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The Neolithic Revolution

Essay by Dr. Senta German

A Settled Life

When people think of the Neolithic era, they often think of Stonehenge, the iconic image of this early era. Dating to approximately 3000 B.C.E. and set on Salisbury Plain in England, it is a structure larger and more complex than anything built before it in Europe.  Stonehenge is an example of the cultural advances brought about by the Neolithic revolution—the most important development in human history. The way we live today, settled in homes, close to other people in towns and cities, protected by laws, eating food grown on farms, and with leisure time to learn, explore and invent is all a result of the Neolithic revolution, which occurred approximately 11,500-5,000 years ago. The revolution which led to our way of life was the development of the technology needed to plant and harvest crops and to domesticate animals.
Before the Neolithic revolution, it's likely you would have lived with your extended family as a nomad, never staying anywhere for more than a few months, always living in temporary shelters, always searching for food and never owning anything you couldn’t easily pack in a pocket or a sack. The change to the Neolithic way of life was huge and led to many of the pleasures (lots of food, friends and a comfortable home) that we still enjoy today.

Stonehenge, c. 3,000 B.C.E., Salisbury Plain, England

Neolithic Art

The massive changes in the way people lived also changed the types of art they made. Neolithic sculpture became bigger, in part, because people didn’t have to carry it around anymore; pottery became more widespread and was used to store food harvested from farms. This is when alcohol was first produced and when architecture, and its interior and exterior decoration, first appears. In short, people settle down and begin to live in one place, year after year.
It seems very unlikely that Stonehenge could have been made by earlier, Paleolithic, nomads. It would have been a waste to invest so much time and energy building a monument in a place to which they might never return or might only return infrequently. After all, the effort to build it was extraordinary. Stonehenge is approximately 320 feet in circumference and the stones which compose the outer ring weigh as much as 50 tons; the small stones, weighing as much as 6 tons, were quarried from as far away as 450 miles. The use or meaning of Stonehenge is not clear, but the design, planning and execution could have only been carried out by a culture in which authority was unquestioned. Here is a culture that was able to rally hundreds of people to perform very hard work for extended periods of time. This is another characteristic of the Neolithic era.

Skulls with plaster and shell from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, 6,000-7,000 B.C.E., found at the Yiftah'el archeological site in the Lower Galilee, Israel

Plastered Skulls

The Neolithic period is also important because it is when we first find good evidence for religious practice, a perpetual inspiration for the fine arts. Perhaps most fascinating are the plaster skulls found around the area of the Levant, at six sites, including Jericho. At this time in the Neolithic, c. 7000-6,000 B.C.E., people were often buried under the floors of homes, and in some cases their skulls were removed and covered with plaster in order to create very life-like faces, complete with shells inset for eyes and paint to imitate hair and moustaches.
The traditional interpretation of these the skulls has been that they offered a means of preserving and worshiping male ancestors. However, recent research has shown that among the sixty-one plastered skulls that have been found, there is a generous number that come from the bodies of women and children. Perhaps the skulls are not so much religious objects but rather powerful images made to aid in mourning lost loved ones.
Neolithic peoples didn't have written language, so we may never know (the earliest example of writing develops in Sumer in Mesopotamia in the late 4th millennium B.C.E. However, there are scholars that believe that earlier proto-writing developed during the Neolithic period).
Essay by Dr. Senta German
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Nicole Oxendine
    I love this course, so I am stepping into the fray to comment here... It is interesting to me to read so many assumptions in this text after just listening to the Nude Woman conversation which emphasizes how little we truly know and how we impose our needs and beliefs on prehistoric objects. How can we be certain that unquestioned authority is the only means by which Stonehenge could be built? Also, the analysis: "It would have been a waste to invest so much time and energy building a monument in a place to which they might never return or might only return infrequently" certainly requires tremendous assumptions about the values base of the prehistoric culture that built Stonehenge. And lastly, why would one shift the assumption of religious value of the skeletons when evidence that women and children were included is found? (In my spiritual teachings, ancestors are ancestors, regardless of the age they died.) If this is an essay reflecting personal opinion, rather than studied inquiry, perhaps it could be labeled as such? Thank you!
    (98 votes)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Shriya Nevatia
      I really agree about the religion comment for the plastered skulls. This essay and the way they present the information sounds like art historians came up with a random sexist assumption (Male skulls --> must have worshipped them, Women and Children included --> Maybe just ancestors). Why couldn't they worship ancestors? Why is it not possible that they worshipped all deceased loved ones and respected fellow humans? There's no need to assume that males were dominant thousands and thousands of years ago just because they are now. I would appreciate it if that paragraph was elaborated upon to explain how historians came to this conclusion, or the wording was changed so it didn't sound so discriminatory.
      (43 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user Josie Nemo
    Couldn't they be venerating all their dead relatives, not simply male relatives? Why do women and children's skulls imply mourning instead of worship? What are the numbers on what skull came from who? Was there an explicitly patriarchal society in existence where and when these skulls came from?
    (35 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user Andromeda
      Nicole, I agree wit you. Micheal S. yes we would think that way because of the cultures and way that we have grown up now, but even in the animal kingdoms they can work together to do something without it being a matter of total authority. If we all needed to be protected from the river overflowing I don't need an authority figure to tell me to go and help fill sandbags to protect my community. Since we do not know the use for Stonehenge we can not speculate as to it's construction as well. They have just now discovered that you can move heavy things in the desert easily by adding water to the sand, it can decrease the weight of the moving object by more than half and it prevents the sand from creating a small mound at the front to add more resistance. We do not know enough to be sure about anything other than the date for Stonehenge. Not all older cultures were patriarchal and quite a few have been proven to have been matriarchal.
      (11 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user sissi M.
    I knew about Stonehenge but nothing about the skulls with plaster in Israel. When have they been found and by who ? Scholars or sheperds maybe ? The site was already existing before the discovery or after ? Thanks a lot.
    (16 votes)
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  • leaf blue style avatar for user DanAhmad
    I wonder, what tools or mechanisms were used during the era of the Neolithic people that could possibly move a 1 ton stone? Let alone they had 50 ton boulders to move! DANG!
    (5 votes)
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  • leaf red style avatar for user Katrina
    How would we know that they didn't have written language if they were writing on materials that can't be preserved?
    (2 votes)
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    • piceratops tree style avatar for user Arthur Smith
      That's a fair question, and it comes down to the ultimate purpose of writing - to preserve what you write through the ages. These people had the technology to carve stone. We have countless carved artefacts from their time, and countless examples of cave painting - but no language. No symbols that could be construed as text. If they had the technology AND a written language, why wouldn't they use it to make something that endured? Like an epitaph, a prayer, a myth, something?
      (6 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Renea Dempsey
    Since some of the neolithic tribes were believed to be matriarchal, would not the idea that these were either ancestor worship still apply? Why did the author of the article seemingly apply the modern patriarchal mentality to a culture so removed from us temporally? Is there archaeological to support this as the cultural norm of the time?
    (3 votes)
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  • sneak peak blue style avatar for user Natalie  Giraldo🍞
    how long is the neolithic?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Ari James
    Would you consider the Neolithic revolution to be a point of singularity in humankind?
    (2 votes)
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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user zydricviray
    how do you explain heritage in the neolithic era?
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user crazydragon
    In the second paragraph, how and where do we first find good evidence for religious practice in that era? How can we be sure that they had religions?
    (2 votes)
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