ANT 417S

 Updated 27 December 2003
 The Social Impact of the Earliest Villages  

Course Schedule Evaluation Readings FAQ ARH Prog Anthro Events


This is just a brief outline of some of the more important points to remember from the readings and the lecture.

Living in settled communities is a recent phenomenon in the human career. After more than a million years of living mainly in insubstantial open-air camps, and occasionally in caves, only after about 20,000 years ago, in some parts of the world, did people begin to be less nomadic and to construct more permanent settlements consisting usually of groups of huts or pit-houses. By about 10,000 years ago, even quite large villages with more than 1000 well built houses occurred in some regions, notably parts of Southwest Asia, and particularly in Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel. Villages appeared a short while later in large portions of the world, including Europe, Africa, South and East Asia, and Central America.

  Villages and the Neolithic Revolution

Over the last 50 years, archaeologists have spent a lot of time investigating the origins and early development of plant and animal domestication and agricultural economy, the so-called Food-Producing Revolution.

Although this revolution took place in the context of village settlements, much fewer archaeologists have given thought to the reasons hunter-gatherers settled down into villages, how this might have contributed to the origins of food production, or how this revolution of sedentarization may have changed the social and ideological, as well as economic, circumstances of people in most parts of the world.

One of the interesting things about this is that we now know that the establishment of fairly permanent villages precedes the earliest known agriculture and animal domestication (with exception of domestic dog) by up to several thousand years, and may have been a precondition for it. In some regions, such as the Northwest Coast of North America, fairly large and complex villages of specialized hunter-gatherers occurred right up to modern times.

It is not particularly obvious why people settled down in this way, beginning a trend that would eventually become the dominant type of settlement in most of the world. It cannot simply be because people needed shelter from the elements, because they managed for more than a million years to get by quite nicely with only very simple shelters, or with caves, or with no architectural structure at all.


Purpose of the Course

The purpose of this course, however, is not to explore the origins of village life, but rather to survey a number of ways that archaeologists can exploit the record of "built environments" - the walls, floors, hearths, storage facilities, and other features that make up village and town settlements, and the things found in these features - to learn something about the social, political and ideological changes that occurred in different regions over the course of the last several thousand years. In particular, the course will emphasize ways that we can analyse and interpret the spatial relationships between spaces in the built environment as a way towards understanding the social relationships among the people who inhabited it.

Archaeologists used to say, "No one ever excavated a kinship system," but it turns out that there are still ways we can attempt to understand some aspects of prehistoric social systems. In fact, the existence of a "built environment" happens to make it much easier for us to do this as long as we are willing to make a few assumptions about what that environment represents. Most of the classes in this course will concentrate on different ways that archaeologists have used the houses and other architectural or spatial evidence from village sites to infer the nature of, and changes in, prehistoric social organizations. This is of particular interest in regions where some social groups went on to develop institutionalized inequality - ranked and stratified societies, state societies, and even slavery - often but not always with economies based on food production. One class will also deal with ideological aspects of houses and settlements.

    Open Societies and Domesticated Societies

It is somewhat surprising that more archaeologists have not brought attention to the revolutionary changes that must be associated with the beginnings of settled life. As Peter Wilson points out in his book, The Domestication of the Human Species, there appear to be quite a number of very fundamental differences between the social, psychological, and ideological characteristics of what he calls "domesticated" societies and what he calls "open societies," nomadic hunter-gatherers who live in small bands with fairly fluid membership and only temporary camps with fairly flimsy architecture, if any at all. Note that by "domesticated" he means living in houses, from the Latin domus, and not anything to do with plant or animal husbandry.

Keep in mind that "Open Societies" live pretty much in full view of each other's activities while "Domesticated Societies" have built environments.

Try to think of differences you would expect between these two types of society, or what might happen when you begin to impose walls in space, or begin to tie people to a particular place, rather than letting them roam over a large territory.


Differences between Paleolithic hunter-gatherer camps and Holocene villages

Open Societies Domesticated Societies
Range over large territories Usually fairly sedentary. Although the villages may be only seasonal, they tend to return to the same places repeatedly
Material culture tends to be portable, although there may be caches distributed around the territory Material culture can be more fixed. There is a tendency to accumulate furniture, features, and fairly heavy or abundant equipment
Usually there is not private property, especially of land, although groups may be associated with territories Usually being fixed in a place is associated with well developed concepts of private property and territoriality, even though agricultural or hunting land is often shared
The environment is mainly natural, even though there may be inadvertent, and sometimes intentional, cultural modifications to the landscape (disturbance of plant communities, fire) The environment where a large portion of the community spends most of its time is substantially artificial, constructed by the inhabitants or their predecessors
The wild is a natural part of life. The wild is something to be controlled, dominated, tamed, feared, or revered.
There is little inertia in the choice of camping places. Only localized resources, such as water sources or particularly attractive stands of plant foods, will tend to induce people to camp longer in one place or return to a place where they camped before The built environment creates inertia in settlement: because of the capital investment, people are reluctant to abandon a settlement in favour of a new location. They will also tend to incorporate parts of older structures into their new ones to avoid the cost of demolition
Because the camp is "open," with only relatively flimsy windbreaks or huts, there is little or no physical barrier to sight, sound, or smell. There is a shared sensory experience and little or none of what we would recognize as privacy The built environment at least partially blocks, directs or restricts the trasmission of sensory information, including sight, sound and smell. There is the possibility of having a measure of privacy
There is little opportunity for concealment and little point to unsubstantiated display The last creates the opportunity for concealment as well as selected display. People can present themselves in a particular way to others outside their household
Organized into bands with relatively fluid membership and emphasis on kinship Organized at least partly by household, sometimes with increasing emphasis on individuals. Kinship supplemented by other structuring mechanisms (place, class, occupation). The concept of neighbours.
Ethic of sharing food and other resources within band Sharing within households, more formal kinds of exchange between households and between communities, sometimes competitive exchange
Accumulation of wealth discouraged Display of wealth common
Little or no control over access to space Built environment allows control over accessibility of spaces valued for privacy/ideology/food storage/wealth
Food usually consumed over short time, not commodified Food is commodified, stored, redistributed. The labour that produces food is also commodified. Control over labour forces can be very important.
Conflicts within the band usually resolved by emmigration or band fission Higher population densities lead to greater need for ways to avoid or resolve conflicts. The built environment helps to do this by controlling face-to-face interactions.
Sequential tasks more common Compartmentalization of activities and roles facilitates simultaneous tasks

 Readings   Recommended references

Ingold, Tim (2000). Building, dwelling, living: How animals and people make themselves at home in the world. Pp. 172-188 in The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Routledge, London.

Wilson, Peter (1988). The Domestication of the Human Species.

Last Update 27 December 2003

Contents and design copyright E. B. Banning 2001-2004