The social roots of neolithic agriculture
The second of a series of posts by Dr Mark McKerracher on the origins of agriculture.
Question: when is an agricultural strategy not an agricultural strategy?
Answer: when it’s a socio-cultural strategy.
OK, bear with me.
Cast your mind back to my earlier post about Neolithic farming in Britain. As you may recall, archaeobotanists Stevens & Fuller (2012) have argued that crop husbandry had something of an abortive start in Britain: fading out around the Middle Neolithic and only returning with a “major upsurge in agricultural activity” in the Middle Bronze Age, from around 1500 BC.
As I said at the time, I’m not a prehistorian, so I’m in no position to critique the model. But I was interested to discover, after writing the earlier post, an article from 2000 which puts a different perspective on things (Brück 2000).
Since this work came twelve years before Stevens & Fuller’s botanical study, it’s obviously not a rebuttal – nor vice versa, since S&F don’t cite Brück. What it does, however, is suggest a model to explain why things seem to have changed in the Middle Bronze Age. It also provides a corrective to the overtly economic interpretations that have often been placed on the process. Since this period sees the appearance of clearly-defined “farmstead” settlements for the first time, some scholars have suggested that agricultural activity must have intensified in this period – hence also the rise in crops identified by S&F. This all sounds pretty reasonable – unless you think, like Brück, that those Bronze Age folk weren’t actually interested in maximizing productivity. Rather, she suggests that their main reason for creating (relatively) stable farmsteads within spatially defined farming units was a new pattern of social thinking.
I’ll offer a crude oversimplification of Brück’s argument, for laymen like myself, with apologies to specialists for the inaccuracies and misunderstandings. Here goes. In the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, we’ve got societies without fixed settlements, but with larger-scale, periodic gatherings of extended kin-groups at monumental sites – henges and the like. But from the Middle Bronze Age, you have these relatively stable settlements, as family groups preferred to stress their autonomy – real or ideal – rather than their fluid connections within the wider kin group. In short, as communities came to be defined by a new social order, the farmsteads represent the imposition of a new physical, spatial order. So the new approaches to farming were the result – rather than the cause – of social change. Of course, we then have to wonder: what caused the social change in the first place? And there’s no easy answer to that.
I can’t do justice to the hypothesis here. It draws upon waggon-loads of archaeological and anthropological theory (“ontological security”…? ) but it’s compelling, nonetheless. I never realized, before reading this, that I’d often made an implicit assumption that maximising agricultural production is a desirable thing to do. And to an extent, I still think that’s a reasonable assumption. You surely don’t have to be an arch-capitalist to think that a bit more surplus grain might come in useful. But clearly social circumstances will count for a lot. It’s a matter of perspective, and since we’ll never know what the Bronze Age perspective really was, the speculation will no doubt continue.
Brück, J. (2000). “Settlement, landscape and social identity: the early-middle Bronze Age transition in Wessex, Sussex and the Thames valley” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 19: pp.273-300. My thanks to Dr A. Bogaard for recommending this article.
Image credit: ‘Butser Ancient Farm’, gordontour. Creative commons license.
The first post in this series is Origins of British Agriculture.