Neolithic and The Neolithic Revolution in the Near East


by Susan Foster McCarter

New York: Routledge, 2007, 221 pp.
$34.95 (paperback), $110 (hardback)
The Neolithic Revolution in the Near East: Transforming the Human Landscape

by Alan H. Simmons

Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007, 338 pp.
$55 (hardback)
Reviewed by Gary Rollefson

As you sit there reading this review, just about everything you see and touch in the room around you—and an incredibly varied array of things outside of it—can be traced ultimately to a slow process by which humans emerged from another slot in the natural environment to a situation where humans now control—and threaten—just about all of the biosphere and enormous stretches of the landscape. The food you eat, the beverages you drink, the clothing you wear, the arts you enjoy, the troubles you face—the list goes on and on—began their development in a new way thousands of years ago.

One facet of the panoramic scope of things that humans altered and that constitutes the foundation for the new status that people crafted for themselves, as well as everything else they established later, is the development of new “synthetic” foods to serve human needs.

Several species of wheat and barley were created. Peas, lentils and chickpeas were domesticated. Oats were added to the menu of manmade plant foods. Goats and sheep were herded first, soon to be followed by pigs and cattle. (Beer was developed in passing, and possibly even wine.) All of these new artificial species depended on humans; without people, the new species would die out with amazing rapidity. With a steady supply of nutrition (despite the same or even worse conditions of health) human populations began an inexorable growth that soon demanded new relationships between humans and the environment and, just as vital, new relationships among groups of people. New technologies developed, including pottery manufacture and water management and irrigation, to cope with life’s new demands.

Two sites that define our understanding of the Neolithic revolution are located in modern Turkey. In two Bible History Daily features, discover a mural at Çatalhöyük, the world’s largest and best-preserved Neolithic site, and explore Göbekli Tepe, the oldest monumental religious site in the world.

All these processes began in what is called the Neolithic period; the consequences are often referred to as the Neolithic Revolution, “revolutionary” in the sense that a new world order was established. But although it is called a revolution, the development was really evolutionary, in the sense that it was not an overnight development. The Neolithic period began around 12,000 years ago in the Near East, and it didn’t finish its transformation there until about 4,500 years later. Only a few things would be added in the following Chalcolithic (or “Copper Stone Age”), including olives and olive oil, as well as domesticated donkeys.

This crucial stage of human history is the focus of two newly published books, both of which BAR readers would enjoy. McCarter’s work is the more fundamental of the two: She begins with explanations of basic archaeological concepts, genetics and evolution, and hypotheses relating to the beginnings of plant and animal domestication; she goes on to describe the impacts that agriculture and animal husbandry eventually had on population growth and consequent changes in human social organization, nutrition, disease, architecture, exchange systems, technological innovations and intriguing developments in religion and ritual. Although McCarter focuses on the eastern Mediterranean region, she also draws examples from elsewhere in the Old World. The text is well written, but the illustrations are poorly rendered: Black-and-white line drawings and halftones do not do justice to what the figures should convey.

Simmons’s book takes a different tack. He presupposes the reader’s acquaintance with archaeological basics, and he follows a chronological development from pre-Neolithic societies to the social and economic/technological complexities that arose in the course of the Neolithic period. Particularly important in Simmons’s writing is the sensitive relationship between society and environment, and how human populations thrive or suffer depending on the social impact on local habitats, and what catastrophic effects can emerge when climatic deterioration suddenly occurs in these altered landscapes. The maritime connections between Cyprus and the mainland make up an important (and long-overdue) chapter of this well-written volume.

To understand the state of existence in which the world now finds itself, one has to start at the beginning to follow the intricately complex developments that ensued. Both of these books would be good initial sources in that search.

Gary Rollefson is associate professor of anthropology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

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