The term Neolithic is frequently used to refer to that stage in humanity’s history when people became sedentary and started farming. The Neolithic is normally conceptualized as a package that includes farming, sedentism, the making and use of stone tools, and crafts such as pottery and weaving. It is thus viewed as a new food-producing economy that, following Andrew Sherratt, eventually led to the Secondary Products Revolution, when people intensified production and labor and made use of secondary products, such as milk, traction, and wool. The Neolithic is also viewed in terms of what Service termed tribes and chiefdoms.
Although this general view sometimes captures the spirit of the Neolithic, it presents a homogenized picture of a time frame that is as varied geographically as it is materially. The concepts of Neolithic and Secondary Products revolutions imply a definite break with the preceding period, the Mesolithic, and a universal, homogeneous change in lifestyle. Moreover, the long-standing emphasis on tribes and chiefdoms has led to Neolithic tribes being defined by what they lack, rather than by what they have.
The idea of economic revolution was mostly articulated by Vere Gordon-Childe, who was influenced by both culture-history and Marxism. Childe saw the Near East as the starting point for the Neolithic, with the Natufians branded as the first farmers. In his view, plant domestication preceded animal domestication.
It was Robert and Linda Braidwood who, in 1948, launched the Iraq-Jarmo project to recover primary evidence for the earliest food-producing economies in the Near East, long considered the cradle of civilization. The work at Jarmo, coupled with Willard Libby’s new C14 lab at the University of Chicago, indicated that, contra Childe, the earliest food-producing economies had been in the hilly flanks of the Fertile Crescent rather than lowland oases and riverine areas.
However, Lewis Binford and Kent Flannery came up with the marginality hypothesis, arguing that food production deliberately started around optimal-zone margins. On the other hand, Ofer Bar-Yosef and his colleagues put forward the Levantine primacy view, arguing that drier conditions between 13,000 and 12,800 BP forced hunter-gatherers westward. The consequent population increase resulted in reduced mobility; a broad-based economy; and the establishment of large, aggregated sites. What distinguishes this work is that Bar-Yosef and his colleagues consider complex social organization together with environmental change and population growth as reasons for the start of sedentism.
The New Archaeology also saw the Neolithic in terms of chiefdoms and ritual sodality, and there was substantial focus on the origins of inequality within the Neolithic. The postprocessual movement, by contrast, focused on people (rather than the system behind them) and applied poststructuralism to the study of meaning and symbolism. The Neolithic thus came to be viewed as a world full of rich, symbolic meanings that are manipulated and renegotiated by social actors.
What makes the Neolithic difficult to conceptualize as a whole is the diversity within cultures. The transition from Mesolithic to Neolithic is by no means clear-cut. Moreover, the Neolithic did not spread and appear everywhere at once. In many areas (Britain being a case in point), the Mesolithic lifestyle survived far longer than conventionally thought, and for a while, it existed side by side with farming. Ethno-graphically, it is known that foragers are often very resistant to farming, and this seems to be the case archaeologically as well.
How the Neolithic spread remains a contentious subject, and it is unlikely that the phenomenon can be explained by a universal theory. It is also unlikely that one can explain Neolithic cultures as a monolithic phenomenon. The remainder of the discussion will focus on the Neolithic of Europe, while acknowledging that Africa, Asia, the Americas, and other parts of the world have complex Neolithic biographies.
Broadly speaking, the European Neolithic started about 7000 BC in southeastern Europe, about 6000 BC in the Mediterranean, and about 5500 BC in central Europe. The Neolithic of northwestern Europe dates only to about 4500-4000 BC. In each area, the Neolithic assumed its own distinctive character.
Southeastern Europe and Greece
The Karanovo settlement in central-southern Bulgaria dates to about 6000 BC and is built on an earlier settlement. Rectangular houses built of mud or daub had clay ovens inside. Clay figurines were also found in a domestic setting.
Such mounds, which are found in Greece, the Balkans, and as far north as Hungary, have been the subject of intense debate. Sites like Karanovo in Bulgaria and Sesklo in Thessaly were used periodically over a long time, whereas other sites (for example, in Britain; see below) were used for only short periods of time. Simply considering them in terms of a new subsistence economy would be excluding them from a wider landscape that was profoundly and constantly manipulated and renegotiated. The new trends in economy are part of a wider change in identity in an increasingly complex world.
The Neolithic is also a time of socially important exchange networks; obsidian was traded throughout much of the Mediterranean, while in Britain, stone axes from the Langdales were found as far as Scotland and throughout much of Britain. In terms of food, wild animals were still hunted and formed an important part of the sociocultural context. Most sites, however, show a preponderance of sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. On the plant front, cereals and legumes dominate most assemblages. Materially, pottery was present almost everywhere, and clay figurines played an important role in many communities.
This general picture of a diverse material culture applies broadly to an area stretching from Turkey to Iran, where domestication and sedentism culminated in a process lasting from 9000 to 7000 BC. By 7000 BC, there were established Neolithic communities in Hacilar and Catal Hoyuk. As Neolithic communities expanded, they settled in Cyprus, Crete, and other coastal areas. However, whereas there seem to be many people in areas like Thessaly, population density seems to be lower in the Struma, Vardar, and Danube valleys.
By 5000 BC, there appear a handful of sites with a large, centrally placed building, normally called a megaron, such as those at Sesklo and Agio Sofia. It appears that these were meeting houses. New settlements were also founded, for example, at Dimini, a site with concentric retaining walls with communal spaces and individual buildings having their own hearths.
Figurines become increasingly distinctive, with the Vinca culture producing figurines that are now almost iconic. Figurines had triangular faces, large eyes, and body decoration, and they occurred mostly in domestic contexts. Together with many other figurines from Europe and the Mediterranean, they have often been placed within a Mother-Goddess and/or fertility paradigm, one that has been challenged and debated for at least the past 50 years.
By about 4000 BC, profound changes are detected throughout the area. Most sites are abandoned, many for good. Those that are reoccupied are in a much reduced form. Although cemetery burials still continued in parts of Romania and southern Ukraine, other regions, such as those around the lower Danube and the steppe zone of southern Ukraine, opted for small mounds. The picture in Greece also becomes more complex. Although change occurred over a wide geographic area, it was regionally different.
Central and Western Europe
The Linear Pottery culture (termed Linearbandkeramik, or LBK) is the first Neolithic culture in central and western Europe. It is found from western Hungary to the southern Netherlands, eastern Belgium, central-northern France, Slovakia, the former Czech Republic, Austria, parts of Poland, and Germany. LBK settlements are typically found on fertile soils and near water sources. Compared to the rest of Europe, the LBK looks far more uniform in terms of settlement location, longhouses, enclosures, and cemeteries. There are similarities in stone tools and pottery, but toward the end of the phase, pottery styles became more regionalized.
Although the LBK has been presented as a clear-cut case of a break with the preceding Mesolithic, scholars like Alasdair Whittle point to evidence for continuity, noting that physical and anthropological evidence from cemeteries is compatible with continuity of indigenous populations. Moreover, he notes that the basic flint tool kits of indigenous foragers and LBK people also had much in common.
Early LBK sites were well dispersed through the landscape, with large intervals between regional clusters. Settlements were small, and the majority were used only in the earliest phase. Timber longhouses were built for the outset, generally divided into two and even three sections. As yet, early cemeteries are not known.
In the middle period, settlement extended to the main limits of the loess soil and to the edge of and parts of the northern European plain. Within areas already occupied, settlements became more numerous. Burial gounds are also known in most areas. In the late phase, settlement was further extended, for example, the Paris basin and central Poland. Pottery styles became increasingly regionalized, and there may have been long-distance context with the central-western Mediterranean.
Soon after 5000 BC, different cultural groups are found in the same LBK area, such as the Lengyel, Stichbandkeramik, and Villeneuve-Saint-Germain cultures. Longhouses remained in use, although their shape and construction changed. The dead were disposed of in and around the settlement area. There is also a noted increase in ditched enclosures and the formalization of space.
Britain remains one of the most intriguing Neolithic cultures. Traditionally considered as homogeneous, recent scholarship has shown great regional diversity. Moreover, it is often difficult to distinguish between domestic sites and enclosures. Northern Britain and Ireland present a picture of small social units, mostly farmsteads, scattered across the landscape. Most of the evidence for early farming is based on stock rearing rather than grain.
The Mediterranean and Its Islands
The biography of the Mediterranean is very different. The diversity within this area is intimately tied to the Mediterranean Sea. The Neolithic “package” was adopted slowly in the central and western Mediterranean. Stratigraphic sequences from caves in mainland Italy and Sicily show a mix of foraging and farming from about the early fifth millennium BC, but non-cave, ditched settlements in the Tavoliere date to almost 1,000 years later. The general impression is of mostly nonsedentary communities that combined foraging and farming. Similar trends can be discerned in southern France and coastal Spain, and perhaps in North Africa.
By 5800 BC, most of southern Italy was Neolithic, although the earlier Impressed Ware cultures survived in enclaves, such as Liguria. Moreover, although the Neolithic reached Sardinia and Corsica by 5500 BC, foragers were still present in the central Appenines, and Neolithization occurred by 5000 BC.
Southern France shares similarities with Italy, such as a lack of Mesolithic sites and sparse Mesolithic populations. The majority of Neolithic sites are caves and open settlements (mostly lost to a rise in sea level). Hunting was incorporated more in France than in Italy.
Iberia also shows a preponderance for coastal sites, and by 5500 BC, there is rapid expansion, including Portugal and Gibraltar. The interior experienced the Neolithic by 5000 BC, and foragers remained on the Cantabrian coast by 4700 BC.
Islands expressed the Neolithic in different ways. Although islands like Sardinia and Malta show plenty of evidence for extrainsular contacts, they developed their own distinct cultures. Sardinia exhibits increasing complexity from the early Cardial phases to the Middle Neolithic, which is characterized by plenty of villages in the fertile Campidano plain. Distinct regionalism is present by the Late Neolithic. Whereas the San Michele d’Ozieri culture spread over large parts of the island, Gallura developed its own distinct stone-circle culture.
On the other hand, the small island of Malta seems to have been first colonized by Sicilian farmers in 5000 BC. As the Neolithic developed, the island gave birth to a very complex megalithic culture expressed by temples and underground funerary structures.
Finally, the Neolithic is often associated with monumentality, such as the causewayed enclosures of Britain and the megalithic temples of Malta. Both have been the subject of intensive studies.
The monument phenomenon has been explained in terms of chiefdom societies; territorial delineation; ostentation; and, following Richard Bradley, forming a new sense of time and space. Indeed, the study of monuments entered a new phase in the 1990s with the application of phenomenological theory.
Mortuary mounds in Europe are frequently tied to the importance of ancestry and communities establishing a claim to agricultural land. However, the first mounds typically contained a single individual; only later did they contain multiple burials. Bradley notes that it was at that point that the monument permitted access between the living and the dead.
Causewayed enclosures became the focus for special deposits of artifacts and bones. At the same time, settlement (in the orthodox sense) became more scattered and ephemeral. Early enclosures do not exhibit many common elements, although there is a trend for them to be closely integrated into the pattern of settlement. Over time, earthworks were increasingly constructed toward the margins of settled landscape, and instead of occupation sites, they became centers for feasting and ritual activity.
On the other hand, the megalithic temples of Malta do not exhibit signs of being used as settlements. Billed as the first freestanding stone buildings in the world, they are the remains of a remarkable civilization that, until the beginning of this phenomenon, was not that different from other Mediterranean societies.
These monuments have a number of elements. They are approached across an oval space, and the forecourt is overlooked by a façade and is composed of a row of orthostats. The side and rear walls are also built of orthostats. The inside of the temples varies greatly, but all have a number of apses. Materially, they have yielded animal (but no human) remains, obsidian, tools, and an array of statuary. Burial was initially in rock-cut graves, but as temple society developed, it was transferred to necropoli. Two are known. The first is a monumental, underground structure known as the Saflieni Hypogeum, and the second is the Brochtorff Stone Circle at Xaghra.
In conclusion, the Neolithic world is a complex and varied one, and it would be fallacious to consider Neolithic cultures as a monolithic whole. Although elements of the Neolithic “package” are common to many areas, when and how these appear and how they are negotiated are vastly different. The Neolithic is a time of the creation of new worlds and the creation and renegotiation of various identities.
The end of the Neolithic is equally contentious. Southeastern Europe is embroiled in an Indo-European controversy, and for a long while, the invasion hypothesis was favored for much of Europe. Perhaps the epochalistic Three Age system does not always express the complexities of any period. The impression of a clean, definite break between one epoch and the other is often misleading. There is still much scope for research into this period, bearing in mind that we do not have one Neolithic but many.
- Blake, E., & Knapp, A. B. (Eds.). (2005). The archaeology of Mediterranean prehistory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
- Bradley, R. (1998). The significance of monuments: On the shaping of human experience in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe. New York: Routledge.
- Scarre, C. (Ed.). (2002). Monuments and landscape in Atlantic Europe. New York: Routledge.
- Trump, D. (2002). Malta: Prehistory and temples. Malta: Midsea Books.
- Whittle, A. (1996). Europe in the Neolithic: The creation of new worlds. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.