Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Neolithic Revolution II

The distribution of Neolithic and ancient popula­tions therefore bore little resemblance to that of a mod­ern industrial society. Ancient people were younger and had far shorter working lives than their modern coun­terparts. Their reproductive lifetimes were also shorter, and in people of mature years (aged thirty to fifty), men may have outnumbered women, primarily because so many women died in childbirth. The life expectancy for either gender may not have been much more than thirty years at birth, but those who survived their fifties had as good a chance as their modern counterparts of reaching an advanced age. This pattern, like the condi­tions that produced it, would persist until the industrial revolution of modern times. Stonehenge. The greatest of all stone circles, shown here from the north, stands on England’s Salisbury Plain. Some believe that Stonehenge served as an astronomical calculator, but the real purpose is as obscure as the culture of its builders. The huge stones were quarried, and perhaps shaped elsewhere, and transported many miles to their present site. The lintels are pegged and fitted into prepared holes in the standing stones or fitted with mortise-and-tenon joints. The stonemasonry as well as the size of the project is remarkable. The invention of agriculture expanded the idea of property to include land and domesticated animals, which were not only personal possessions but also the means of survival. In Paleolithic times the primary mea­sure of individual worth was probably a person’s ability as a hunter or gatherer, skills from which the entire tribe presumably benefited. The Neolithic world mea­sured status in terms of flocks, herds, and fields. This change affected the structure of human societies in three important ways. First, because luck and manage­ment skills vary widely, certain individuals amassed greater wealth than others. To gain the maximum ad­vantage from their wealth, they found it necessary to utilize, and often to exploit, the labor of their poorer neighbors. Neolithic society was therefore character­ized by social stratification, though a measure of coop­eration could be found at the village level in the performance of agricultural and construction tasks. Second, the emergence of property seems to have affected the status of women. Little is known about the lives of women in Paleolithic times, but most theorists agree that, with the development of herds and landed property, controlling female sexuality became necessary in ways that would have been unnecessary in a commu­nity of hunter-gatherers. The issue was inheritance. The survival of the family depended upon the preserva­tion and augmentation of its wealth. Women were ex­pected to provide heirs who were the biological children of their partners. The result was the develop­ment of a double standard by which women had to be pure and seen to be pure by the entire community. If anthropologists are correct, the subjugation of women and the evolution of characteristically feminine behav­iors were an outgrowth of the Neolithic revolution. Third, the Neolithic age marked the beginning of warfare, the systematic use of force by one community against another. Though Paleolithic hunters may have fought one another on occasion, the development of settled communities provided new incentives for vio­lence because homes, livestock, and cultivated land are property that must be defended against the predatory behavior of neighboring peoples. Dealing with the problems of population growth by annexing the land of others was all too easy. War, in turn, made possible the development of slavery. To a hunter-gatherer, slaves are unnecessary, but to herders and agriculturalists their labor makes possible the expansion of herds and the cultivation of more land because under normal circum­stances slaves produce more than they consume. At first, Neolithic communities seem to have been organized along tribal lines, a structure inherited from their hunting and gathering ancestors when they settled down to till the land. Most inhabitants shared a com­mon ancestor, and chieftainship was probably the domi­nant form of social organization. The function of the chief in agricultural societies was far more complex than in the days of hunting and gathering, involving not only military leadership but also a primary role in the alloca­tion of goods and labor. Efficiency in operations such as harvesting and sheep shearing requires cooperation and direction. In return, the chief demanded a share of an in-dividual’s agricultural surplus, which he then stored against hard times or allocated in other ways. This function of the chief helps to explain the storehouses that were often constructed by early rulers. As agriculture developed, crops became more varied. Wheat, wine, and olives became the basic triad of prod­ucts on which society depended in the Mediterranean basin. One farmer might have a grove of olive trees but no land capable of growing wheat, while another would be blessed with well-drained, south-facing hillsides that produce the best grapes. In such cases the chief encour­aged a measure of agricultural specialization. He could collect a tribute of oil from one and grapes from an­other and barter both to a third farmer in return for his surplus wheat. In the north, different commodities were involved, but the principle was the same. Specialization in Neolithic times was rarely complete because prudent farmers knew that diversification offered a measure of security that monoculture, or the growing of only one crop, can never provide. If the major crop fails, some­thing else must be available to fall back upon, but even a modest degree of specialization can increase effi­ciency and raise a community’s standard of living. Effective systems of distribution can also encourage the development of technology. Pottery was invented soon after the Neolithic revolution, primarily as a means of storing liquids. The first pots were probably made by women working at home and firing their pots in a communal oven, but the invention of the potter’s wheel allowed for throwing pots with unprecedented speed and efficiency. Because the new method required great skill, those who mastered it tended to become specialists who were paid for their work in food or other commodities.

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