Friday, October 14, 2011

New Light on the Dawn: a new perspective on the Neolithic Revolution - Rhind lectures 2009

New Light on the Dawn: a new perspective on the Neolithic Revolution

An excellent series of talks given by Trevor Watkins, speaking at the Rhind Lectures of 2009, in which he documents the extraordinary, yet still poorly understood cultural and symbolic changes in the Near East/Southwest Asia, that preceded agriculture and the associated domestication of cereals and selected fauna.

Not least of these changes in the way humans viewed and shaped the world around them was the invention of architecture, and the ways in which memory was both created and stored.

Not only were residential - and unfortified - villages constructed for the living, but special provision was made for the dead, whose remains were often incorporated into the very buildings inhabited by the living. This variously involved remains being put into the original foundations, stored beneath the floor, or deposited at the end of a building's life, whereupon the structure itself might on occasion be burnt or buried.

Additionally, great importance seems to have been attached to small public buildings, where communal activities of both practical and ritual types appear to have taken place - activities or modes of thought which may well have traced their roots much further back into prehistory, but were for the first time practiced in settlements that in some instances lasted hundreds of years.

For many decades of the 20th century, much thought and a great deal of writing was concerned with trying to work out why people discarded the hunter/gatherer or foraging lifestyle in favour of farming - but as archaeological research has progressed, the question has shifted to trying to fathom what set of factors caused humans living around 11,000-13,000 years ago to start living in permanent co-residence, whilst devoting no little effort to observing or acknowledging what they evidently perceived to be supernatural events and forces that had begun to pervade their consciousness - all the while continuing to rely on foraging as their primary method of food acquisition - cereals were to some extent exploited, but the road to domestication, whereby the seeds grew sufficiently large enough to make their harvesting practicable, was a process that took a good few hundred years.

It'll take a few hours to sit through the entire set of talks, but I can hardly imagine a better way of spending such time in pursuit of constructive viewing and listening - unless of course you happen to believe the world was magically created a few thousand years ago, in which case accounts of people living millennia beforehand will only make you feel slightly less good about things.

image: Jerf el -Ahmar