Physical Anthropology

A Guide to the Anthropology of the Neolithic Period

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"A Guide to the Anthropology of the Neolithic Period"
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The Neolithic (New Stone Age) period emerged from the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) and Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age). This is not so much a chronological period as it is a stage of human technological and cultural development characterized by a transition from a nomadic hunting and gathering culture to a settled food-producing culture. The domestication of plants and animals made it possible to remain in one place and develop settlements. Hunting, fishing, and gathering of wild fruits and vegetables were no longer the sole source of food.

Stone tools became more diverse and sophisticated, and were sharpened and polished. Crafts such as pottery and weaving emerged. Pottery made it possible to store liquids and make wine. The same technology was adapted to make bricks for permanent structures. Since people were not traveling all the time, they did not have to carry everything around with them and could stockpile food and possessions. New social structures and rituals emerged to regulate and stabilize community life. Raising crops and food animals requires sustained co-operative effort, with everyone doing his or her part.

Neolithic cuisine used a variety of food processing techniques, including fermentation, soaking, heating and spicing. Neolithic peoples were the first to produce bread, beer, and a variety of meat and grain dishes.

The earliest known development of Neolithic cultures was in South-West Asia between 8000 BC and 6000 BC. The Natufian people, who lived east of the Mediterranean, may have been the first to domesticate animals. They harvested wild grasses and soon started cultivating cereals, including what, barley, and millet, and raising cattle, sheep, goats and pigs.

Between 6000 BC and 2000BC, Neolithic culture spread through Europe, the Nile Valley (Egypt), the Indus valley (India), and the Huang He valley (Northern China), each with its own customs and characteristics. In south-east Asia a rice-cultivation-based culture evolved before 2000 BC, possibly independently of the wheat-based cultures.

In China, the Neolithic period began around 10,000 BC. and concluded about 8,000 years later with the invention of metallurgy. Settlements grew up around the main river systems: the Yellow River in central and northern China, and the Yangzi in the southern and eastern regions. A distinctly Chinese artistic tradition arose about 4000 BC, with painted pottery and jade carvings. Jade was also used to make tools, knives and axes.

During the European Ice Ages, the Near East was an overgrown swamp. When the glaciers retreated, rainfall began to decline, the grasslands became deserts, and the swamps became inhabitable. Around 4500 BC, Nomadic herders began to plant crops and build permanent settlements in the fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Between 4,000 and 3,000 BC, another nomadic group arrived from the Armenian Plateau and conquered the region.

Neolithic culture arose independently in the New World. By 1500 BC, corn, beans, squash, and other plants were being cultivated in Mexico and South America, setting the stage for the rise of the Inca and Aztec civilizations which amazed the European explorers.

The Neolithic culture evolved into the Bronze Age beginning around 3500BC, with the introduction of metal tools, utensils and weapons, the invention of writing, and the rise of the urban civilization of larger settlements. Sumer, in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, is considered to be the cradle of civilization, with the earliest known examples of writing and literature.

Selected Resources:
General information re. Neolithic period
ancient history of wine
Neolithic period in China

More about this author: Christine G.

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