Most students of prehistory will have wrestled at some stage with the essay question that runs: ‘The Neolithic Revolution was neither Neolithic nor revolutionary: discuss’ – the point being that the lifestyles that characterise the Neolithic do not appear suddenly, but take millennia to develop: wild seed harvesting continues alongside cultivation; hunting alongside animal domestication; and the village life of the Neolithic is preceded in the Mesolithic by a mix of seasonal settlement and nomadism.
That, at least, is the story in the Fertile Crescent region of the eastern Mediterranean, the birthplace of European and West-Asian agriculture. However, recent research suggests that in Britain and Ireland the change from hunter-gatherer to settled agrarian lifestyles was much swifter.
In a paper published in Antiquity 81 (December 2007) Alex Brown, of Reading University, argues that the carbon dates from charred cereal grains from 93 sites show a consistent pattern: that crop cultivation began around 3950 BC and was followed by a transitional period, or experimental phase, of 150 to 200 years before domesticated crops became the norm in settlements after 3800 BC.
The origins of British and Irish agriculture have previously been placed as far back as 5000 BC, suggesting a much longer period of transition. Such dates are misleading, says Dr Brown: some are derived from pollens which could easily be from wild grasses (wild and domesticated being difficult to tell apart), while others are based on charcoal from contexts containing cereal grains rather than from the grains themselves. Wood is not reliable because it could have been felled and used in other contexts (such as house construction) long before being used as firewood; at the Billown site, on the Isle of Man, for example, charcoal dated to 4600 BC was found in the same context as cereal grains dated to 3800 BC.
This rapid onset of cereal cultivation occurs at about the same time that megalithic tombs also appear in the landscape (a small number date from around 4000 to 3900 BC with the majority falling between 3800 and 3500 BC). Also occurring at exactly this time is the construction of the Sweet Track, in Somerset, precisely dated by dendrochronology to 3907/6 BC and indicative of settlement, the establishment of pottery use, a sharp shift in dietary intake from marine to terrestrial resources, and the construction of early causewayed enclosures. All this, according to Dr Brown, argues for ‘a relatively rapid adoption of the Neolithic package’, rather than ‘a gradual transition from Mesolithic to Neolithic lifeways’.
Discussing the relative absence of cereal grains from assemblages from 3000 BC, Dr Brown suggests there was a honeymoon period in North-Eastern Europe from 3800 to 3000 BC in which optimal climate and soil conditions produced abundant crops, but that pests and diseases eventually evolved, which significantly impacted on yields and subsequent patterns of cultivation and land use.