The Neolithic in Europe

Western Europe: megaliths (monuments built of very large stones) spread over Spain, France, England, Ireland, Switzerland, and parts of Italy. Characteristics: dolmen, burial chambers of stone constructed in post and lintel form, long barrows, later round barrows with 'false vaults' created by projecting overhangs. Most common in Brittany, where menhirs were aligned in stone alleys (200 to 1,500 meters long at Carnac), or in circular arrangements (as at Stonehenge, in Southern England); an anthropomorphic character is suggested by some engravings. The Bell-breaker culture (characterized by pots shaped like upside-down bells) spread through Spain and Western and Central Europe. Society consisted of small groups engaged in hunting with bows and arrows; primitive farming; and rudimentary metallurgy.

The Balkans: elevated houses, painted pottery figurines (mainly female). Eastern influence leads to the erection of mud-brink walls and fortifications. Rectangular buildings of the Greek Megaron type, with main hall and porch, occur. Horses were domesticated and battle-axes were in use.

The Tripolye culture (located between the Carpathians and the Dnieper in the Ukraine): rectangular longhouses were arranged in a circle around an empty central space. Much further to the East the Pontic-Aral Sea neolithic is characterized by burial finds which included no burial gifts but were marked by extensive use of ochre.

Linear pottery Neolithic: pottery covered with bands of decoration (spiral-, meander-, and angular geometric designs); D-sectioned polished stone axe-edge blades common. Area of concentration: Bohemia, Moravia, Central Germany; from here expansion to the East to the Theiss and Vistula rivers, to the West to the Rhine, to the South into the region of the River Drave, and to the North along the line Cologne-Hanover-Magdeburg. Type of settlement: villages protected by walls and ditches with large buildings 30-40 meters long and 5-7 meters wide.

Norhern Europe (Poland, Central Germany, Denmark, Southern Sweden). Two groups:

  1. Funnel-necked beaker culture. The origin of the funnel-necked beaker people, who lived in longhouses with room-like subdivisions, is unknown, though it has elements of linear pottery, Neolithic and local Mesolithic.
  2. Cold-impressed ware or battle-axe culture. Vessels were decorated by cord impressions. (Expansion in Saxony, Thuringia, Schleswig-Holstein, and at the mouth of the Odor.) The battle-axe was the most important weapon. Horses were bred. The people of the cord-impressed ware culture (battle-axe people) were probably not Indo-European in origin.

Summary: there was close contact between the various cultures by means of active and extensive trade (e.g. grinding stones, amber, flint). Travel on rivers in dugout canoes or skin-covered boats, on land, roads or paths, solidified by branches and logs in wet places, wagons with solid wheels, drawn by oxen and reindeer and later horses.

Religions: probably belief in life after death; belief in the return of the dead may be shown by the fact that bodies were burned or tied; there were ancestry and fertility cults. Belief in a heavenly god, often identical with the god of thunder and lightning, as well as in magic and evil spirits.

Economic life: hunting and gathering important at first, but the emphasis on farming increases steadily. Intensive agriculture led to soil exhaustion and the movement of settlements into new land; once the vacated land had recovered it could be repopulated.

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Neolithic (New Stone Age)
Within the Neolithic cultures, characterized by settlements on graduated plateaux, or on the fringes of mountains where rainfall is high, important innovations (building with bricks, polished stone tools, pottery, the potter's wheel) and economic change took place: the transistion to farming as a way of life - and thereby to a productive economic life - with agriculture (the planter) and the raising of animals (the herdsman) both being practiced by the end of the Neolithic (called the Neolithic revolution by Gordon Childe). Wild grains were cultivated (wheat, barley, millet) and sheep, goats, pigs and asses were domesticated. People settled in villages, later in cities, fortified by walls. Jericho (between 8000 and 6000 B.C.) may be considered as a preliminary step on the road to highly developed urban culture. Rectangular buildings were constructed in succession to roundhouses. As first they were made of reed, fortified with mud, later of unbaked clay, and then of dried brick.

Art: jewellery in the beginning was made from shells and stones, later from precious metals and stones. The painted pottery, produced with the aid of the potter's wheel, was skillfully decorated with geometrical designs and abstract and naturalistic representations of humans and animals. (The high point of this development is found at Susa in Iran.) Small sculptures (female figurines) were produced. Sealstones were introduced. Copper became an important raw material. (At first it was hammered into shape, later cast as well.) The first sacred buildings were erected at Eridu, Tepe Gawra and Uruk. Temples were built in large areas reserved for sacred purposes. (The outer walls of temples were artistically proportioned by moulded pillars.) The first clay tablets with writing on them (economic accounts of temple affairs) were found at Uruk; the picture language evolved into a language of words and sounds. All cultures made provisions for the dead. During the earlier period, important sites were: Hassuna, Jarmo (Eastern Iraq), Sialk I (Eastern Iran), Jericho, and Sakje Geuzi (Syria); during the middle period: Halaf, Samarra, Sialk II, Arpachiyah, Tepe Gawra, Hissar, Tasa, Badari, Merimde, and Fayum; during the later period: El Ubaid, Susa (Elam), Telelat Ghassul, Sialk III, Hissar (I B-C), Amrah and Gerseh.

c. 3000 the 'Great Deluge' took place (probably in the form of several floods and catastrophic events). Dams and canals were built in Egypt (Nile) and in Mesopotamia (Tigris and Euphrates). The biblical account corresponds with the Gilgamesh epic.

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The Development of Advanced Civilizations
The historical epoch begins with the development of advanced urban civilizations (called by Wittfogel 'hydraulic societies'), which followed the 'Neolithic revolution'. Advanced cultures develop into riverine civilizations in Egypt along the Nile, in Mesopotamia along the Euphrates and the Tigris, in India in the Indus valley and in China along the Hwang Ho (for early American civilizations, see XXX). A factor in this development may have been a change in climate, which began in the Mesolithic period and led to the dehydration of large areas (with desert-belts stretching from West to East: from the Sahara to the steppes of Kirghizia). With increasing population after the inception of farming, the inhabitants of the regions in question migrated to the fertile river valleys. A condition for existence in the river valleys was the solution of common problems on a social basis. Since changes in the economy freed part of the population from the need to engage in subsistence farming, more men now became available to pursue other tasks (i.e. crafts, defence, religious life, administration and technology). This led to the stratification of society along the various levels of occupation and, thereby, the development of a differentiated society - a process which was aided by the complication of methods of production and increasing trade specialization.

The city - an important characteristic of civilization - became a centre for the production and exchange of goods, for trade and markets. Power over the city in Mesopotamia rested with the priest-king (to whom, as the representative of God, the city belonged). In Egypt the Pharaoh governed, and was revered as God's son or even as God himself (charismatic leadership). A state religion was the basis and support of his rule. The centralization of the state and the hierarchical ordering of society into sharply differentiated classes (rulers, priests, warriors, officials, craftsmen, traders, peasants, slaves) enabled the Egyptians to solve the problems which confronted every riverine civilization. So did the organized administration, which brought about the development of writing, because of necessary accounting procedures. Among its tasks were the organization of the economy through the division of labour (allocation of corvées and duties; food-supply for the population) and the planning of agriculture in the region belonging to the city. The most important role of the administration was to prepare irrigation projects and control the recurring floods: digging of ditches and canals, erection of dikes and the construction of aqueducts and reservoirs for drinking water. All civilizations tended to expand their territories; the city-states became empires. Common language, culture and religion led to common ways of thought and feeling. Expanding trade connections (cities as markets) led to into-urban influences, and widened intellectual horizons.

Common characteristics of these early civilizations: metal-working, bricks, square-hewn stones (the primary element of architecture), polygonal wall-construction, working in precious metals and stones, production of thin-walled vessels, writing, large sculptures, polished stone, irrigation, urban settlement.

< Mesolithic | Bronze Age Technology >

Ne`o*lith"ic (?), a. [Neo- + -lith + -ic.] Archaeol. & Geol.

Of or pertaining to, or designating, an era characterized by late remains in stone.

The Neolithic era includes the latter half of the "Stone age;" the human relics which belong to it are associated with the remains of animals not yet extinct. The kitchen middens of Denmark, the lake dwellings of Switzerland, and the stockaded islands, or "crannogs," of the British Isles, belong to this era. Lubbock.


© Webster 1913.

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