Back to Book Reviews

Neolithic, by Susan Foster McCarter
Routledge, 2007. 221pp, 93 figs, 6 plates, pb ISBN10: 0 415 36414 (18.99)

Neolithic—it has the ring of a ‘blockbuster’ title. Perhaps this is appropriate, since the aim of the book is to offer an up-to-date ‘academic’ account of one of the most significant periods in human history; an account for the student and general market which the backcover text states “stays accessible to even the novice reader” (novices in reading?). Susan Foster McCarter’s book is ambitious in scope, tackling the issue of Neolithic beginnings, lifestyles and belief on a broad geographical scale: much of the focus is on SW Asia, but with occasional reference to the archaeology of Europe, East Asia and the Americas. The theme throughout is how changes in subsistence, technology and social relations made at the beginning of the Neolithic irrevocably changed the world and set the stage for the eventual emergence of modernity. As such, a direct connection is often drawn between aspects of modern life and their identified origins in the technological and subsistence practices of the Neolithic.

Following a brief ‘Introduction to the Neolithic’, which, in fact, provides a cursory overview of archaeological methods and interpretation, a sizeable portion of the first half of the book (chapters 2–5) is taken up with an extended account of plant and animal domestication. This is prefaced by a surprisingly involved and perhaps excessive discussion of the genetics of domestication—here features Linnaeus on taxonomy, Mendel’s peas and Darwin on natural selection with the peppered moth by way of illustration—‘Biology 101’, which seems out of place to this reviewer, or at least peripheral to the principal direction of the book, but perhaps such is required for a North American audience where the spectre of ‘intelligent design’ lurks in the background?

The discussion of plant and animal domestication forms one of the stronger components of the book. Here is a considered account of the wild progenitors of domesticated varieties/species, animal behaviour, the morphological effects of domestication, the identification of domestication processes, and so forth, backed by useful distribution maps of the natural ranges of wild cereals and legumes, and selected animals.

Other aspects of Neolithic life then follow, with chapters on Architecture, Pottery, Diet and Disease, Power and Prestige, Technology and Trade, and Art and Religion. Architecture (the first illustration here is of a mouse…) is both short and so engaged in generalisation as to be unsatisfactory. Rather than getting to grips with the detail of early domestic and ceremonial architecture, the spatial organisation of settlements, and what it meant to construct worlds around the house, we are presented with a series of sub-sections on foundations, walls, roofs, and floors, almost providing a manual of how to construct a generic Neolithic building. Then follows a short box on monumental architecture which includes the Jericho tower and Stonehenge, but little else. As a side note, I was alarmed to read that the primary function of Stonehenge was as an ‘astronomical calculator’ (p.90), and, in a new take on the accepted sequence, bluestones post-date the sarsen settings. It is a shame that the remarkable and very early monumental architecture at Neveli Çori and Göbekli Tepe did not feature.

The chapter on Power and Prestige (ie, social relations) repeats the familiar ‘staged’ social categories of band, tribe and chiefdom, and with it a sense of progressive and inevitable unilinear social evolution. There is little tacking back to the specifics of the evidence and circumstance, which again leads to over-generalisation. Such is accentuated by the amount of space expended on explaining processes and techniques (eg, on how to manufacture pottery: pp.94–9) rather than archaeological detail on the Neolithic. By comparison with other chapters, that on Art and Religion works better because of engagement with the interpretation of the important statue groups from ‘Ain Ghazal, and the figurines, wall paintings and relief sculptures from Çatalhöyük.

In a final, brief chapter on ‘What caused the Neolithic transition’ we are provided with a review of ecological, functionalist and materialist accounts, from Childe’s ‘Oasis Theory’, to Binford and others on agricultural beginnings as response to external environmental and demographic change, through to Hayden on social prestige and complexity. The account is useful, but it seems a pity that other, symbolic, ontological and ideological, explanations for Neolithic beginnings, such as those provided by Hodder (1990) and Cauvin (2000) which emphasise restructuring of human mentality, world view and sociality, are not covered. Such reflects the author’s processual approach, in which the Neolithic is presented as primarily a period of economic/subsistence transformation, which in turn initiated changes in settlement, social relations, ideology and materiality.

The appendix on dating (pp. 174–5) simply left this reviewer confused. Throughout, there are numerous minor errors which could have been picked up by an experienced editorial eye: eg, Louis (sic) Binford (p.169), Usher’s 4004BC date of creation being ascribed to the 19th century (p.175), the date of Darwin’s publication of evolution through natural selection given as 1858 (p. 186), and so forth.

Aspects of style and presentation also weaken the book. The excessive use of verbal contractions, while undoubtedly intended to make the text more informal and accessible, soon begins to grate. The illustrations are hit-and-miss in both quality and relevance. The mouse has already been mentioned, then there is the rat as an index of transmittable disease (fig. 8.6), a reconstruction of the Jericho tower which looks like a haystack, and, to illustrate selective breeding, two illustrations comparing the morphology of the grey wolf and Yorkshire terrier (figs 2.2 and 5.1)—surely one Yorkshire terrier too many?

Attempting a popular and accessible account of Neolithic beginnings is something to be congratulated. This is, however, a demanding task, and one in which the author has only partly succeeded.

Joshua Pollard
University of Bristol


Cauvin, J. 2000. The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Hodder, I. 1990. The Domestication of Europe. Oxford: Blackwell

Review submitted: July 2008

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

Home Page The Prehistoric Society Home Page