The rise of agriculture, and the non-linear but progressive development of prehistoric society

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We are publishing a contribution from a comrade on the question of the rise of agriculture. We welcome comments on this article in order to develop the discussion.

Given some reading I’ve done lately, some further words motivated by the third part of Decadence in International Review no. 135: A deep text. I agree with the dialectical view of progress as it lays it out. Some modern archaeologists, with all the latest knowledge of the complexities of prehistory and the beginnings of civilisation and all the twists and turns therein, defend the unilinear development of progress while criticising the analyses of Morgan, Marx and Engels analyses as too “prescriptive” (Renfrew, 2007). But to be fair to Colin Renfrew, the contradictions lie in the development of society itself; not a pre-determined linear development, but an overall progressive development nevertheless. And Renfrew does pay due homage to their works on prehistory and talks about the perversions of Stalinism. I agree with the way the text in the Review situates human progress within the dialectic, the rise and fall of different modes of production and, within this, the contradictory tendencies that exist. For example, while there are rises and falls, it isn’t just simply rises and falls. And the falls themselves, while some can end up as dead ends, have laid the basis for class society, capitalism and its negation to a higher form of communism.
On the example of the water mill “invented” centuries before its generalisation within feudalism given in the text, demonstrating the gap between thought and action under slavery. There’s a similar example in the wheeled children’s toys in Mesoamerica long before wheeled transport became a part of the productive process in this region after the European invasions. The key point is the social context.
On the basis of Scarre’s 2005 collation of extensive researches on prehistory, which I will use throughout, some thoughts on why the “agricultural revolution”, why and how did humanity move towards agriculture in such a big and decisive way? Sedentism, i.e., non-migratory settlement, which makes a definite appearance some 15 millennia before agriculture proper, was the basis of the latter. The period that sees the sedentary “revolution”, which began around twenty thousand years ago, has been classified as the ‘Epipaleolithic’. I know that archaeologists love classifications but I think that this is a useful because it covers a complex (and contradictory) period of transition towards agriculture. Even in the later period of the Epipaleolithic, what’s called the aceramic Neolithic (another one!), and despite archaeological theory, there is no evidence or sign of social hierarchy or of individuals with higher status by virtue of their social role. Differentiation I’d think, but no hierarchy. While there is some evidence of warfare during this period, the evidence points to society being egalitarian. 

But, overall, the evidence is clear - sedentism preceded farming, not the other way round. One of the first hearths and one of the first certain uses of domesticated fire, was built by Homo Neanderthalensis in Terra Amata near Nice some 330 thousand years ago (by which, incidentally, was found contemporary deliberately burnt and shaped red ochre indicating preparation for some form of “painting”, possibly body painting). But sedentism implies much more that just a hearth and we must wait over three hundred thousand years for its appearance after Terra Amata. Sedentism requires a solid structure to live in and demands all year round food availability. It doesn’t necessarily imply food production in the sense of growing anything – some sedentary tribes made fish a year round staple: “The high population density and political complexity of the peoples of the Pacific Coast of North America and in peninsula Florida showed that sophisticated non-agricultural systems were long-enduring sustainable strategies in their own right” (Scarre, 2005).  Taking the early Natufian culture of the Levant some eleven thousand years ago, as an example, one of several examples across the world, a culture that was still based on foraging well before cultivation (the real stamp of agriculture) there is little evidence of hierarchy shown (Anna Belfer-Cohen, 1995). Its sites include pit houses, burials, rich lithic and bone industries, tools for pounding and grinding, storage facilities, hearths, ovens plus carvings and adornments (similar to those of the French Upper Palaeolithic, Renfrew, 2007). In short, features of sedentism. “With settlement comes a proliferation of material culture and with the house is made available what has proved to be the most powerful symbol until the invention of writing. In many domesticated societies the house is appropriated to mediate and synthesise the natural symbols of both the body and the landscape” (Peter Wilson, 1988).  This is backed up by overwhelming ethnological evidence and substantial neurological analysis. Not only is the basis of cognitive developments and belief systems of the cosmos involved in the house, not just in its structure but also in its building and in the concept of the building itself.  On the other side, we also have the basis of the development of property and inheritance. Climatic and environmental conditions must have played a part in the move towards sedentism but this is not enough in itself and so too must have greater community, ritual, symbolism, large and extensive exchange networks and association for all sorts of large scale projects beyond one village, i.e., cognitive developments and collective labour. 

There are generally two explanations put forward for the development of agriculture: one is climatic change and the other is the necessity to feed a greater population. But they are more ‘after the event’ explanations, ‘good ideas’.  While both would have played a major part in the development of agriculture I don’t think either or both of these explanations are adequate. Sometimes called a “Marxist”, Gordon Childe (from memory) developed the climatic argument into his ‘Oasis theory’. That is that climatic conditions were so adverse that it forced groups of humans, plants and animals together in mainly one region of the world and from this set of circumstances agriculture developed. I’m probably not doing this justice but at any rate it’s been clearly shown that climatic conditions were the opposite of what Childe’s thought existed and based his analysis on. I also think it’s important to see that pre-agricultural village communities could also be urban developments predating agriculture by 5 or 6 millennia and predating civilisation even more. Around twelve thousand years ago, before the aceramic Neolithic, hunter-gatherers came together in Gobekli Tepe and Nevali Core in south east Turkey to build large, ornately decorated stone buildings that can reasonably be described as temples, in which there were “meetings”, activities linked to belief systems and undoubtedly greater association along with the development of consciousness that’s inherent in their construction and purpose. These buildings themselves are artworks, incorporating carvings, motifs and etchings that seem to represent cosmological myths that also seem to presuppose further expressions of barbarian art. For hunter-gatherers the scale of the work involved, the accurate placement of columns and carved stones weighing up to seventy tonnes imply collective and cooperative labour over a wide scale of skills and organisation. It was this collective labour itself that could have laid the basis for the development of agriculture, a sort of “accident waiting to happen” as proposed in David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce’s The Neolithic Mind (and as Darwin himself suggested). Accompanying these developments, or very soon after them, urban developments were built – along with world wide developments of village communities – some seven thousand years or so before the emergence of civilisation and the state (it’s also interesting to note that in certain circumstances, even after the development of the state, or its early development, the latter left the village communities to ‘carry on as before’ in some respects).

 Epipaleolithic hunter gatherers went from food collection to food production in a by no means unilinear way but there was a development and this was accompanied by other emerging  technologies involving building, architecture, engineering, sea-faring, lithic and bone technologies, plus the development of symbolism, ritual and art. In discussions on prehistory and the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture there is often an undue emphasis on “man the hunter”  and an underestimation of “man the gatherer” or “man the forager”; that is, a clear break is put forward between the two with bourgeois ideology emphasising the former as it always likes to portray early man as a savage. Ethnographic evidence from some North American Indians (James L. Pearson, 2002) underlines the importance of the role in food provision of the tribe outside of the young men (and young women) hunters; the older generation, men, women, probably children who foraged, gathered, hunted and trapped small animals. It was the latter group that had more weight in the supply of food, particularly in leaner times. And in relation to the development of the consumption of plants for food, medicine, etc., I would think it reasonable to assume that the young men would have been chosen for the experimental R&D – just a little at a time, noted and passed on to the next generation.  “Man the hunter” often took second place to “man the forager”. In one long hut structure in Monte Verde, Chile, dated to 15,000 years ago, the remains of eighteen separate varieties of medicinal plants have been found, some of them brought from a distance away. These pre-Clovis people were very sophisticated hunters, but mostly gatherers. As a diversion here, it’s worth pointing out that the “blame” these peoples take for wiping out major species of grass eaters, mastodons, mammoths, sloths, horses, deer, etc.,  in the Americas doesn’t stand up to scientific examination. “There is no scientific evidence for the hunting of 33 of the 35 extinct species” (Scarre 2005). In fact, though the assumption persists, the scientific evidence is against it (Barnosky et al 2004 and Grayson and Meltzer 2002). There is no doubt that bison were over-killed in large numbers in a decidedly wasteful way, stampeded over cliffs for example with just a fraction of the resources used. But there is also no doubt, as throughout the Palaeolithic everywhere, that hunting strategies were constantly refined and improved. This is underlined by the fact that the bison, the favourite for human predation in this time and space, survived in abundance. I think it’s important to confront these distortions of science by bourgeois ideology as it tries to turn into general assumptions suggestions that mirror the stupidity, greed and waste of capitalist society.

Twenty thousand years ago, a site in Ohalo, Northern Israel, shows very early sedentism, with a range of stored goods: seeds, fruits, legumes, the remains of over a hundred separate plants. The remains of fish, bird and animals point to year round occupation. This is the earliest site on which a grinding tool has been found. Another nearby site, Neve David, in the later Epipaleolithic, contains well over a metre of deposits, including grindstones indicating sedentism. The independent spread of sedentism is further evidenced at Wadi Kubbaniya near Aswan where a range of processed plant food was dated to 17-18 thousand years ago. Similarly at the Quada site in the Nile Valley 15-11 kya, where there is also evidence of violent deaths and possibly the first archaeological evidence of warfare. This period of the Epipaleolithic shows the independent development of sedentism, great diversity, distinctive cultures and the domestication of some animals well before agriculture (pigs, cattle). At Zawi Chemi and Shanidar Cave in Iraq hundreds of grinding stones are found in the Epipaleolithic and the exploitation of wild sheep as never been seen before. This was a “broad spectrum revolution” (Flannery 1969) even involving the development of hunting strategies and the development of microlithic technology along with it, including the bow and arrow. The sedentary hunter-gatherers of the Epipaleolithic were, according to Scarre, five times larger than typical hunter-gatherer groups and then with the aceramic Neolithic, five millennia before agriculture, could be ten times larger again.

For tens of thousands of years hunter-gatherers had a close relationship with the exploitation of plants and animals and modified some species intentionally or unintentionally. There is not a single, standardised adaptation but one over a period with specific contradictions, advances, dead ends and retreats, but generally pointing to a positive direction. From independent developments towards sedentism we then see independent developments towards agriculture. The domestication of plants and animals is only the first step towards agriculture (Price and Gebauer, 1995). The human propagation and use of wild plants is a long way from the clearing of the land, the labour and cultivation that underlines agriculture. The “broad spectrum revolution” of the Epipaleolithic and aceramic Neolithic should supplant Childe’s restrictive “Neolithic revolution”.  Childe certainly made a major contribution to and advanced the understanding of the development of the means of production but his diffusionist theory of a spread from a centre of the Fertile Crescent of West Asia (which was one element) underestimates the independent advances made globally. The decline of primitive communities throughout the last stages of the Palaeolithic was a “complex of processes” (Engels) sparkling with innovation, invention and progress within a framework of ever greater associated labour.

Contrary to Childe’s position that agriculture spread from Asia outwards, ie, ex Oriente lux, agriculture arose independently in 7 different locations in the world: Southwest Asia, East Asia (where the earliest form of course pottery is dated to around 16 kya), the New Guinea Highlands, sub-Saharan Africa, Andean South America, central Mexico and the eastern United States – parallel processes of change at different times. It also spread outwards from these centres – diffusion from a basis of hunter-gatherer sedentism. Though there is a complexity of different cultures, belief systems, etc., and while hunter-gatherer pockets could exist here and there, we don’t appear to be talking about a “different” people but the transition process of the same, modified in the process and overturning society as a whole. Another what appears to be independent, “multi-regional” development prior to agriculture is that of metallurgy which first of all seems to have been dedicated to the production of adornments rather than tools or weapons. The technology and science of pottery, itself an expression of sedentism, gave itself to the development of metallurgy.

The demographic impact of this is very important for the development of human history into agriculture proper. There are still unanswered questions and puzzles, as one would expect. Many studies have shown the health of agricultural farming communities poorer than that of hunter-gatherers so this was no mean struggle. Dietary deficiencies increased. Weather, crop failures, fragile irrigation systems became problematic. The spread of infections, disease and epidemics were rife. Diseases mutated from domesticated animals and human TB possibly came from bovine TB (the 1918 influenza virus probably crossed from pigs). Farming was also hard graft compared to hunting and gathering, backbreaking work with much longer hours. But growth and social and economic complexities, that are well outlined in the text, bearing civilisation, the development of hierarchy capitalism and the degradation of the environment follow. Plus of course the antithesis of class society, the gradual establishment of the proletariat and the prospect of a “return” to communism, to universal social organisation in a higher and more final form.

So, we have the independent, in time and space, development of sedentism across the globe, the independent development of pottery (probably), metallurgy, agriculture and the state. To these we can add the certain independent development of very similar shaped lithic tools dating back to 1.5 million years ago (and I would argue that these are not mere “tools” but symbolic expressions of society and the early development of language). Also add the independent development of belief systems whose similarities are expressed by pre-historic representations, motifs and “signs”, as well as strong ethnographic evidence. There are many differences in belief systems across the globe and that must have been the case in the past, but there are striking similarities. Thus there is an independent expression of all these major exploits of humanity; sapiens and the homo ancestors. It’s this category that, according to all the current understanding, didn’t have a multi-regional development. Sapiens and the ancestors, for the most, came from one region of the globe, Africa. The first truly universal creature came from one specific region. The transformation of man, the transformations of the expressions of man’s labour, and all that that involves, the evolution and the “revolutions” taking hold or not here and there, underline the universality of man, sapiens and the ancestors, humanity if you  like.

Some final thoughts on civilisation raised in the text. I’m not too sure about the use of “Asiatic Despotism” and might be better termed as Despotism taking away the geographical restriction. Again the state seems to have risen independently in the different corners of the globe: West and East Asia, Meso and southern America, Africa and the Pacific. There are obviously specifics to each region and we are finding out more as research develops. The Chinese Communist Party, for its own nationalist interests, has greatly impulsed research into its history uncovering information about the early Shang Dynasty and going back to the legendary Xia Dynasty (Renfrew above). There are great differences in the emergence of these civilisations and the state as the text points out and an interesting one is the Harappan civilisation of the Indus. Unlike many others it has no religious iconography, shrines or palaces. It has public works, baths, granaries, etc., but appears to have no state religion leaving it to individuals and smaller collectives reminiscent of the household religions of pre-agriculture urbanisation and village communities. The Mycenean civilisation, while not so self-effacing as the Harappan, hasn’t a cosmos related rulership at the centre of the world as in the development of many other states.  

As the text says, books and books could be written about this period, but I think it draws some of the essential lessons for the rise and fall of societies and in doing so raises many more questions.

Baboon. 12.8.9

Historic events: 

Life of the ICC: