In the first couple of centuries of the 4th millennium BC, the first elements of what archaeologists call the Neolithic appeared in Britain (Last 2013 :277). The question of what it is to be Neolithic and how this might differ from the Mesolithic period are key to understanding what is often expressed as a process of Neolithisation, remembering that such essentialist (Whittle 2007 :389) labels are the means by which archaeologists attempt to dissect time and knowledge into more manageable pieces, rather than anything tangible or real (Edmonds 1999 :5).


Culture-historical archaeologists of the mid-twentieth century saw the Neolithic as a uniform ‘package’ of traits (Thomas 2007 :423) comprising the use of pottery, the domestication of plants and animals, and the manufacture of ground stone tools (Barker 2009 :23). These traits were perceived to be in stark contrast to the ostensibly mobile Mesolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle that preceded it (Cunliffe 2012 :133).


From here, it was possible to suggest that the acceptance and integration of this ‘package’ was a natural progression from ‘savage’ hunter-gatherer to a more recognisable, civilised, farming folk (Thomas 1999 :11). The New Archaeology of the 1960s and 1970s sought then for a single description of this process of ‘Neolithisation’ that would explain how such a lifestyle change occurred. An obvious criticism of this processual approach is that it requires to operate on a homogenous Mesolithic, and a homogenous Neolithic should be the output of the process (Armit & Finlayson 1992 :664). It shall be shown, however, that there is increasing evidence for a variety of ways of adopting Neolithic traits that makes it difficult to support such an idealised view of a single process.

Models of Neolithisation and their origins

The interpretation of Neolithisation varies with the current favoured theories within archaeology and encompasses shifting ideas about the Mesolithic, Neolithic and the factors that influence and cause changes. Case’s (1969) deliberations on the practicalities of the Early Neolithic communities and the inherent difficulties involved in the transfer of farming communities from one place to another attempted to offer an explanation for how the Neolithic might have arrived on these shores.


The ideas of Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza (1971) also continued this processual approach and they attempted to describe and explain the process and progress of Neolithisation across continental Europe, based on the idea that the Neolithic was entirely about agriculture. This used as its marker the grains of cereal that they claimed were not found naturally in Europe. However, the work was marred in that, by their own admission, were classified as Neolithic without the cereal grains being discovered (Ammerman & Cavalli-Sforza 1971 :675), and as their primary criterion was the cereal, this was inconsistent at best. Their work suggested a gradual, and steady, ‘Wave of advance’ expansion of either people, ideas, or both from the Levant, across Europe as shown in Figure 1. By this reckoning, the arrival of the Neolithic in Britain was almost inevitable as little consideration was given to the reasons that individual groups of people might have for adopting a Neolithic way of life.


Figure 1: Map showing the spread of early farming in Europe. Dates are in years B.P. Source: Ammerman & Cavalli-Sforza 1971 Fig 6.


Archaeologists interested in the introduction of the Neolithic in Britain have largely polarised into two camps: one side supporting colonisation, and the other in favour of a more nuanced acculturation mechanism. Robb and Miracle (2007) considered the result of this polarisation to be an unhelpful sequence of publications ‘talking past each other’ in the discussion of these opposing viewpoints.


Thomas (e.g 2008 :56), argued that Neolithic ideas must have been ‘available’ for an extended period of time and that rather than Britain suddenly embracing the Neolithic as the result of learning about domestication: there must have been a reason for suddenly accepting a way of life that had been known about, but not adopted, possibly for centuries. He suggested that the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition should more correctly be considered one of rapid cultural change and the adoption of a form of Neolithic that had become acceptable. Davies (2010: 214) considered this to be a product of the post-processual theories of the time and reflects concerns of culture, symbolism and interpretation. Instead, he advocated a ‘middle ground’ between the processual approach with its overt concern with subsistence and economy but also recognise that mobility and the recognition of special places in the landscape could play a non-economic part in the change to Neolithic ways. Sheridan particularly rejected the implication, in Thomas’ approach, that the Early Neolithic was therefore characterised by a mostly mobile lifestyle and minimal use of domesticates (Sheridan 2013 :283).


Alison Sheridan has been a vocal proponent of the colonisation viewpoint, with a revised recent model proposing a multi-stranded colonisation mechanism, a model supported by radiocarbon evidence (Collard et al. 2010: 869), whereby a series of immigrants to the UK and Ireland arrived from various points in northern France between 4300-3900 BC (Sheridan 2013 :286). Her points of arrival include the suggestion of domesticated animals in a Mesolithic context at Ferriter’s Cove at c4300 BC, although Whittle expressed doubt as to whether they were domestic or wild (Whittle 2007 :393). Her assumption here was that the animals were brought over by Neolithic immigrants and that there is no evidence for prior contact with the continent (Pailler & Sheridan 2009: 34) but this idea is rejected by Garrow and Sturt (2011: 68) as taking a too ‘black and white’ view on maritime connections. They argue that both Mesolithic and Neolithic peoples may have travelled extensively around the coastline, and any transfer of material culture was a result in both ‘sides’ negotiating the contacts. Mercer (1986: 41) considered that Mesolithic people were already adept at herding and managing semi-wild deer, so this would translate into the ability to handle domesticated animals and he suggested, in the context of Cornwall at least, that such ‘trade’ contacts were animals were transferred were entirely likely, even if logistically challenging.


This idea of the more subtle Neolithisation of contact and negotiation rather than intrusion and replacement can perhaps be used to explain the huge variations in the Neolithic ‘phenomenon’ itself. On the continent, it is traditional to consider the LinearBandKeramik (LBK) as the archetypal colonisation pattern: from its origins at around 5500 cal. BC it spread from the Rhine area (Whittle et al. 2011 :853), seemingly following the Loess or other fertile soils (Pyzel 2009 :71), until it had manifested across most of temperate Europe (Gronenborn 2007 :74). However, Thomas considers the LBK as an adaptation of the Neolithic: a form that was more suitable for temperate climates, and an indication that ‘Neolithic’ was a malleable concept that could be altered to suit local conditions (Thomas 2008 :61). This malleability may also be as a result of what Gronenborn (2007 :84) calls ‘multi-tradition communities’, based on the evidence from the analysis of stable isotopes that suggest the LBK was in fact a mixture of colonisers and indigenous people intermarrying, and the idea that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers may have been behaving in ways consistent with agri-pastoralism before contact with farming communities (Barker 2009 :390), meaning that new behaviours could be adjusted into existing lifeways, rather than be a culture shock.


Thomas (2004 :119) suggested that contact between the BandKeramik communities and the sedentary Mesolithic communities of the Dutch Swifterbant created a combined, relatively late, Neolithic, that addressed a need to create and maintain a social identity. Thomas posited that this fusion of ideas and cultures then created a form of the Neolithic that Britain could make use of to address specific needs. Britain seems to have adopted what Thomas (2008 :77) calls a bricolage of aspects of the Neolithic, from various sources in Europe. Some of the typical features of the LBK Neolithic, such as the longhouse, did not form part of this adapted Neolithic, although various ‘house-like’ structures have been found in Neolithic contexts in Britain, they are not identical, perhaps reflecting a different worldview (Last 2013 : 278), especially if the longhouse was representative of a shared cultural knowledge or history (Whittle 2003 :137). Thomas (1999 :9) suggested that as the longhouse tradition had ceased long before the Neolithic arrived in Britain, perhaps we ought not to expect to find houses of that form here.


Understanding ‘Neolithic’

Bound up in the discussion of how the Neolithic might have spread, is the evolving nature of what archaeologists understand by the term ‘Neolithic’. It has been shown how the earlier models of Neolithisation were intrinsically caught up with the idea that Neolithic means farming and Mesolithic means hunting and foraging. The other attributes associated with the ‘Neolithic Package’ became merely as manifestations of this shift in economic basis (Thomas 2007 :423) although Hodder (2012 :195) considers them to have become ‘entangled’ and interdependent. Discovery of a separation of these traits lead to a realisation that traits considered Neolithic manifested at different times in different places and therefore the view of Neolithisation as a developmental stage, with a focus on the importance of agriculture as a characteristic of technological progression is too simplistic (Thomas 2007 :423). Hunter-gathers in the Ertebølle culture in northern Europe demonstrated a complexity of society that had previously been considered only possible with an agricultural subsistence base (Rowley-Conwy 1983 :125).


The agricultural focus of archaeologists is also a regional phenomenon, with Eastern European archaeologists considering the transition to be based on use of ceramics, rather than food production (Zvelebil 1986 7). Zvelebil goes on to point out that even this has its problems and has resulted in a whole swathe of modifiers that denote variations in degrees of ‘being Neolithic’ such as protoneolithic, paraneolithic, subneolithic etc. Use of ceramics does seem to have been one of the earliest traits to arrive in Britain (Whittle 2007 :379), with Sheridan’s suggestion of a link between the Carinated Bowl Neolithic and the Michelsburg and Chassey cultures from Northern France (Sheridan 2007 :468). However, Whittle et. al. (2011) are sceptical about the find at the Magheraboy enclosure signalling the beginning of a Neolithic proper as there is a gap between that early 4th millennium date and the next date from the area, of about 100 years, so this might represent a small-scale colonisation event that petered out.


Consideration of the meaning of ‘Neolithic’ also offers a chance to consider why it was adopted at all and what it might have meant to people. Thomas, as we have seen, considers it an expression of identity (Thomas 2007 :429) and new ways of seeing themselves and the world and not just about food production (Thomas 1999 :12). Barnard (2007) contrasts starkly what he considers to be the ‘ways of thinking’ that accompany hunting and gathering activities with those of agri-pastoralists, pointing out that the viewpoints of each of these subsistence strategies can be considered in binary opposition. As this is taken from contemporary ethnography, and regards subsistence as the foundation of cultural behaviour, this is perhaps of limited use, other than to demonstrate a link between social behaviour and worldview. His argument, however, runs counter to Thomas’ idea of the cultural change being rapid, as he considers that ways of thinking are slower to change than just the means of the production and cites ethnographic examples of agri-pastoralists retaining their hunter-gatherer thoughtways (Barnard 2007 : 14).


The idea that agriculture is inherently more desirable as a strategy than hunting and gathering originates in notions of ‘the inherent perfectibility of human civilisation’ (Robb & Miracle 2007 :100). The ethnographic evidence, suggests, however, that it is with reluctance that hunter-gatherers transition to farming (Gardiner 2003 :103), and Barker (2009 :385) argued that the commitment to cereal cultivation in particular, was irrevocable in terms of compatibility with a mobile foraging lifestyle owing to the labour and time commitment it requires.


The ability to stockpile a surplus of food as ‘wealth’ has traditionally been considered a pre-requisite for the development of the monumental structures that started to appear in the Neolithic period (Stevens & Fuller 2012 :717) and consequently there is an on-going debate about the role of cereal and its prevalence in the Neolithic diet. On the continent, evidence for cereal is often found in the longhouses of the LBK, but as most sites excavated in Britain have an ostensibly ‘ritual’ rather than ‘domestic’ focus, the lack of cereal evidence from Britain can perhaps be explained by context rather than a dearth of cereal cultivation (Jones 2000 :81). This perceived lack of use of cereal has lead to the consideration of farming in Britain in the Early Neolithic being considered experimental, marginal, something kept apart for ritual, rather than for subsistence purposes, whereas it might be that the differential treatment of the chaff and grain is the reason for the paucity of preserved remains (Bogaard & Jones 2007 :357). It is suggested that the idea of non-subsistence agriculture may have more to do with the particular theories of archaeologists (Bogaard & Jones 2007 :370).



Given that during the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition there was a change in lifestyle that can be detected in the archaeological record, and that it wasn’t an obvious ‘better’ choice as far as diet and free time were concerned, then the idea of how and why such a change should come about is important to pursue. However, as it has been shown that a single ‘Neolithic’ endpoint cannot be satisfactorily identified, then it is reasonable to assert that there cannot be a single process that describes how hunting and gathering is abandoned in favour of mixed agriculture, nor how people in the past decided just how to assert and define their identities through adopting or rejecting certain cultural traits. The ideal of a single unified theory of Neolithisation is unhelpful.


People adopted a form of the Neolithic that served a purpose for them, and this purpose may have been peripherally related to a change in subsistence strategy, but archaeology has been unwontedly biased towards the forms of evidence that seem easiest to relate to and to obtain, such as how people fed themselves. However, the greater change may have been less archaeologically perceptible: how people saw themselves and their relationships to other people and the natural world.


Speculation about the timing and sequence of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition has been given more solid foundations as a result of the Bayesian statistical work of Whittle et. al., and stable isotope studies have illuminated the possibility of intermarriage between hunter-gatherer and farmer on the continent with the all the implications this has. We now realise that complex processes such as Neolithisation, although their results might become apparent over relatively short periods of time, are a long time in the building and cannot be reduced to simple cause:effect statements and binary oppositions such as colonisation:acculturation. It seems likely that the Neolithic reached Britain in a variety of forms, and through a blend of colonisation, acculturation and adaption. Whether the material traces visible in the archaeological record describe the entirety of the changes is doubtful, and detecting a society and its values through its subsistence base is questionable, so it could be argued that Neolithisation as a concept is only a partial truth, if at all. (wordcount 2761)


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Written on March 8th, 2013 , Essays

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