A Guide to the Anthropology of the Neolithic Period

To fully understand the Neolithic period as though you were peering from behind the disciplined eyes of a trained anthropologist, you would first have to be well versed in the specific stages of cultural evolution, and the technological development that occurred in the days far gone past.

How did our ancestors cope without the same amenities we have become so accustomed to, and what habits or cultural traits defined this transcended generation that has us fixated upon? This is only a portion of what fuels the passion of such dedicated men and women who devote their lives to the profound topic of anthropology.

Anthropology is a myriad of disciplined sciences that have focused upon the study of humanity. Biological, sociological, naturalistic, are but a few of the many facets that encompass the field of anthropology, but like many other prolific subject matters, each have various areas of specific study. One of the most profound examples can be found within the specific period of time known as the Neolithic period.

The Neolithic period is one of many stages of humanity that has been carefully studied and observed using only such remnants like artifacts, and skeletal remains and other archaeological findings to link us to this hidden past.

Neolithic comes from the Greek word neolithikos which means: Neos = “new”, and Lithos = “stone”, which interprets as “New Stone” or New Stone Age.

So the topic at hand is basically the study or research of humanity, technology, biology, and culture, during the period of the Stone Age. The range of time is quite wide due to the lack of evolutionary changes during those years, 3500 BC and 8500 BC. The period is broken into three basic categories, mostly due to the amount of evidence that has been collected thus far.

Neolithic Period One:

Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA), began during 8500-8000BC, although the dating is only factored on carbon based testing, which is still not solid due to the many tests performed have all resulted with various dates. The PPNA was mainly in the Middle East (Levant), Jericho, Palestine and Jbeil. Test performed by the British Museum, and the Philadelphia Anthropology dept, have theorized how this ancient culture lived, and supported themselves. Most PPNA (Natufian) cultures were farmers, who harvested grain, which was ground into the earliest examples of flour production. The typical harvest included Emmer wheat (also known as “farro” in Italy), although they also focused on basic animal breeding for consumption or work related uses.

They lived in small settlements clinging close to one another, in circular houses with only a single shared room to protect themselves from the elements. This early form of shelter was first made with materials like mud and rocks (mudbricks), and was strangely enough the male would possess his own, and the female (wife), would be housed in a separate building with the children. The circular houses were also barricaded with large stones piled around them to prevent flooding and other elemental problems.

Neolithic 2:

Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) was between 7500-7000BC, also centered on the same location as the PPNA, in the Middle East. The major changes between these two sub-cultures were the advancement in structural creation, and more developed cultural practices. Buildings were now rectangular shaped, although still made from the same materials. The families began living in the same dwellings, since the structures were made with more than one room under the same roof. Burial findings, and other archaeological data suggest that skulls were preserved by covering them in mud, and shaped in order to reproduce facial likeness. The hypothesis is that the dead skull would have been used in rituals to ask for blessings, or to wish prosperity. The remaining parts of the corpse would be moved to the outer region of the domicile, and once their was nothing more than bones, it would be moved inside to buried underneath the floor or between the houses.

Neolithic 3:

Pottery Neolithic (PN) took place between 6000 and 5500BC, in the further regions of the Middle East known as the Fertile Crescent. James Henry Breasted coined the term, around the year 1900. It was obvious the region was named for its fertile and rich soil, and the location evidently was similar to the shape of a half-moon. Other names that were used for the region included Ancient Egypt and the “Cradle of Civilization.”

This period showed much more distinctive cultural changes, including the beginning of organized grouping of families, and the use of tools like pottery. Cultures were beginning to be defined by locations like Halafian (Turkey, Syria, Northern Mesopotamia), and Ubaid (Southern Mesopotamia).

These three periods saw the transition from the earliest examples of tools such as two stones used to crush or pulverize wheat, to the more advanced pottery, like weaving, and clay molding. Stone was soon fashioned and shaped to produce sharp edges, to form tools that could be used more productively. Food production also changed from the crude collection of material for consumption, to organized processing, and usage like cooking. Towards the end of this period innovation ranged from tool production, food collection, and the introduction of domestication of plants, and animals.

Between 5500-3500 BC many transitions were seen from the “Old World” to “New”, the 3500 period was marked by anthropologists as the Bronze Age. Neolithic culture had truly evolved, and was now spreading throughout Europe, and into Asia, India and China regions.

By the 1500BC period Neolithic cultures were becoming producers of quantity, ranging from the cultivation of rice and flour, to the harvesting of corn, squash, and other vegetables. This type of evolution was clearly now visible in many various civilizations such as the Inca, and the Aztec peoples. These earliest known cultures relied solely on harvesting and hunting for survival. They chose their locations out of convenience to allow easy access to resources like rivers and streams for water, and they used rich soil to grow their produce.

The study of the Neolithic period has shown us how humans were able to evolve quickly, learning how to adapt to changing environments, using the land and objects to increase their productivity. This period also shows us that even during the most primitive times, we were still struggling to find our place in this vast world. Looking back at this time period is humbling to see our most basic beginnings, but it also reveals a window to our past that links us to our most basic needs, which is still survival.