48 Reading: The Neolithic Revolution

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 elevation view
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 invented 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.

Plastered Skulls
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
in Israel. 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.1

 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.


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