Discussion Groups in the Neolithic

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As I noted in the last post, during my couple of days on the Isle of Wight last week, there was some discussion of ARUP's 10 Winning strategies for the ecological age.  These were written to stimulate a consideration of future human-human and human-earth relations in the present day, but one of our group suggested that they they are probably quite descriptive of how Neolithic societies actually functioned.   Whilst being somewhat agnostic on this point (did they really go around saying: Optimise not Maximise), I found myself wondering whether, when Neolithic groups actually met up (as they surely did), whilst some were off having a céilidh and a pint of whatever it was at the time, some earnest types would sit around and consider the pressures on their way of living (too many henges cluttering the landscape, maybe), whether society needed improvement (better boats for all that rock, no doubt), and whether the curriculum needed revising (more timeless facts and less revisionist opinion, perhaps).

Sadly, I don't know enough about any of this for this fantasy to go much further, other than to say that Michael Flanders did write a satire about troubles in Neolithic times that did imply some conversation: "A henge?  What's a henge?"  Indeed; a timeless question.

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  • I am not sure the group member was right, at least given what is known about Stonehenge, Avebury and associated sites (a Unesco World Heritage Site). I have considered each point of the strategy:

    1 Use waste as a resource: Was waste stone used as a resource? Small lumps of Sarsen stone (dragged from the Marlborough Downs) were used as hammers to shape Stonehenge’s larger stones, but eventually they would break or become too small to be effective. Some were used as backfill in the holes holding the stones, but most of the chippings remain where they fell and constitute the ‘Stonehenge layer’.
    The chalk downs contain vital resources of flint. But the waste created by working/reworking flint into tools was also left where it fell. These piles of chippings are now useful archaeological evidence.
    ‘Waste’ red deer antlers were also used as picks for digging. These were eventually discarded or buried. Two were found under stones at Stonehenge and carbon dating has provided valuable archaeological evidence.
    So, most stone waste left lying around, and now the Stone Age’s waste is the Nuclear Age’s invaluable evidence. Maybe nuclear waste will be a useful resource one day?

    2 Diversify and co-operate: Diversification is about spreading risk in order to survive, but survival was not a major issue in the Neolithic. They were not on the edge of starvation. There was plenty of food, the climate was warmer than today, and a surplus in the economy gave time and energy for the huge henge building projects that began around 3000BC.
    Co-operation must have taken place across a wide area - what else could explain thousands of tons of stone being brought hundreds of miles from Pembrokeshire and the Marlborough Downs? Well, there might have been slavery, of course – ‘co-operation’ doesn’t have to be voluntary.

    3 Gather and use energy efficiently: Neolithic peoples were not short of energy, but felling trees for cooking, farming, for structures at Woodhenge and Durrington Walls, and for transporting stones, led to gradual deforestation. But with such a small population, you were never very far from a supply of cooking fuel.

    4 Optimise not maximise: Stonehenge seems to be an example of optimisation – making the best use of available resources given the limitations of what is known to be available. The builders knew that big stones were limited, and they nearly ran out of the largest size. They had to shape one of the stones to have a large ‘foot’ at the bottom to help it stand up in a shallow hole.
    On the other hand, Avebury’s enormous henge ditches and extensive avenues suggest that, to some, size did matter. Silbury Hill is also the largest man-made mound in Europe, so there is little evidence of restraint here. The peoples of the Neolithic seem to be no different to us in that they would stop at nothing to make a big impression!

    5 Use materials sparingly: There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Neolithic people felt the need to do this. Some may have argued that, if we keep on using stone at this rate it will run out. But even if there was a shortage of henge building stone, new stocks of flint were constantly being discovered and unearthed. ? There may have been fears that stocks might run out. If so, there may have been people who wanted to conserve and educate, and groups called ‘Stonepeace’ or ‘Stone-schools’! But the stone never did run out, and eventually gave way to Bronze, Iron etc.

    6 Clean up, not pollute: Julian Richards (Stonehenge – the story so far, English Heritage, 2007, p.222) illustrates an example of this. There was a Neolithic feast on Coneybury Hill in about 4000BC. On the menu was venison, wild pig, beaver and trout, cooked and served in round-bottomed pots. Thirty seven pots, large and small, were used and smashed, and after the feast, all the debris – bones, broken pots, ash from the fires and flint tools – was buried in a huge pit dug into the chalk. So they cleaned up, and invented the landfill site.

    7 Do not draw down resources: Stone/flint is a finite resource, if less problematic than oil or gas, but not all regions have good quality resources. But until someone came up with a better idea what else could they use?

    8 Remain in balance with the biosphere: The notion of ‘balance’ does not sit easily with a process of dynamic co-evolution. But there is evidence that Neolithic farmers wanted/needed to understand nature. Stonehenge may have been some kind of ‘nature clock’, but this poses the question how the information was transmitted further afield - “At the third stoke it will be time to plant!”

    9 Run on information: Stonehenge reveals highly sophisticated information being held by Neolithic peoples, such as the major lunar standstill, which takes place every 18.6 years. But societies, Neolithic or otherwise, don’t just run on information. Beliefs play a large part, such as the belief that things were better in the past...

    10 Shop locally: This clearly wasn’t a Neolithic priority, otherwise why go to Pembrokeshire for your stone? Well, when you are looking for something just that little bit special, you have to go the extra mile!

    So, if the Neolithic peoples were not much better than we are as far as human-earth relations are concerned, when did we start going wrong? Professor Richard Wrangham of Harvard University argues that the invention of cooking — even more than agriculture, the eating of meat, or the advent of tools — is what led to the rise of humanity. He claims that the ability to harness fire and cook food allowed the brain to grow and the digestive tract to shrink, giving rise to our ancestor Homo erectus some 1.8 million years ago. Cooking spared us from endless hours chewing raw food, which eventually led to Neolithic henge building! It would be ironic if all our human-earth relationship issues were all the result of some distant, ancestral ’Jamie Oliver’!

  • The Loom of Neolithic Language
    It is fascinating to wonder how people got along in the Neolithic neighbourhood, what kept chins wagging round the camp-fires, and what snacks mum’s gave their kids to keep the wolves from the door. And we aren’t the first to make assumptions about life in the Stone Age. For example, Hanna-Barbera gave Fred and Wilma a pet dinosaur, called ‘Dino’. This led generations of people to believe in the co-existence of dinosaurs and humans.

    In reality, of course, henge life was pretty much the same as now, and so was the Early Years curriculum:

    “Dad! Are we there yet?”
    “Not far now!”
    “You said that yesterday! This is a real drag!”
    “It will all be worth it in the end, you’ll see!”
    “But dad, when will get there?”
    “Well, let’s think shall we? If it takes ten men half a moon walking quickly, how many moons will it take them walking very, very, very slowly?”
    [Several moons later...]
    “See! I told you we were nearly there. Now think. Does this one fit in the round hole, or the square hole?”
    “The round hole?”
    “Well done! That’s eight out of ten right so far! Now, just pop the stone in and we’ll nip back and get another one...”