Possible Artistico-Political Ramifications of Neolithic and Later Cultural Changes in Human Subsistence and Settlement


Among the numerous material indices of pervasive social and demographic changes causal of and caused by the Neolithic, subsistence and settlement patterning are only the most obvious and self-evident.  The “new” Anthropological paradigm of human biocultural evolution, in which both the biology and the cultural apparatus of the human organism interactively adapt to changing environmental circumstances, provides some new implications for scholars analyzing the Neolithic and later intervals.  V.G. Childe’s (1950) “urban revolution”, by which he referred to the quiet rapid and unprecedented archaeological manifestation of recognizable “cities”, replete with evidence of hierarchical social relations, especially organized religion and its associated structural and thematic appurtenances (temples and overt iconography).  The assumption in this article is that the cumulative biocultural adaptations made by human groups of the Neolithic have previously been analyzed primarily culturally, as though agricultural production, surplus administration, and politico-social engineering had no obvious biological impacts on material culture or “art”.  We search in vain for evidence of politically-mandated religious iconography in the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and don’t find it until the Late Neolithic or later.  Herein is expressed the beginnings of a possibly productive research theme, in which the human organism evinced artistic proxies related culturally to the transition from a hunting-gathering social model to one closely related to sedentary agricultural “herds”.  The “urban revolution” of Childe might therefore apply also to the biocultural impact of elite reproductive interference on unprecedented masses (herds) of human domesticates.  Why we don’t find evidence of particular iconography in art until after the Neolithic could be answerable if we understand that it was only then that huge masses of people necessary for labor had been subordinated and integrated into the same ultimately agricultural surplus production schemes by which we have previously identified the Neolithic.  In other words, the breeding of large human labor pools is itself a biological and cultural filter of altered subsistence and settlement realities, and bringing and keeping the masses organized required the development of symbolism suggestive of hierarchy, subordination, and the other themes familiar from post-Neolithic iconography.  For iconographic art to “work”, its audience has to be able to appreciate its symbolic content. Herewith human selective domestication is treated as a biocultural process, where human subservience to elites has clear biological and material expressions (skeletal pathology and arthritis, spinal deterioration, dental caries, etc.) indicative of severe organic stress inflicted upon masses of agricultural populations by elites whose artistic iconography served as cognitive reinforcement for the domestication scheme.  We still occupy much of this niche.  Prior to the Neolithic the human experience was materially, socially, and ideationally very different.  This is at least partially why pre-Neolithic art defies iconographic or subjective interpretation.

This publication has been peer reviewed.
Publication Type: 
Journal Article
Year of Publication: 
Journal, Book, Magazine or Other Publication Title: 
Rock Art Research Volume 33(2)
Date Published: 
Tuesday, November 1, 2016
Publication Language: