In part three of Neil Faulkner's Marxist history series he reveals how the advent of farming lead to primitive communistic societies who through land depletion and scarcity of resources would be forced into global war.
Around 20,000 years ago, the ice of the last glaciation began to melt. By c. 10,000 BP (before the present), global temperatures had stabilised at levels similar to today’s. By c. 7,000 BP, the world had assumed its current form.
Europe, for example, took shape as rising ocean waters broke through land-bridges and flooded the Baltic, the North Sea, and the Black Sea.
The result was a slowly evolving ecological crisis for the peoples of the world. In the North, the open tundra roamed by great beasts was replaced by thick forest, cutting the bio-mass of wild animals available to hunters by about 25%.
In Central and Western Asia, the crisis was yet more serious: global warming turned large areas to desert. There, life retreated towards damp uplands, river valleys, and oases. It was not the first time. During the 2.5 million years of the Ice Age, the glaciers had advanced and retreated many times.
The difference now was the identity of the hominids faced with adaptation to a warming world. Homo sapiens had settled the entire planet, driving all other hominids to extinction.
Between 85,000 and 15,000 BP, they had accomplished the first great globalisation. They had done it by virtue of brain power, social organisation, and an unprecedented capacity for cultural innovation. They now applied these qualities to the problem of global warming.
In the forested landscapes of the North, most humans were now to be found by rivers, lakes, deltas, estuaries, and seashores, where food supplies were abundant and varied. Around 7500 BCE (before the common era), Star Carr in Yorkshire was the site of a seasonal camp used in late spring and summer each year.
The ‘Mesolithic’ (Middle Stone Age) people who used it hunted wild cattle, elk, red deer, roe deer, and wild pig, and also smaller animals like pine marten, red fox, and beaver. Stalking and close-range ambush was the method.
As well as scrapers, borers, and other stone implements, their tool-kit included barbed spearheads of antler. The people of Star Carr had it fairly easy. Refined techniques of hunting and gathering enabled them to exploit the new food resources of a wet and wooded landscape.
In the arid regions of Asia, something more radical was necessary: not new variants of food-gathering, but food-production. Hunters had for long existed in a symbiotic relationship with their prey. They created clearings, channelled movement, provided food, warded off predators, spared the young. Plentiful game close-by was in the interests of hunters.
The transition from hunting to pastoralism could be gradual and seamless. That plants grew from seeds was a matter of simple observation. That people should sow seeds in order to harvest plants was not a giant leap. But it involved a choice - and not necessarily a welcome one.
Farming is hard work: it means long, repetitive back-breaking toil - clearing land, breaking the sod, hoeing the ground, scattering seed, weeding, warding off vermin, irrigating and draining the fields, harvesting the crop.
And always with the danger of drought, flood, or blight. Then the same all over again. Year after year after year. So farming is not a positive choice. Hunting and fishing, gathering and scavenging are much easier.
Resource depletion and economic distress underlay the ‘Neolithic Revolution’. El-Beidha near Petra in modern Jordan was home to a community of Neolithic (New Stone Age) farmers in c. 6500 BCE. They lived in communal ‘corridor’ houses of stone, timber, and mud, ground cereals to make flour on ‘saddle querns’, and manufactured many and varied flint-flake tools, including arrowheads, knives, and scrapers. Geography and climate interacted with human ingenuity to produce different economies in different places.
Farming developed in Western and Central Asia partly because it was drier and the pressure on food resources greater, and partly because wild varieties of key species were available for domestication - barley and emmer wheat, and cows, sheep, goats, and pigs. But climate change was global, and farming was invented independently at different times in widely separate places.
In Highland Papua New Guinea, for instance, a Neolithic economy developed in c. 7000 BCE based on sugar cane, bananas, nuts, taro, grasses, roots, and green vegetables. It remained essentially unchanged into the 1930s. The first European farmers were Asian pioneers who crossed the Aegean into Eastern Greece in 7500-6500 BCE.
They brought the ‘Neolithic package’ with them - cultivated crops and domesticated animals; permanent settlements and square houses; spinning and weaving; hoes, sickles, and polished axes; pottery and quernstones; and ceramic ‘fat-lady’ figurines.
It all appears suddenly in the archaeological record alongside the burials of people with a distinctive ‘Asian’ DNA. Farming spread slowly. Since c.7500 BCE, hunting-gathering, pastoralism, and cultivation have co-existed. Many early Neolithic communities operated a ‘mixed economy’ with elements of all three.
Others resisted farming altogether. Not before c. 5500 BCE did it spread from the Balkans, through the Hungarian Plain, to Northern and Western Europe.
Then it halted again. For a thousand years, the Mesolithic hunters of the Baltic, the North Sea coasts, the Atlantic fringes, and the British Isles held out. Then, they too, in the years 4300 to 3800 BCE, went Neolithic.
Others again, like the Australian Aborigines or the Kalahari Bushmen, retained a hunting-gathering economy into recent times. Each time, farming must have been a reluctant choice. Once established, however, there was no going back.
Farming, because it exploits the landscape intensively, can support much larger populations than hunting-gathering. If the farmers stopped hoeing and harvesting, they starved. There were too many of them to live off the wilderness.
Humanity was trapped in toil by its own success. But at least there were no social parasites: everyone worked and everything was shared. Neither houses nor burials reveal evidence of social inequality.
By c. 5000 BCE, Neolithic farmers - known to archaeologists as the Linearbandkeramik culture - were settled across much of Europe. They lived in villages of two or three dozen timber ‘long-houses’. These could be 30-40 m long and 5 m wide. Building them would have required all-out collective effort. Each one must have accommodated an extended family group. So Early Neolithic society had neither class divisions nor nuclear families.
There is nothing ‘natural’ about either. Like hunter-gatherers, the first farmers were what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels called ‘primitive communists’. But it was a communism of scarcity. Early agriculture was wasteful: land was cleared, cultivated, exhausted, and then abandoned. Fallowing and manuring to keep land ‘in good heart’ were not yet the norm. And populations were expanding. Land was running out. These contradictions of the Early Neolithic economy soon exploded into war.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
More articles from this author
- The agony of Gaza
- Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence
- WWI: Imperial carve up, industrialised killing the truth about Gove's 'Great War'
- The Great Flood
- Jeremy Paxman's BBC history of the First World War is shallow, banal, and cliché-ridden
- Final Solutions: Human nature, Capitalism, and Genocide
- World War One and the rehabilitation of slaughter