September 18, 2004

Reconsideration of the Neolithic of Northwestern Europe

This important article deconstructs the ideological excesses of mainly British "post-processual" archaeology.

CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY Volume 45, Number S4, August-October 2004

How the West Was Lost
A Reconsideration of Agricultural Origins in Britain, Ireland, and Southern Scandinavia

by Peter Rowley-Conwy

Post-processual views of the transition to agriculture in Northwestern Europe have sought to decouple ideology and subsistence economy as a means of protecting the status of ideology as the sole cause of change. Ideology (as reflected in material culture and monument building) changed abruptly. To achieve the required decoupling, subsistence is therefore portrayed as having changed slowly. This implies three things: (1) Mesolithic foragers were gradually intensifying their subsistence economy. (2) Neolithic people subsisted mainly on wild animals and plants and were nomadic. (3) Subsistence change across the ideological transition was slow, continuous, and seamless. Many other scholars, although not post-processualists, have come to accept these three points. But as the post-processual view has become the consensus, the data from Britain, Ireland, and southern Scandinavia have all been leading in the opposite direction: (1) There is no reason to think that Mesolithic foragers were intensifying economically. (2) Neolithic people subsisted mainly on cultivated plants and domestic animals and were fully sedentary. (3) The transition to agriculture was rapid and probably traumatic. The current consensus has yet to incorporate these data into its explanatory framework.


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