What Really Happened During the Neolithic Revolution?

In our last blog post, we examined the explanatory power of Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel. A viable position is that while the argument in his book cannot explain modern inequality amongst nations, it can explain where the Neolithic Revolution took place and thus, at least in part, account for inter-continental inequality before 1500.

But we also saw that the distribution of domesticable plants and animals doesn’t show a distinct pattern singling out southeastern Turkey and the banks of River Jordan as the places where the Neolithic Revolution should have taken place.

This should not be surprising. Economic success is all about innovation and technology. But technology itself depends on institutions — and on institutional innovations.

The Neolithic Revolution was not only a set of technological innovations associated with farming and herding. It was also an institutional revolution — people became sedentary and social and political life changed.

Diamond’s argument, which has essentially become the conventional wisdom on this topic, is that the introduction of farming was a direct result of the greater benefits from farming in terms of greater domesticable crop and animal species, and this major technological change then caused institutional change.

Though popular, this argument is at odds with the archaeological evidence, which instead shows extensive social and institutional change prior to the transition to farming in the Middle East.

Consider the hill of Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey. Soon after 9600 BCE people came and carved massive T-shaped pillars out of limestone, an example of which is shown in the next picture.

Many pillars were 8 feet high and weighed 7 tons and had been brought from as far as 100 meters away. They were sunk into circular structures cut into the hill, and many of the pillars were carved with wild animals, snakes, wild cattle, gazelles, wild boars.

Here is the important thing: There is no evidence of domesticated plants or animals in the area from this period. The site shows a level of social organization previously unknown before the Neolithic Revolution.

Another important site is Çatalhöyük also in Turkey, shown below.

Archaeological evidence suggests that this was a sedentary town of perhaps 500 people dependent on hunting and gathering. The town appears to have had a very rich religious and symbolic life. People were buried under houses, which embedded the skulls of bulls in their walls, and included clay figurines and wall paintings.

But this is the sort of stuff that is supposed to happen after the Neolithic Revolution, not before.

The archaeologist Bruce Smith in his book The Emergence of Agriculture describes the transition which took place in the Middle East in the following way (page 79):

their inhabitants had clearly shifted to permanent year-round settlements as early as 12,500 years ago and invested considerable labor in constructing houses and storage facilities.

When people established sedentary settlements, their concepts of who owned resources likely became more restrictive as they strengthened their claim on the surrounding countryside, which they viewed more and more as being for their exclusive use. By 12,5000 BP, then, hunting and gathering societies began to adopt a way of life that set the logistic, economic, and organizational groundwork for the emergence of village farming communities…many of the basic elements of social organization essential to village life were already in place before the first experiments with cultivation…

In other words, the existing evidence, in contrast to what is presumed in Diamond’s argument and the conventional wisdom, is that institutional innovation did not follow transition to agriculture, but preceded it. In fact, it was this institutional innovation which allowed the technological changes at the heart of the Neolithic Revolution.

So most likely, the Neolithic Revolution is also not about geography but all about institutions.

James A. Robinson (Harva

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