Lecture: Paleolithic and Neolithic ErasChauvet horses

The Paleolithic Era

For many decades, what we knew of Paleolithic artistic expression was from the Lescaux Caves in France, which has paintings dating from 17,100 BC. But in 1994, an even older Paleolithic cave was discovered, also in France, which may date from as early as 30,000 BC. What's remarkable about it is the images of the animals, which show a highly sophisticated artistic technique.

There's a lot we don't know, of course. Archaeological evidence is, like historical (written) evidence, always subject to interpretation. New findings lead to the construction of new narratives about the past.

What really happened during the Neolithic Revolution?

Here is a recent article about the Neolithic Revolution.

What is the thesis of this article?

 Click here to open document in new window

The authors are arguing against Jared Diamond's thesis, that agriculture and pastoralism (animal raising) caused people to settle down into communities. But that idea is actually much older than Diamond's work, which was published in the 1990s. For a long time that has been the narrative describing the Neolithic Revolution: people learned to farm, then they created communities.

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson are arguing using the evidence at Göbekli Tepe (9600 BC) and Çatalhöyük (7500-5700 BC), both ancient archaeological sites. They claim that despite the buildings and sophisticated activities in these settled communities, there was no evidence of agriculture.

So that reverses the narrative: now the theory is that people settled first, while they were still hunting, gathering and scavenging. Only later did they get into agriculture and raising animals for food.

The Goddess

We have other long-standing narratives that guide our understanding of the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras. One is that gods and shamans dominated the spiritual life of prehistoric peoples.

Shamans in ancient cultures are often romanticized today. We see them as in touch with spiritual forces. On the reverse, more cynical side, we see them as charlatans, fooling the people, because we all know that rationally gods would not have interfered with people's daily lives.

When we project our own modern, rationalist, present-based ideas onto the past, we're sure to miss something.

Shamans were ancient scientists. Theirs was one of the first "jobs" to be paid for by the surplus produced by the community. Their job was to intercede for the community with the forcees of nature, which they did through rituals that we would now call "religious". But often such rituals were timed to the seasons, and corresponded to the shaman's insightful observations of the patterns in nature. Shamans tracked solstices and stars, weather patterns and rainfall. As society became more dependent on agriculture, their intercession with the supernatural became ever more important, and the more practical and political monarchs relied on them for both information and their own legitimacy.

In a society that was increasingly dependent on agriculture, a division of labor emerged. People who were good at making food containers, or hunting, or digging irrigation ditches or designing buildings could do that and not worry about engaging in agriculture themselves. The society fed them in return for their services. Shamanism was such a service. Some  historians and archaeologists also believe that a gender division of labor emerged, and modern analysis blames this on biological functions. Men, who often fostered their own physical strength and hunting prowess, would leave the community for days or weeks to get fresh meat. Women, many of whom bore babies, tended crops along with tending children. They engaged in labor that tended to be less intensive than hunting, but more extensive, long-term, and interruptable.

For many centuries we have been taught that this division naturally occurred and that it extended to political power, which became the province of men, while domestic affairs became the area dominated by women. And even before Judeo-Christian times, it is assumed that many of the shamans (and the spiritual forces themselves) were male. This is despite the fact that the stable lifeline of the community was in agriculture and that women were acknowledged as the givers of life.

Perhaps it is the fact that the hierarchies of gods and goddesses that we know about preside over particular areas that are considered male or female. Gods like Poseidon or Osiris rule great natural kingdoms (of the sea and the underworld, respectively). Goddesses often represent wisdom, love or aspects dominated by the moon. And yet there is no reason that goddesses would not have been worshipped as the highest dieties, and that later Judeo-Christian scholars and religious figures chose to ignore this to emphasize the dominance of the monotheistic God, who by the time of Jesus was male in most traditions.

What's interesting is that the possible dominance of female dieties can change the narrative.

Excerpt from BBC Documentary: Divine Women (2012) with Bettany Hughes

Divine Women: When God was a Girl link

Notice in this clip that not only are the dieties female and their life processes noted with reverence, but that the figure from Çatalhöyük is sitting on a throne. She looks like a political ruler.

There is not enough evidence to claim matriarchy (rule by women) in the prehistoric West, but it is an intriguing possibility. Did the Neolithic cultures even divide the sacred and the secular? Do we assume that even if the holy areas were controlled by females, that the males were always politically in charge?

Notice also that Hughes' thesis denies both that of Diamond and that of Acemoglu and Robinson. She claims that Çatalhöyük is not a settlement at all, but a religious center. Acamoglu and Robinson seem to base their whole "settlement first, then agriculture" theory on this place being a settlement. If they are wrong, and Hughes is correct, then their new theory is also in question.

Lessons of history

So there are three take-aways here:

1. New historical theses frequently deny older historical theses, which changes the narrative of the past.

2. Archaeological evidence (and historical evidence) can be examined in different ways to fit into different narratives.

3. Life in Paleolithic and Neolithic times was likely more complex than we've been led to believe.

Creative Commons License
The text by Lisa M. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Creative Commons License
The voice audio by Lisa M. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002. This page has been checked for web accessibility using WAVE.