Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Barcelona Part 3: The Neolithic Revolution

Artist's conception of life in the early Neolithic period. A woman weeds crops with a hoe made from a animal shoulder blade attached to a stick. Her husband and his wolf-like dog return from a hunt carrying a deer that he has killed with a bow and arrow. This image nicely captures the beginning of the Neolithic Revolution, which marked the transition from scattered groups of hunter-gatherers to sedentary agricultural communities. 

As a revolution, it was very gradual. The transition began in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East about 12,000 years ago. Slowly, the Neolithic culture spread through the Balkans into Central Europe and along the Mediterranean coasts of Europe and North Africa. Finally, about 7,500 years ago, it reached the eastern coast of Spain. This new way of life did not develop independently among Spain's late-Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, nor did they simply adopt a new set of ideas from elsewhere and spontaneously abandon their ancient culture.

Instead, the Neolithic Revolution arrived with immigrants seeking new lands. The farmers who arrived in Catalonia about 7,500 years ago had genetic links to modern inhabitants of the island of Sardinia. Initially, contacts between the indigenous people and the newcomers appear to have been peaceful, possibly because of a mutual interest in trade. It also may have been without conflict because the newcomers moved into land that the hunter gatherers had previously abandoned.

Objects of Daily Life

The immigrants arrived with a variety of tools. Some, like the stone core (top center) and flaked cutting tools below it would have been similar to those of the hunter-gatherers. Others, like the wood-handled ax, would have differed somewhat. Neolithic ax heads were ground and polished, rather than flaked from a core. The ceramic bowl on the left is entirely a product of the sedentary lifestyle of the Neolithic Revolution. 

Pottery is too heavy and fragile for nomadic people to carry during their wanderings. Instead, they used plant fibers to create light-weight basketry. The beginning of the Neolithic age in a given area is linked with the presence of pottery. Changes in pottery styles can be used to date other artifacts, especially since potsherds can survive for thousands of years, while wood and plant fiber are perishable. 

Tools they used

Cutting tools for agriculture and construction. The curved tool at the top has a series of serrated stone blades fitted along its inside edge. This may be a small scythe for harvesting plants, or possibly a light saw. The purpose of the tool below it is unclear but it may be a sort of punch or chisel. The Neolithic farmer needed a whole set of specialized tools for agriculture, animal husbandry, and construction of permanent dwellings. 

While Neolithic farmers no doubt continued to supplement their diets with wild game, particularly if their crops failed, they had long ago stopped making most of the highly specialized tools that the hunter-gatherers had developed over the millennia. As they struggled to set up productive farms in a new and unfamiliar land, the ability to obtain specialized hunting tools would have been important. Trade between the two groups may help explain why the evidence of early conflict is so limited. 

In addition to hunting tools, the early farmers would have needed information and guides to help them to navigate their new world. The hunters would have wanted the food and other portable goods that the farmers produced. Genetic evidence of interbreeding indicates that the trade may have included women, either as objects of exchange or as attachments that occurred during the trading visits. 

Weapons and warfare

Stone-tipped spears were used for hunting rather than war. Among the many Paleolithic cave paintings found in Spain, human figures seldom appear, except for an occasional hunting scene. Portrayal of conflict among the hunter-gatherers is even more limited, although not entirely absent.  Participants in these battles are almost never shown with spears. Bows and arrows appear to have been the weapons of choice for war.

In one Upper Paleolithic cave painting, located at Cova del Roure near Valencia, four archers have surrounded and are attacking three other archers. In other locations, a few paintings show human figures lying on the ground, pierced with arrows. If warfare among Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers was a common activity, it would have been portrayed much more often. Instead, such conflict appears to have been low-level and infrequent. 

On the other hand, Neolithic farmers were much more warlike. The very act of planting a piece of land establishes boundaries which must be defended from interlopers. Harvested crops would have also been important, either to defend or to seize from others during hard times. In addition, settled agricultural life meant the gradual loss of the egalitarianism typical of hunter-gatherers. The accumulation of wealth, social differentiation, hierarchy, and the concentration of power all lead naturally to conflict. 

Neolithic arrowheads. Bows and arrows were in common use by both the hunter-gatherers and the immigrant farmers. Over time, more and more immigrants arrived and settled in Catalonia and elsewhere in Spain. Food surpluses and a sedentary lifestyle encouraged population growth and the need for more land. This was the same dynamic that caused the original Neolithic farmers of the Middle East to migrate into Europe. As the farming population grew, the indigenous groups began to disappear.

The hunter-gatherers self-limited their population because they had to keep on the move and could accumulate little in the way of surpluses. They were closely in tune with the environment of the large areas they needed to support themselves. The farmers, however, began to radically altar the landscape with their slash and burn practices. The forests were progressively destroyed because slashing and burning quickly exhausted the land, even as the farming population continued to grow.

The disappearance of game and wild plants and the ever-increasing population of farmers forced many hunter-gatherers to retreat into more remote areas. Others settled down with the farmers and adopted the Neolithic lifestyle. Whichever strategy they chose, their ancient way of life began to disappear, at first gradually but with increasing rapidity. On at least a few occasions, some of them may have fought back fiercely against their fate.

Battle scene from a Neolithic cave painting.  The painting was found at Les Dogue, near Valencia. Two groups of archers fight it out in a scene full of motion and fury. On the right, 17 warriors charge forward as the 11 defenders on the left attempt to stand their ground. A tall, unarmed figure at the top center seems to be directing the attack. Who were these people and what was their conflict all about? There are at least four possibilities.

First, two groups of hunter-gatherers could be fighting over access to hunting grounds or some other inter-group dispute. This is possible but unlikely, given the dearth of evidence of such pitched battles among the indigenous people. Again, if such battles were common, it would make sense that they would appear regularly in images painted on cave walls.

Second, these might be hunter-gatherers attacking farmers because of habitat destruction or other grievances. A hint may be found in some Neolithic burials, where the bodies of a high status farmer was carefully arranged, but hunter-gatherers found in the same grave had been sacrificed and then tossed in carelessly.

Third, the farmers may have decided to attack the indigenous people to gain access to their hunting grounds for farming. As the population of farmers increased over time and their need for help from the hunter-gatherers decreased, the likelihood of this sort of conflict probably increased. The fourth and final possibility is two different Neolithic villages, fighting over arable land or food stocks. 

Tool for straightening arrow shafts. Conflict between farming communities steadily increased during the Neolithic period. This ultimately led to fortifications around villages. Painted scenes of organized warfare appear more and more often. Groups of men are shown in lines of battle while performing recognizable military maneuvers such as flanking movements. They are often led by individuals wearing distinctive headdresses. Physical evidence of such warfare is rare but is occasionally found.

High in the Pyrenees Mountains, at a site called El Trocs, unknown assailants massacred a group of Neolithic animal herders around 7,300 years ago. The killers might have been either hunter-gatherers seeking revenge for their displacement or a rival group of Neolithic herders disputing their right to pass through the area. Today, some people claim that warfare represents "uncivilized behavior." It fact, war is exactly as old as civilization itself. It is simply the flip side of the coin.

Food preparation

Stone tools used for grinding grain, along with two axe heads. These Neolithic grain-grinding tools are displayed in Barcelona's Museum of the History of Catalonia. They fascinated me because the tools were nearly identical to those I have seen many times in Mexican museums displaying pre-hispanic artifacts. In Mexico, the smaller, oval shaped grinder is called a mano, while the tray on which the grain is processed is a metate

For thousands of years before people started using these tools, there had been no contact between the Old and New Worlds. Even so, people in both parts of the globe came up with the same solution to the problem of how to transform grains into a flour that could be cooked. In Mexico, the grain being ground was maiz (corn), while in Europe and the Middle East it was wheat. Manos y metates can still be found in Mexican kitchens today.

By the time the Neolithic farmers reached Spain, their crops  included not only wheat, but barley, lentils, peas, and vetch. In addition, they planted flax which they wove into clothing. Along with the seeds and tools for planting these crops, they brought with them sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle. These domesticated animals provided meat, milk, leather, and wool, as well as manure for the fields.

Implements for storing food and preparing meals. As the Neolithic age advanced, pottery became more elaborate, including some with handles, spouts, and lids. Containers were created in various sizes and shapes according to their intended use. In addition, ceramics became a medium for artistic expression through painting and incising the surface areas. Various tools used for cutting or other purposes are also displayed above, along with jewelry.

While agriculture produced food surpluses that allowed a settled lifestyle, an expanding population, and many cultural advances, there was a price to be paid. Changing from a diet of wild game and plants to one heavy in grains full of carbohydrates had a negative effect on the health, stature, and longevity of Neolithic people. 

Tooth decay increased, as well as abscesses leading to great discomfort and even death. In addition, the grinding process left minute particles of stone in the flour which wore down teeth. Overall, the height of Neolithic people became shorter than their predecessors. Women's pelvises also changed, making births more difficult, and even deadly, at a time when more and more children were being conceived. 

In addition, living in one place, close together, in larger groups, also meant the appearance of many diseases unknown among hunter-gatherers. These included malaria, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever. The Upper Paleolithic lifespan was 35.4 years for men and 30 for women. By the end of the Neolithic era, this had dropped to 33.1 and 29.2 respectively.

Mining & Trade

Variscite mine in the coastal mountains just south of Barcelona. This is one of 100 mining sites near the town of Gavá. Dating to 5,800 years ago, they are the oldest underground mines in Europe and among the oldest in the world. The miners were in search of variscite crystals, which are hydrated aluminum phosphate. The crystals have been used for thousands of years to create ornaments for personal decoration.

When the mines were examined by archeologists, they found partially worked beads of variscite, along with many other artifacts. These included tools made from silex and obsidian, a fertility goddess figure, and pottery. Some of the items recovered indicate that the mines were also used as grave sites. Human remains in the graves appear to be deceased miners whose bones show signs of injuries and deformation consistent with the work of mining.

Artist's conception of one of the mines. The mines consisted of multi-level galleries, including some with at least eight levels that extended down 15m (45ft) deep. Digging tools included stone axes and sledges and chisels of bone and antler. Sometimes the miners fractured the rock by heating it and then dousing it with cold water. The way the mines follow veins of variscite shows a considerable knowledge of rock strata.

The miners' engineering practices also show sophistication. They dug air shafts to the surface or to other galleries for ventilation and used some form of lamps for lighting. They left pillars of rock standing in order to support the gallery ceilings and prevent collapse. This was the case even when those pillars contained exploitable quantities of variscite. This awareness of mining concepts suggests that miners had become a specialized group within their Neolithic community. 

Variscite necklaces were important items in Neolithic trade. While some miners' wives probably enjoyed decorating themselves with the crystals that their husbands brought home, the extent of the mining activity indicates that most of the variscite was dug out for trading purposes. There is evidence near the mine entrances that the variscite was sorted and initially processed on-site. 

Since, the polishing and drilling of beads and final assembly of the jewelry was a more lengthy and delicate task, it probably occurred back at the miners' villages. Once a piece of jewelry was complete, it could be traded for other items of value either locally or with a visiting long-distance trader. The necklace above, being lightweight and compact, would have been perfect for a such a trader to carry in his backpack.

Shell necklaces were also valuable items of trade. Since Catalonia has a long coastline, shells would have been widely available to turn into jewelry. Many a long winter evening may have been spent carefully selecting, arranging, and drilling small shells in order to assemble them into a multi-strand necklace like this. 

By 6000 years ago, trade networks were well established throughout Europe, the Middle East and the Mediterranean coasts. Luxury items like jewelry were favored because of their high value in proportion to their size and weight. The materials to make jewelry included variscite, shells, jade, obsidian and amber. These came from sources as far away as Sicily, the Aegean, and the Baltic areas.  

Neolithic art 

Neolithic art on a stream bed stone. The abstract design of a spiky line dividing two sets of dots may have had ritual meaning. Neolithic art differs in several ways from that created by Paleolithic people. The hunter gatherers could not carry much with them so, the art they created was left on the walls of caves they visited, like Cova de Altamira in northern Spain. Their other major forms of art were Venus figurines, which were small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. 

By contrast, settled agricultural communities created a much wider variety of art. The art could be larger, heavier, and more fragile because it could remain in one place. Painted/incised pottery is an example of this. In addition, statues and figurines were often made of clay, which is a highly malleable medium, as well as other items more laboriously carved from stone, bone, antlers or wood. 

Neolithic cave painting of two women dancing. This painting is from a cave near El Cogul, southwest of Barcelona. During the Neolithic period, wall painting began to shift from the walls of caves to those of human-built structures. Consequently, very little Neolithic wall art survives, in comparison to the many scenes preserved deep inside cave complexes like Altamira

Paleolithic artists portrayed the wild animals of their world realistically, but humans only as stick figures. The Neolithic animal figures that survive include both wild and domesticated, but are not as beautiful or realistic as their Paleolithic counterparts. On the other hand, Neolithic wall art includes many more human figures and they are involved in a wider variety of activities, including dancing in pairs and groups, as well as hunting and warfare.

Another difference is that, unlike the Paleolithic portrayal of humans as stick figures, Neolithic human figures tend to be more robust, are often clothed, and sometimes wear complex headgear. A final difference is that, unlike the all-male figures seen in Paleolithic cave paintings, women begin to appear for the first time. The reason for this change is not clear, but it may be that Neolithic women had begun to do some of the painting.

Burial practices

Human remains found near Sant Pau del Camp in Barcelona. While Paleolithic Neanderthals and Homo sapiens both buried their dead with some level of ritual, burial practices in Neolithic times become much more elaborate. Bodies were typically placed on their left sides in the fetal position, as seen above. The amount and quality of grave goods increased, particularly for high status individuals. This reflects the move away from egalitarianism toward social stratification during the Neolithic period. 

Dolmens began to appear in the late Neolithic period. The end of the Neolithic period is called the Megalithic (Large Stone) Age because it was characterized by the construction of dolmens and other monuments using large rocks and boulders. Dolmens are stone burial chambers, the earliest of which appeared in Spain, Portugal, and France. 

Some of these structures were tombs, but others appear to have been pilgrimage sites for rituals celebrating astronomical events such as an equinox or solstice. While Stone Henge, located in the United Kingdom, is the best known of the Megalithic monuments, Spain has its own impressive examples. Some of the examples in Spain were constructed as much as 1000 years before Stone Henge.

The Dolmen of Menga, dated as early as 5,750 years ago, is located near Málaga, on the Mediterranean coast east of Gibraltar. It is one of the largest known megaliths in Europe, measuring 27.5m (90ft) long and 6m (20ft) wide. The structure contains 32 megaliths, the largest of which weighs a staggering 200 tons.

Dolmen under construction. They tend to be circular, with an entrance into a passage ending in a central chamber. Additional passages to other chambers sometimes radiated out from the central one. Archeologists study these sites intensively because their contents can tell us a great deal about the people who once used them. Their bones and teeth can reveal time frames, diets, pathologies, ritual beliefs, geographical origins and much more. 

Archeologists have determined that dolmens were sometimes used intensely for relatively short periods covering several generations. Some were then abandoned, sometimes for centuries or even millennia. After a long hiatus, the dolmens were sometimes re-used, again for relatively short periods. The different layers of burials sometimes show quite different burial practices. 

Model of a completed Neolithic dolmen. An example of a re-used dolmen was found at Alto de Reinose, near Burgos in northern Spain. The remains of twelve related individuals were found at the very bottom level. They had been placed there about 5,700 years ago. These relatively complete skeletons were found on their sides in the fetal position. The burials were primary, meaning the skeletons had not been moved to the dolmen after being de-fleshed elsewhere. 

The group at the bottom level included adult and adolescent males and females, but very few children. Examination of their bones and teeth showed that almost all had grown up locally, with only a few having spent their childhood elsewhere. No hunter-gatherers were among them since, by this time, few remained except in remote areas of Spain.

Their diet was very typical of Neolithic people at this time. It was composed primarily of cereal grains supplemented by meat from small domesticated animals such as sheep and goats. The teeth showed the cavities typical of grain eaters and the bones showed some degenerative diseases, cranial trauma, and healed fractures.

Carefully arranged skulls found in a Late Neolithic burial. As times changed, so did burial practices. At Alto de Reinose, the bones found nearest the surface were arranged very differently than those of the earlier group. These later bodies had been largely disarticulated and a number of skulls were missing. This strongly suggests they were secondary burials and that they skulls were retained elsewhere, possibly for ancestor worship. 

Some of the skulls which remained were carefully framed by the long bones, again suggesting a ritual purpose. While the bones and teeth showed similar pathologies to those of the earlier burials, some showed blunt force trauma to the skulls, indicating a violent death. 

This completes Part 3 of my Barcelona series. I hope you have enjoyed this peek into the Neolithic Age in Spain. If so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question, please remember to include your email address so that I can respond in a timely manner.

Hasta luego, Jim


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