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What made people settle down? Israeli researchers propose a hypothesis

Sometime over 20,000 years ago, the last Ice Age peaked. And after millions of years of living comfortably as hunter-gatherers, as the great ice sheets retreated, the human species made a fateful pivot. True, Homo sapiens has existed for only 300,000 years or so (at most), but we evolved from hunting-gathering predecessors. Suddenly, we stopped doing that and changed strategy.

The jury is still arguing over whether abandoning hunting-gathering and settling down constituted a breakthrough by a one-of-a-kind species or a fatal mistake on a planetary level. Anyway, with the glaciers largely gone, after millions of years of our predecessors and us evolving as hunter-gatherers, humans abruptly stopped roaming, settled down and started to farm.

That process is loosely referred to as the Neolithic Revolution. Many questions are asked about it.

It is widely agreed that the Neolithic emerged in different places at different times, but all since the last Ice Age. This begs questions. If the human brain hasn’t changed in 200,000 years, how come this cultural change suddenly arose spontaneously around the world (albeit with differences of a few thousand years here or there)? Why did it first emerge in the Near East and China? What was so special about the Near East and China? What triggered this pivot?

Many have tried to answer these questions, so far resulting in conflicting theories that tend to be exclusionary, each hoping to end the debate – climate change opened new horizons! We evolved a new wrinkle in the cortex! Our social development happened to be commensurate with climatic conditions convenient for cultivation for the first time! It was God! It was aliens!

What is in common to all these explanations is that they’re not convincing, says Prof. Gonen Sharon, co-author of a paper published in March in the journal of the Royal Society, Philosophical Transactions B, with lead author Prof. Ayelet Shavit of Tel-Hai College, Western Galilee. They answer none of these questions, which are imponderables anyway.

What Shavit and Sharon grapple with is a different question entirely: not why, but how the devil the Neolithic Revolution happened at all.

The rub is that, at the level of the individual, it probably made life worse. Farmers had to labor from dawn to grave and faced greater risks and uncertainty than rambling hunter-gatherers had, Sharon says.

Also, it isn’t that people necessarily grouped in brotherly bonhomie. The transition to larger and larger village life meant social stratification and new social mechanisms to cope with it all. Yet it seems that the neighbors in at least one crowded early village – Çatalhöyük, in Turkey 9,000 years ago – couldn’t stand one another. Some advance.

So, if it sucks to be a farmer, how did humanity in general abandon the relatively carefree nomadic life for settlement and labor, abandoning the freedom to just get up and wander off for the heartbreak of wheat famine and plant lice? That’s the question.

Shavit and Sharon don’t answer that question either. What they do is suggest a wholly new way to study the Neolithic – not from the lofty perch of today looking back, but in evolutionary terms, using a model derived from transitions to new levels of individuality.

What is a new level of individuality? For instance, transiting from unicellular to multicellular organisms, or from solitary to bee-colony lifestyle. The Israeli researchers propose focusing not on the suffering individual, but on the dynamic process of groups formation: individuals who forgo the power of individuality in exchange for becoming a “bigger deal” at a higher level of cultural organization, Sharon explains.

The philosophy of the Natufian

First, let us distinguish between the Neolithic and the Agricultural revolutions, according to Shavit and Sharon, because in recent years it has become clear that settlement and even monumental construction predated agriculture by thousands of years.

So: Agriculture emerged as a subsistence strategy about 11,500 years ago in the Near East and China, and rather later migrated into Europe (it would arise even later, independently, in the Americas). Some Israeli archaeologists argue the case of agriculture emerging around 23,000 years ago at the site of Ohalo II, at the southern shore of Lake Kinneret, but not all agree that early stabs at cultivation count.

Yet around 25,000 years ago, people were building huts out of mammoth tusks in Siberia.

Around 15,000 years ago, we find the Natufians settling down and building stone houses in the Mediterranean climate zone of what are modern Israel, Lebanon and Syria. By 12,000 years ago, in southern Turkey, the monumental “early temples” of Göbekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe (and many more) were built – and all this was done by hunter-gatherers, not early horticulturists.

The Natufians exhibited a number of turning points. Insofar as is known, this culture was the first in these parts to fashion fine fishing hooks from bones. They were semi or maybe wholly sedentary, building the first stone houses and burying their dead under the floors. They had domestic dogs and provide early possible evidence of shamanism. Natufians baked the earliest known bread 14,400 years ago (flatbread, but still). They seem to have brewed beer too – a discovery that some think means agriculture resulted from the desire to get wasted.

Maybe it did. In any case, Shavit and Sharon define the Neolithic Revolution as encompassing the Agricultural Revolution. It is the sea change in the human condition from small bands of gathering and hunting foragers, etc., to settled big and socially complex groups, from whom the earliest farmers would emerge, complete with domesticated herbivores and even cats.

The earliest farmers would emerge from the Neolithic Revolution complete with domesticated herbivores and even cats.Credit: Photos: ingimage, 333/Shutterstock

“The Neolithic is much greater than agriculture,” Sharon explains. “Agriculture was part of the Neolithic Revolution, but the transition to Neolithic changed the entire way people looked at the world.” Changes were already happening, then agriculture became the method that economically enabled the development of modern civilization: population sizes increased, social stratification ensued, wealth was created and increased; and private property arose, he adds.

Is it really a consensus that the farming life was more onerous than the roaming one? Well, not really, but it’s widely accepted that it’s riskier, Shavit says. “To farm, you need a much larger family, and now not only you but the whole family is at risk if the rains fail,” she notes.

So, you will most likely prefer to continue hunting and gathering, while some other slob works the fields and prays for rain. So how did the Neolithic encompass all humankind?

Through the process of three evolutionary stages: coordination between individuals; then the emergence of mutual cooperation; and, finally, the establishment of collaborative communities, Shavit and Sharon propose.

The “model of the 3 Cs” was proposed by the philosopher James Griesemer in a chapter in the book “Landscapes of Collectivity in the Life Sciences.” Shavit and Sharon embrace the model as a way to possibly resolve the riddle of the Neolithic.

The crux is that although collaborative communities resulted from a clearly contingent process, once they arose, they necessarily became entrenched.

‘Really cool to have a field’

“The evolutionary mechanism suggests that people started grouping; complexity increased; populations grew; people began to settle down and at some point, the complexity of societal organization reaches a situation in which one doesn’t need a big change to push matters over the brink,” Sharon says.

A couple of years of drought, one very strong-willed megalomaniac leader and – presto! – society transforms to a higher organizational level. Consider a mitochondrion, an independently reproducing entity in all eukaryotic cells (meaning, those which aren’t bacteria), but it can’t reproduce outside the eukaryotic cell.

We too lost our ability to culturally reproduce as individual hunter-gatherers, Shavit and Sharon suggest. Even Robinson Crusoe, if he were real, wasn’t actually alone on that deserted island. Victorian culture guided his every step, including the ease with which Friday became his grateful servant (rather than a grateful – and equal – fellow human being). Similarly, each community that crossed the Neolithic Rubicon may empathize with the famous ending of Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again.” This romantic way of life is probably lost for us, the two researchers suggest.

Anyway, the Natufians in prehistoric Israel Hula Valley are considered to be among the earliest settlers, i.e., Neolithic revolutionaries in the region, exhibiting the full gamut of modern civilization from bone fishing hooks to shamanism (if we agree those are ritualistic dancers depicted on a 14,000-year-old burial slab; and if we accept that the woman buried 12,000 years ago with more than 80 tortoise remains was that).

So what have we? Possibly this: Our own biological and cultural evolution, along with exogenous geographical and climatic limitations, created a process that led modern humans to coordinate then cooperate, then collaborate – which could have led to a social bottleneck. By some point, even if you don’t want to be a farmer, you can’t turn back anymore, Shavit sums up.

“It’s the process that led you there, it’s not the end point of a guy saying: ‘It would be really cool to have a field.’ You’re led by the cultural process. We describe how distant coordination, then closer and more intense individual cooperation, could lead to collective collaboration, from which point the price of going back is way too high.”

According to this thinking, there didn’t need to be a specific notable trigger to explain the Neolithic Revolution. Not necessarily climate change and not a storm god. “We suggest that if we examine the processes of interaction, we don’t need a dramatic trigger or event,” she adds. With social complexity comes hierarchy, and all one needs is a shaman or kinglet to hand down orders and Bob’s your farming uncle forever more.

“You get born into this social structure. It isn’t that you necessarily want to do any of this,” says Shavit, who sounds like she’s talking about almost every modern occupation on the planet – who at age 3 plays at being a dental hygienist? “But it becomes part of your duty, your role; you can’t imagine yourself without it. From independent hunter-gatherers we reach a hierarchical group, and you can’t just say no. The whole Neolithic could be down to that.”

Is that what Shavit and Sharon are claiming? No. But it’s their model.

Ruth Schuster