagers and hunter-gathers as well and even Neolithic villagers would hunt, fish and gather wild plants. The earliest transition from the Mesolithic to Neolithic was in some ways subtle, one of emphasis. There was an increase of the degree of energy put into crop cultivation and a predominant reliance on crops as a source of food.
When did the first Neolithic farmers appear?
Neolithic transitions have occurred in several sites in the world (e.g. North and South America, the Yellow river in China and the highlands of New Guinea) but the first ever was in the Levant.
The main Mesolithic culture in the Levant was called ‘Natufian’ (12,000 to 9,500 BC) but closely related people established similar settlements all across Northern Africa and the Nile valley. Crops included things like wheat, barley, lentils, and types of peas.
In the Mesolithic Age, trade became greatly increased with (laboriously ground) stone utensils, marine molluscs and seashells. Obsidian, beautiful malachite (green stone), salt, bitumen and other minerals were mined and traded as far as Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Western Iran.
There was even the beginnings of ‘cottage industries’ abundant production (of bone tools,  basketry and matting), made for trade. Flax (linen) was used, they fired clay, extracted lime (from burning sea shells) and used ochre.
The Natufians also turned out their ‘whole’ village to hunt (and process the hunt) from passing migratory herds of gazelle. Gazelle thrived in this period, reducing the reliance on Mesolithic style fishing but still requiring a sedentary life style to preserve, store and protect the bounteous food.
Once we have large and complex settlements such as Jericho in the middle to later  PPN-A period, it is easier to see they were Neolithic, but otherwise the archaeology of the Mesolithic Natufian and the early PPN-A is identical. It is not possible to know when the transition from one to the other occurred.  Fortunately, we do have a firm suspect.
The Younger ‘Dryas’ (10,900 to 9,700 BC)
The Mesolithic world was thriving with the new conducive environment until 10,900 BC when disaster struck. The temperature abruptly dropped to glacial levels in as little as a decade, maybe even less. And it lasted about 1,200 hundred years, it was called the Younger Dryas.
‘Dryas’ is a European alpine (tundra) flower that becomes more abundant in glacial times and increases in (lake) sediments. Dryas-like cooling events are a part of warming after glaciation and two such events had already occurred (hence ‘the youngest’) but they were nothing like this.
The ‘Younger Dryas’ is generally thought to be due to the melting of a vast sheet of ice covering well beyond the region of the Great Lakes in North America, causing the release of cold fresh water and disturbing the flow of warm water from the Equator. There is also evidence of a volcanic eruption in Germany and a comet event that might have been around this time.
In the Levant most of the forests, meadows and waterways vanished and deserts surged back. The devastation must have been incredible. Most of the starving Natufians would be forced to abandon their permanent encampments and return to nomadic hunter gathering. A few Mesolithic enclaves survived (e.g. North-West Syria) and it was the likely that those Mesolithic hunters and gathers were forced to rely more heavily on cultivation, and even simple irrigation, just to survive. The Neolithic Age was born, but it was out of a terrible catastrophe.
So this transition to Neolithic farming first came in the Levant but it had a long prodromal phase in the local Mesolithic Age. We don’t know for sure, but the transition likely came during the catastrophe of the Younger Dryas.
Subsequent Progress.
Neolithic farming rapidly spread over the Middle East to nearby people who were not genetically Natufians.
By 8,000 BC in Mesopotamia the 'domestic' strains of plants (selected for their benefit to humans) had become noticeably different to wild species (selected by Darwinian 'natural' selection in the wild). This is the proper meaning of 'domestication'.
Taming of farm animals came about the same time, with goats at Ganj Dareh (in Western Iran's Zagros Mountains). Suddenly, goat bones at this site showed very few mature male goats, the usual target of hunter-gatherers. The younger Dryas had finished around 9,700 BC and the Neolithic Age is usually said to start ‘about’ 10,000 BC.
The whole Middle East had a rich trade network in Mesolithic and Neolithic times and the idea of taming animals spread far faster than any new herds of goats from Iran. At first, it involved other Neolithic populations taming their local animals. Genetics show that Anatolia became the main source of modern domestic goat genes.
Sheep were soon tamed (in Mesopotamia) and cattle and pigs followed not long after. The taming of sheep and goats soon gave rise to herding and then nomadic herding, which could extend Neolithic populations into lands not suitable for cultivation and spread farm animals into regions they were not native or where hunting had made them scarce.
Of course, there was a spectacular rise in population and social complexity but, from time to time, there were sudden local unexplained depopulation events. One such was at the end of the PPN-A (8,500 BC) in Jericho which was abandoned for three hundred years. It seemed to involve several other local sites so the early Neolithic farmers died out, they didn’t just move locally.   
We don’t know what happened, it could have been an epidemic or local climate change. Other unexplained depopulation events occurred in other regions at different times in early Neolithic times.  Jericho was not repopulated until 8,800 BC when a second group moved in, which Kenyon called PPN-B.
This group had adopted rectangular houses (from other regions) and had different burial practices. It was a movement of people, not just ideas, but excavations (e.g. Tell Qaramel) show they were from Northern Syria and had evolved there from NPP-A .  These new settlers had embraced a number of innovations such as domestication of farm animals and were able to move into more arid areas that the NPP-A farmers were unable to conquer.
Settlements became larger and more complicated but they were still not cities. They were still predominantly occupied by farmers, so they were large farming villages.
It was not until the establishment of the first cities in Southern Mesopotamia (e.g. Eridu about 5400 BC ) supported by several surrounding villages that civilisation had arrived.

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