13 November 2006

An exceptionally long revolution

Revolutions are not supposed to last for years and years. They are deemed as great changes in a short span of time. So, when V Gordon Childe, one of the world’s greatest archaeologists, suggested a ‘Neolithic Revolution’ when early man moved from the ‘striking’ method of making and using tools to the ‘grounding’ (hand-rotating) method, he picked up a lot of criticism. After all, this change in method in making/using tools took anything upwards of 3,000 years. So what’s revolutionary about that?

Gordon Childe, however, did not limit his use of the term ‘Neolithic Revolution’ only to the method of making/using tools. He believed, this period in man’s evolution also ushered in agriculture (including irrigation), the formation of village-like settlements, domestication of animals, eating habits that included food made from grains, construction (evenly-measured mud-brick houses), the discovery of the wheel, the appearance of gods or deities, superstition, and methods of burial that suggested the concept of an after-life.

Moreover, he believed, in the context of the pace of change that we had witnessed earlier – when human evolution was taking hundreds of thousands of years or tens of thousands of years – a mere 3,000 years did seem like a short span of time.

In the Neolithic period, pottery appeared. First as items made from clay, hand-moulded to give rough shapes. These were primitive-looking pieces that lacked finesse by modern standards. Then, another discovery, the potter’s wheel, ushered in the concept of evenly-shaped mass-produced pottery. Not long after that, pottery was made from firing/baking the clay items, hardening the clay to make pottery last longer. Archaeological findings suggest that the early moulds for pottery were woven like baskets and layered with asphalt or bitumen.

But man’s evolution didn’t stop there. Man ‘discovered’ metal. That meant the discovery of minerals and ores from rocks and the earth’s soil, and better still, the extraction of metal from these ores through a process called smelting. This brought in the Bronze Age (bronze being an alloy of copper and tin), introducing copper and bronze artefacts… adding to (and replacing some of) early man’s collection of stone and bone tools and artefacts.

According to Gordon Childe, several elements were essential for a civilisation to exist. He identified them as the plough, irrigation, domesticated animals, specialised craftsmen, the wheeled cart, the smelting of copper and bronze, sailing ships, a solar calendar, writing, standards of measurement, urban centres, and a surplus of food necessary to support non-agricultural workers and others who lived in the settlements/communities (villages and urban centres).

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