The Early Neolithic economy was doomed by insoluble contradictions. Technique was primitive and wasteful. Society lacked reserves against natural disaster and hard times. Virgin land ran out as old fields were exhausted and populations grew.

An Ancient Egyptian ploughWar was an expression of these contradictions. It offered some groups a way out of poverty by seizing the property of others. But it was not a solution. It did nothing to increase productivity. It merely redistributed existing reserves of wealth in land, animals, and grain-stores.

A defining characteristic of Homo sapiens – the hominid super-species that had colonised the Earth between 200,000 and 15,000 years ago – was inventiveness. Modern humans respond to challenges by developing new tools and techniques. They are adapted to adapt. They flourish through cultural innovation.

The economic impasse of the Early Neolithic was broken by revolutionary advances in agriculture, transport, and tool-making.

Plough-based ‘agriculture’ (the tillage of fields) replaced hoe-based ‘horticulture’ (the working of garden-plots). An ox-drawn plough allows farmers to work large fields, to break up the sod, and to tap reserves of deeply-buried nutrients. Traction animals also produce manure to re-fertilise the soil.

An Ancient Egyptian shipIrrigation schemes brought water to arid land. When communities of farmers organised themselves to dig, maintain, and operate networks of dams, channels, and sluices, the effect was to offset the risk of irregular rainfall and bring fertile land into permanent cultivation.

Drainage schemes, on the other hand, turned swamps into fields, creating nutrient-rich land for cultivation where none had existed. Again, communal labour was necessary, both to dig the channels in the first place and to keep them clear of silt thereafter.

Land transport was transformed by the invention of the wheel and the rearing of pack-animals (oxen, asses, horses, and camels). Loads were no longer limited to what a human could carry on her or his back or haul on a sledge. Water transport was transformed by the sail. In this case, wind-power was harnessed to replace (or supplement) the muscle-power of the rower.

Tools of stone, bone, and wood are limited. They can be fashioned only by hacking bits off. Once broken, they have to be discarded. Metals are magical by comparison. They can be melted, mixed, and moulded into a thousand different forms. Cooling, they become solid, hard, and durable. And there is no waste: scrap metal can be endlessly recycled.

Copper was the first metal to be worked. Later it was mixed with other metals to make harder alloys. By 3000 BCE (before the common era), it was being mixed with tin to make bronze. For the next two millennia, this was to be the preferred material for making tools, weapons, and ornaments.

Bronze Age metalworkersMetal-working technology was altogether new. Ceramic technology was already established, but it was now developed apace with the introduction of the potter’s wheel. A serviceable vessel – and, if desired, one of finer quality and decoration – can be formed on a wheel in a fraction of the time taken to mould one by hand from coils or slabs of clay.

Between c. 4000 and 3000 BCE, a series of innovations transformed the work of farmers in Western Asia. Land was increased by irrigation and drainage, was more easily worked with the plough, and was improved by regular manuring. Metallurgy produced tougher tools and the potter’s wheel more and better containers. Pack animals, wheeled vehicles, and sailing vessels allowed heavy loads to be moved and goods to be traded.

Many of the new ideas originated in Western Asia. Some were imported from elsewhere. The steppe nomads of Central Asia may have been the first to domesticate the horse and construct carts. The metalworkers of Europe were in the forefront of their craft.

Good ideas soon catch on. The improved farming methods of the Late Neolithic spread quickly from Western Asia to Europe.

Chinese rice terracesIn more far-flung regions, there was independent development at a later date. The Chinese, for example, invented the wheelbarrow, terraced the hillsides, and pioneered the laborious cultivation and transplanting of rice seedlings.

The new techniques involved social change. The low-tech economy of the Early Neolithic did not require specialised labour: everyone mucked in. The high-tech world of the Late Neolithic, the Chalcolithic (Copper Age), and the Bronze Age depended on a range of specialists.

Skilled carpenters were needed to make ploughs, carts, and boats. Potters mass-produced wheel-thrown vessels in exchange for a share of farm produce. Metalworkers served long apprenticeships to learn the mysteries of smelting and smithing.

Specialisation separated labour from the homestead. Traders travelled long distances with valuable cargoes of copper, obsidian, lava-stone, ornamental shells, and semi-precious stones. Many prehistoric craftworkers – like their historical descendants – were also itinerants, selling their skills from village to village.

Ties of family and clan weakened. As well as social relationships based on kinship, there were now new relationships based on patronage and commerce.

Relations between the sexes also changed. If social groups were to survive and prosper, they required a steady supply of teenagers and young adults for economic labour. To provide it, because of high mortality rates, young women had to spend most of their lives either pregnant or suckling.

Mother and child in traditional Papua New GuineaPalaeolithic gathering and Early Neolithic hoeing could be combined with child care. Late Neolithic ploughing could not.

In hunter-gatherer and early farming communities, women had played different roles, but enjoyed equal status. There had been a sexual division of labour, but no oppression of women. Men hunted, women gathered, and everyone discussed when to move camp.

The nuclear family did not exist in its modern form. Early Neolithic long-houses accommodated extended families. Group marriage may have been common practice. Matrilocal residence (men living with their wives’ families) and matrilineal descent (tracing family membership through the female line) certainly were.

But the Late Neolithic was a man’s world. Herding, ploughing, long-distance trade, and itinerant craftsmanship could not be combined with carrying children. The plough, the ox-cart, and the forge created patriarchy.

A second agricultural ‘revolution’ – more accurately, a slow-motion accumulation of radical innovations – had transformed the Neolithic economy and subverted the Neolithic social order. The hoe and the temporary garden-plot had been replaced by the plough and the irrigated and manure-spread field. Because of this, matriarchal, family-based, and egalitarian communities were being transformed by new notions of authority and hierarchy.

Neil Faulkner

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‘.

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