The Natufians of the Levant




Case 1.3.  Natufian Reapers: A Case of Storing Foragers


Effective farming is known to have been established in the Levant about 9 thousand B.P.; but between 14 thousand and 10 thousand B.P., there emerged simple hunter-gatherers known collectively as the Kebarans.  After 11 thousand B.P. archaeologists noticed the presence of pestles, mortars on higher ground, which were implements used to process harvests of wild seeds and nuts.  The climate was becoming increasingly arid and warmer; but grains and nuts had adapted to the higher terrain of the hill country and these foragers were beginning to focus on harvesting nature’s wild crops.  This was to have monumental importance to their survival and for the development of social complexity.

Archaeologists call these reapers the Natufians.  Their culture expanded rapidly to the edges of the Mediterranean zone within about 1,500 years, during the short cycle of wetter climate (Fagan 1995:169-170; Henry 1995).  Radiocarbon dating shows that the Natufian hunter-gatherers appeared right around the time of the Bølling-Allerød Interstadial, a warm period that began 14,500 years ago and lasted until the beginning of the Younger Dryas Stadial (a.k.a. “the Big Freeze”) that was a geologically brief cold climate period between approximately 12,800 and 11,500 B.P.

When the climate warmed, woodlands of pistachio, almonds, olive and oak began to flourish in the hills of the Levant, along with lush fields of wild wheat and barley.  The Natufians continued to hunt deer and gazelle as had been their habit as hunter-gatherers; but they also began to change their lifestyle.  They became sedentary; built permanent houses of stone and wood (with smaller satellite encampments for those hunting and foraging); ritually buried their dead in or around their houses; ground up wild cereal grains and nuts with grinding slabs, mortars and pestles; used animal bones to make tools and art (wall paintings, figurines and jewelry); and settled into communities that sometimes comprised several hundred people.  They also had axes, which archaeologists think were used to clear forests to enhance the growth of wild foods.  As hunter-gatherers who harvested and processed wild foods, the Natufians were the “next-to-last stop on the long road to farming” (Balter 2010:404).

Clearly, the Natufians were more complex foragers than their predecessors, the Kebarans.  They harvested wild emmer wheat and barley as well as nuts, which were highly productive resources that could easily be stored.  Storage became a way of life for the Natufians.  Their storage bins were not unsophisticated, even when compared to those in more advanced Neolithic farming communities.  Storage as a way of life became a stimulus for change.  The result from such storing was larger settlements, surrounded by outlying camps where the harvesting and processing took place.  Processed crops were then transported to the main settlement for storage.

That the Natufians were involved in harvesting emmer can be seen in the fact that it has been found in village storage bins and shows signs of morphological change from its wild state (Noy et. al. 1973).  Repeated harvesting of wild foods can alter their morphology; but also eating grains can produce dental changes in humans and this has been observed in Natufian skeletons recovered archaeologically in the Levant (Dahlberg 1960). 

Yet another indicator of change is that the Natufians made a transition to a broader pattern of exploiting existing resources, with not only an increasing focus on grains and nuts; but also a noticeable pattern of change in the fauna harvested.  When they could, the Natufians killed large ungulates; but the archaeological record at Natufian sites shows that as time passed they utilized more and more non-mammalian and invertebrate species, both terrestrial and aquatic (Flannery 1969).  The move into aquatic species is also evidenced by recovered harpoons and fishhooks of bone from such sites as the Mt. Carmel Caves (Garrod 1958).

These hunter-gatherers were not simply picking a small quantity of food for immediate consumption, something non-storing hunter-gatherers had been doing for eons.  Rather, they were collecting wild grains and nuts for storage.  They were becoming hunter-gatherer-storers.  As reported by Kuijt and Finlayson (2009), recent excavations at Dhra′ near the Dead Sea in Jordan provide robust evidence for sophisticated, purpose-built granaries in Natufian groups that had not yet moved to full-blown agriculture (ca. 11,300–11,175 B.P.).  These scholars contend that their findings support the idea that Natufians were involved in the deliberate cultivation of wild cereals in the Natufian Era, “nudging nature,” so to speak.  

Designed with suspended floors for air circulation and protection from rodents, the granaries were located between residential structures that contained plant-processing stations. The storage bins represent a critical evolutionary shift in the relationship between people and plant foods, which preceded the emergence of domestication and large-scale sedentary communities by at least 1,000 years.

In addition to storage bins, archaeologists have recovered the basic Natufian toolkit, which included querns, grinding slabs, mortars, pestles and bone sickles with inlaid microlithic flint blades.  Apparently, the Natufians were foraging a combination of wild and managed resources, which illustrates a major intensification of human-plant relationships.  These were “farmers” in the sense that they were harvesting wild crops and perhaps prodding them along with selective care.  It was the beginning of a revolution that would rock the world (see Jared Diamond’s 1987 article: “The worst mistake in the history of the human race”).  

The Natufians were on the road to domesticating plants and the Natufian burials also show another form of domestication.  Several graves contained human bodies along with dogs (Davis and Valla 1978).  Sheep have also been found in PPNA levels (Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period ca. between 11,500-10,500 B.P.) at Jericho (Clutton-Brock and Uerpmann 1974).

I am interested in the Natufians because they began to store wild crops and my thesis is that storage of foodstuffs altered society, bringing hierarchy into human life.  This would have begun as the development of segments within society e.g., descent groups and cults.  There is some indication that the Natufians were developing a strong ancestor cult, which some scientists take as an indication that corporate descent groups were forming as domestication proceeded.  At Jericho clay ancestral figurines were uncovered (Garstang & Garstang 1948) and later Kenyon (1954, 1957) found modeled plaster skulls.  Since her initial find, other plaster likenesses have been unearthed in different sites and the artisans producing the plastered skulls were working within the framework of powerful on-site traditions (Goren, Goring-Morris & Segal 2001).  In other words, the production of the plaster skulls was not an isolated event; but part of a traditional effort to immortalize one’s ancestors and establish a kin group’s linkage to them.

What caused the Natufians to begin to “nudge” nature, harvesting and storing wild grains and nuts?  It seems that the impetus was climatic.  As time passed the area was becoming drier and the wild cereal crops were moving successively uphill as the valley floor was drying out.  The Natufians simply followed the uphill movement.  They still had nuts in the fall and gazelle had remained plentiful; but as aridity increased the cereals and the grasses that fed the game were declining.  Some scientists believe that this led the Natufians to begin to “nudge” nature by selectively planting cereals in prime locations to augment nature’s efforts (Childe 1936; 1952; Bar-Yosuf 1998). 

But storing and cultivation were not the only options to stressed Natufians.  Some made this transition; but other data indicate that when faced with the onset of arid conditions in the Levant, some Natufians also became more mobile, pursuing traditional hunter-gatherer techniques for survival (Munro 2004).  In other words, instead of moving “forward” to full-blown agriculture, they reverted to their previous mobile hunting and gathering lifestyle elsewhere.  Of course, evolution is not linear, nor did the Natufians know that soon agriculture would become the dominant way of life in the world and that hunter-gatherers would become marginalized in a predominately agricultural world.

Those who did choose to focus on harvesting wild grains and nuts gave up their mobile lifestyle and settled down, becoming both hunter-gatherers and reapers of wild foods.  Beyond traditional foraging, these Natufians began to do something different – they reaped and stored their harvests.  That the Natufians used nuts and cereals is evidenced in the food-processing tools found by researchers and, most recently, by new research at Dederiyeh Cave in Northwest Syria.  There, archaeologists found remains of stone buildings occupied between 14,000 and 13,000 B.P., one of which was heavily burnt, charring and preserving many plant remains.  Researchers found that nearly 90% of the 12,000 plant fragments studied come from pistachio and almond trees.  They also found significant amounts of wild wheat.  These findings show that Natufian plant use was intensive, knowledgeable, and complex; but as yet there are no signs that the Natufians actually cultivated plants at Dederiyeh rather than simply collecting them wild.

Why did some Natufians choose to abandon the mobile lifestyle of the past?  Bar-Yosef, Anna Belfer-Cohen of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and other researchers have argued that the Late Natufian culture was a response to the cold, dry conditions, which shrank the resource-rich forests and made wheat and barley more scarce.  They contend that the region's hunter-gatherers turned to agriculture to cope with this scarcity.

Yet some scientists doubt that there was an environmental crisis or that the Natufians turned to agriculture to cope with dire conditions.  Since in the Late Natufian there are signs of increased mobile hunting and gathering, some say that the increased mobility was not a likely "trigger for agriculture" and may have in fact postponed it.  Barbara Bender (1978; 1985) believes that since hominids and humans have long been involved in alliance and exchange, this fact would have created debts on the part of some who could not repay return gifts unless they intensified their economic activities.  For her, the impetus to agriculture came from social causes, rather than environmental ones.  Following this theory to the Natufian situation, one would see that they were preconditioned to create agriculture when other pressures came to bear. 

Whatever the causes, eventually agriculture did develop in the Levant.  Some archaeologists have concluded that farming began not during the cold, dry climate that hit Natufian culture at its height; but only after warm, moist conditions were restored about 11,600 B.P.  In this theoretical stance, prehistoric peoples were both forced into agriculture by growing populations that fostered renewed sedentism and enticed by the increased rainfall and milder climates that made farming more attractive and less risky.  




It seems that the Natufians were “nudgers” of nature.  The concept of “nudging” is not fanciful.  There is ethnographic evidence that hunter-gatherers are known to help nature along by caring for plants they wish to harvest.  For example, the Andaman Islanders avoid digging their favorite tubers during the season of new growth in order to ensure a better crop later.  They also protect the seed crop of other wild harvested plants (Heizer 1955:5).  Professor Heizer also reported that in Wisconsin the Menomini Amerindians purposely allowed some of their harvested wild rice to fall back into the water to ensure a better harvest the next year.  Additionally, Professor Julian Steward (1929) gave an account of the Owens Valley Paiute, who lived in hunting and gathering bands; but who irrigated wild food sources to augment nature’s efforts at production.  Steward said that the Paiutes were observed artificially reproducing natural conditions that existed in the swampy lowlands of their world in East Central California.

Lawton et. al. (1976) observed that this “nudging” should be considered a form of vegeculture by hunter-gatherers.  Other scientists also provide documentation of various California Amerindians who engaged in environmental manipulations such as burning of woodland-grass, chaparral and coniferous forest zones to enhance plant and animal food resources (van Zeist 1967; Lawton et. al. 1976:14).  My research in Northern Ghana brought home to me that people living in nature are intimately involved with manipulating their environment, in this case by Sisala men burning the bush to enhance their farming and hunting efforts.  It is clear to me that prehistoric humans would have had very specific knowledge of their surroundings and would have experimented with ways to influence nature’s efforts when that seemed in their best interest.

For example, Professor Kroeber (1925:220) reported that the Pomo Amerindians of Northwest California altered stream courses to enhance the runs of certain desirable fish.  Heizer (1955) reported similarly on several Amerindians and the nomadic hunting Yukaghir of Northeast Asia, all of whom helped nature along.  A researcher who studied the pygmies of the Ituri rain forest in central Africa reports that the people there discard fruit pits and defecate while returning from foraging/hunting trips along paths that were then lined with fruit trees, which provide them with even more fruit from their (intended?) orchard while traveling these corridors (Laden 1992).  While the pygmies may not initially intend to grow orchard rows of fruit trees, the hunting and gathering Gidjingarli of Australia did plant or “encourage” foods in nature they especially liked, as reported by Flood (1982:226).  What is more, the hunting and gathering Klamath Amerindians of the west coast of North America grew plums at their base camps, which they transported there from the tree’s natural habitat elsewhere (Hayden 1995:274).  Humans clearly have the capacity to notice natural processes and enhance them, even without becoming “true farmers” and this is even behavior characteristic of non-human primates (Hayden 1995:274).

With such intimate knowledge of nature it is logical that hunter-gatherers could have, if necessary, augmented nature’s efforts.  If any hunter-gatherers felt stressed they had the appropriate information to make the transition from hunting to “nudge-a-culture” then to agriculture.  It appears that the Natufians were among the first to do so.  In the Natufian interaction with a changing and stressing environment – according to some archaeologists – they were “prodded” toward true agriculture.  This dynamic would be repeated in many parts of the world in the next few centuries e.g., archeological information points to two other centers of early cultivation, central Mexico and the middle Yangtze River in China that led to the emergence of complex civilizations (Bar-Yosuf 1998). 

It is likely that there was no single cause of the development of agriculture; but rather a variety of factors which came together in various parts of the world to produce a new economic way of life that would then spread by diffusion.  The move to agriculture involved a process of interactions between human beings and their environment and was not just a single event that occurred in Natufian culture; but rather one that spread rapidly around the world in a matter of approximately 8 thousand years (Cohen 1977:5).  Thus, within the blink of a geological eye, humans went from being largely non-storers to having great stores of food the required management.




Case 1.4.  Natufian Stores & the Emergence of Hierarchy


Recent excavations at Dhra′, Gilgal I, Netiv Hagdud, and WF 16 illustrate that at the end of the cold Younger Dryas climatic period (between 12,800 and 11,500 B.P.) for the first time Natufians started to live in larger communities that were based, at least in part, upon systematic large-scale food storage of cultivated plants, the first people in the history of the world to do so, based on our current knowledge.  Their economic activities were tipping over into true agriculture.  These actions initiated changes in wild plant foods, and although the vegetation was not morphologically changed into domesticated plants, some of the plants used in the PPNA (Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period ca. between 11,500-10,500 B.P.) were undergoing changes as a result of economic intensification and selecting desirable wild crops (Kuijt & Finlayson 2009).

The presence of a surplus that had to be stored evolved in the Natufian Era.  Excavations at Dhra′ in Jordan indicate that the early granaries were located in external locations between other buildings.  Starting about 10,500 B.P., food storage began to be located inside houses and within the next thousand years we see dedicated storage rooms appearing in Natufian villages.  This transition from extramural to intramural storage system probably reflects changing systems of ownership and property, with PPNA granaries being used and owned communally but with later granaries becoming owned by households.  A process of individualization was afoot, evidenced in a shift from communalism to corporatism, that is the move from a relatively unsegmented society to one with inwardly-looking units – usually family groups.

This transition from non-storing to a storing way of life was not a trivial one since it required a great investment in labor.  For example, the PPNA granaries were sophisticated constructions with air flow to prevent mold, a slopped floor to thwart excessive water accumulation and protection against rodents.  Remnants of morphologically wild barley, lentils and oats have been found in them.  Radiocarbon dating indicates the granaries were constructed about 9900 years ago.  While these seeds were wild, their storage in great amounts show that the early Neolithic peoples were intervening in natural processes to harvest, treat and store wild grains and legumes.  Kuijt & Finlayson (2009) indicate that these complex storage systems with subfloor ventilation were a precocious development that preceded the emergence of almost all of the other aspects of the Near Eastern Neolithic package – domestication, large-scale sedentary communities, and the embedding of a degree of social complexity.  The authors indicate that storage necessitates changes in social structure, observed by researchers both in evidence of increasing corporate activities and the development of hierarchical structures.  Storage also represented a critical form of risk management and economic intensification.

Another indication of the nucleation or decreasing communitarianism of the PPNA Natufian village is seen in the fact that the inward-oriented construction pattern of the houses points to living spaces for nuclear families in Southern Levantine communities, while in the north larger, multi-cellular dwellings still predominated, where presumably communitarian values remained stronger (Banning & Byrd 1988:70).  The authors indicate that such Southern Levantine houses probably were constructed to maximize privacy and personal storage space and may have contained private granaries.

We are interested in such granaries for what they stimulate in terms of social change.  Testart (1982) indicates that food storage, population growth, sedentism and social inequality are often inter-connected behavioral phenomena.  The Natufian data support this.  With greater sedentism, increased birth rates and increased quality and quantity of domesticated foods, we see the foundation for political and economic developments.  Increased wealth rarely goes without political changes in order to manage and defend the surplus.

The ancient town of Jericho is an example of a Natufian settlement that seemed to need to defend its stored wealth.  It had a watchtower, a perimeter wall and at least three ditches dug beyond the wall (Kenyon 1954, 1957; Bar-Yosuf 1988).  Dame Kenyon interprets these fortifications as defenses against repeated incursions by nomadic raiders.  Professor Palumbo (1987) also sees evidence in the archaeological data collected at Jericho of social stratification.

Further data pointing toward hierarchy in the PPNA Natufian culture comes in the form of monumental buildings, which were actively functioning in the inter-group and intra-group levels.  At the inter-group level, the monumental edifices served as a means to establish command over an area with favorable resources.  At the intra-group level, the buildings functioned to establish and and regulate new types of socioeconomic relations.  Central themes in the changes occurring at this level included intensification of production and the growing prominence of long-term delayed-return obligations within the socioeconomic system (Naveh 2003).  The changing economy was clearly having an effect on social relations, making them more hierarchical.

For our purposes, what is important and interesting is that among the Natufian hunter-gatherer-“nudgers” we see signs of emerging social hierarchy accompanying the storing of cereal and nut crops.  While archaeologists cannot recover all the human interactions associated with hierarchy and the emergence of leadership, burials reveal that some Natufians were being interred as élites, their grave goods contrasting with commoner burials.  The single most important symbol of élitism in Natufian grave goods was the presence of dentalium seashells; but decorated graves also included bone necklaces, perforated fox teeth, partridge-joint pendants and other items not found in undecorated graves (Belfer-Cohen 1988:302).  There are also indicators that family-group burials were important, signifying the rise of the corporate nature of the family in society (Byrd & Monahan 1995).

At Ur graves from around 4,700 B.P. show that four important personages were buried with their retinues, including one grave with more than 40 women and men killed to accompany the big man to the beyond.  All were gaily bedecked in gold jewelry and a smashed harp, which was presumably destroyed when the grave was filled in, indicates that someone was playing music as the group drank poison (Snell 1997:22-23).  This may have been an important chieftain or king, because such burials were not common in the Natufian Era.

Data on hierarchy in Natufian sites shows that there appeared to be a move toward emphasizing community control over the individual, perhaps as a means of dealing with potentially fissive social, environmental or economic changes being experienced (Kuijt 1996:332).  It appears that in the Late Natufian Era (12,800–11,500 B.P.), when nascent agricultural production had begun, individual striving and hierarchy were becoming a problem and, according to Kuijt, counter-revolutionary moves were being made to emphasize older concepts of egalitarianism.  It seems there was a struggle afoot between group values and the rising power of families and aggrandizing individuals.  Social cohesion was being brought into question by the divisive influences of the new economics (Kuijt 1996:333). 

Professor Kuijt believes that there could have been fear of the loss of influence by those witnessing the rise of one family’s power due to their economic advantage.  It would appears that there was emerging conflict in society between egalitarian values and the new way of life brought on by agricultural production. 

As I have indicated in this present work, the transition to centralized leadership would not have been an easy one and the Natufian data support this view.  There would have been a struggle between individuals and families that wanted to continue with the ways of the classless past and those individuals and families advantaged by fortune in the new way of life based on a significant investment in storing.




Why Did Foragers Begin Farming?


Until recently, there was an assumption that farming was better than foraging and that hunter-gatherers jumped at the chance to become farmers.  Note this passage in the well-known book, Plough and Pasture (Curwen 1953:3):


… food gathering has obvious disadvantages, among which two predominate.  First, with the exception of fish the wild produces of nature are not sufficiently abundant to support more than a very small population, and existence under such conditions is extremely precarious.  Secondly, the whole of your energy would be consumed in the quest for food, leaving none for any other kind of activity or for material or mental advancement.  As a result life would be lived on the lowest level by a scanty, scattered, and wandering population, with little hope of improvement.


Of course, such prejudiced misconceptions have been dispelled by archaeologists and anthropologists, most famously the “original affluent society” hypothesis put forward by Marshall Sahlins (1972) in which he notes that with much less work than farmers must do, hunter-gatherers obtain a more than adequate diet.  In fact, foragers work much less and have more leisure time than farmers.

We know that not all foragers did switch to farming.  Some remained foragers when faced with population pressure or other problems in the environment by simply moving away to find new terrain to exploit.  As population pressure increased after the last Ice Age, some even moved into relatively harsh environments and adapted their hunting and gathering skills to fit in such marginal lands e.g., the Eskimos of the Arctic or the Ju/’hoansi of the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa. 

Other foragers innovated.  As populations grew and pressure on the land increased, some foragers took a second approach – they stayed put but changed their sources of food e.g., the Northwest Coast Amerindians who began to supplement their forest foods with marine resources (see these cases: Case 1.5., Case 3.4., Case 4.7., & Case 4.10).  Those fortunate enough to have ample natural resources such a great salmon runs and abundant sea animals never had the need or desire to begin farming.  Some of these hunter-gatherers later came into contact with farming folk and rejected agriculture as a way of life.

The third strategy, a variant of staying put and changing the resource base, was to intensify the existing food resources, the approach that eventually led to effective farming.  This was a gradual process, one that took place at different times in different places on the globe. 

When thinking about this monumental shift from foraging to agriculture it is important to remember that foragers knew their environment very well.  As Kent Flannery (1986) has pointed out, hunter-gatherers were always involved in economic behavior and in their foraging activities they had to know their fauna and flora intensely, the result of observing natural processes and forms.  Such knowledge would have been passed from generation to generation, accumulating in a focused body of oral natural history.

When faced with pressures from population growth or environmental stresses in a circumscribed state (when they could not easily move to greener pastures) some stressed foragers began to modify their collective memories regarding past economic behavior.  This led to modification of the existing food resources, beginning with the first attempts simply to alter the densities of specific plants (Reynolds 1986).  For instance, Flannery & Reynolds combined computer simulation with excavation of Guilá Naquitz Cave in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico to determine how this transition occurred there.  They concluded that once stressed, foragers began to experiment with “nudging nature” and their efforts paid off.  They continued to modify their behavior, which in turn altered the seeds and plants they had begun to intensely exploit.

One strategy associated with incipient agriculture was storage, both as a food source and as seed to plant.  In the case of Guilá Naquitz, it appears that climatic changes forced these early Amerindians to become more efficient gatherers of maize seed and to grow beans, which allowed them to reduce their search area and become sedentary farmers.  Such early foragers experimenting with augmenting nature’s way would not have seen themselves as doing anything radical; but rather as simply getting food in a natural world.  “Nudging nature” and then farming more effectively in a fixed area were simply, to them, variants of the same process – making a living by observing natural processes. 


The Need for Storage


My thesis is that the advent of storing food stimulated the rise of aggrandizing leaders and greater complexity in society.  Much of my argument rests on the fact that once stores of food came into existence in human life aggrandizers rose up to control this stored wealth.  But why did people begin to store food in the first place?  All the evidence anthropologists have about hunting and gathering societies today indicates that they, as non-storing hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic, do not store large quantities of food.  Nature is their larder and they do not need to hedge against starvation by creating artificial stores.

Yet with rising population densities brought on by the invention of agriculture early Neolithic peoples such as the Natufians faced a reduction in available food resources.  Concomitantly, in general, people face and fear lean months in the winter and seasonal fluctuations that create shortages of food.  In other words, as populations grew in the Neolithic, people stored food as a hedge against seasonal and catastrophic shortages.   

One traditional hedge against hunger was to revert to foraging; but in the Levant there are data that indicate that wild resources, such as the antelope that Natufians hunted, were disappearing along with the wild grains that fed them and the people who harvested the grains.  It is logical that when faced with such diminishing returns, these early Neolithic peoples would have tried to store up food and build up their herds of animals, once animals had become domesticated.

There is also the personality factor.  Some aggressive people may wish to display more stored food than their fellows in a community, just as people like to have jewelry and craft items as indicators of status.  When we couple storage of food with the fact that all populations contain some aggrandizers, as food production in the early Neolithic created excess food, it is not unlikely that aggrandizers moved to harness and control larger amounts than their fellows.  Their motivation may have been economic or psychological or a combination of both.

We have data that bear on this human tendency from hunting and gathering societies who stumbled into rich resource areas and became hunter-gatherer-fishers. 




Case 1.5.  Pacific Northwest Coast Storers


It is important to note at this juncture in the book that what we saw with the Natufians is that when foragers began to store food their social structure became more complex.  We will see the same result with the forager/fishers of the Pacific Northwest Coast of America.  Anciently the  storing Amerindians of the Northwest Coast lived in an area, roughly from the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington to Southern Alaska, a region that abounded in marine and estuary resources, as well as inland game and forage – a virtual “hunter’s paradise” (Oberg 1973:8).


If our assumption that Paleolithic non-storing peoples didn’t store food because it was so abundant in nature, why do we find the Amerindians of the Northwest Coast hoarding great stores of food when they lived in a veritable “horn of plenty?”  Paleolithic peoples in general lived in a world of low population densities (Johnson & Earle 1987:54-61).  Even periodic shortages of food would not have created the need to store because they could fall back on plenty of other types of food still available in nature.  If one kind of food was not available, foragers could simply switch to another type of food.  Low densities of roaming bands did not place too much stress on the resource base.

Various factors explain Northwest Coast stores.  In the case of the Northwest Coast Amerindians the rich resources produced high population densities and competition for resources.  Furthermore, since they became linked with seafood capture, they were forced into creating seaside villages, becoming sedentary.  Yet again, great surpluses of food were only possible in very good years and storage was a means of coping with seasonal and calamitous shortages of food e.g., when the runs of salmon and candlefish (eulachon) were low.  They did exploit the foods of the forest; but the great fish runs provided an attractive and storable source of protein, which is harder to get by hunting.  With the construction of nets, weirs and some stream diversion they could accumulate vast quantities of food with much less effort than it would have taken to amass the same amount of protein-rich meat by hunting.

Another factor in Northwest Coast storage was trade.  For example, the oil of the candlefish could be processed and stored and used to trade for desirable goods produced elsewhere.  Johnson & Earle (1987:163) quote the book Gathering What the Great Nature Provided (1980:89) saying, that being storable, the oil of the candlefish was used as a preservative and additive to dried foods and played an important role in the political economy because its attraction was “like the lure of gold.”  Not all peoples of the Northwest Coast had access to the candlefish runs, so those who did traded the extracted oil for other trade items, even trading the oil well into the interior along trails that came to be known as the “grease trails” (Stewart 1994:149-150).  Since there was differential access to the candlefish and salmon runs, some people got rich off of their abundant fishing harvests and the Northwest Coast became, over time, heavily stratified, even developing a system of slavery.

A grease trail was an overland trade route, part of a network of trails connecting the Pacific Coast with the interior in the Pacific Northwest.  Trails were developed for trade between indigenous people, particularly the trade in candlefish oil.  The grease from these small fish could be traded for furs, copper and obsidian, among other things.  The Stó:lō people of the Fraser River simply ate the fish, either fresh or smoked; but the people of the interior used the oil in cooking, as medicine, as body oil, as a preservative and in various other ways.

People living off of nature have a natural cycle of work and rest.  In early spring along the Northwest Coast those peoples who owned spots along the rivers where Candlefish would spawn fished for them and had to spend a great deal of time processing them for their precious oil.  The late spring saw individual families scattering to hunt, fish and collect roots and greens, since their winter stores were becoming inedible and they desired fresh foods to replenish their stores.  In August and September their heaviest labor time came in as they had to deal with the great runs of salmon.  Both the runs of Candlefish and Salmon required heavy labor invested in constructing the fishing equipment, actual fishing and then processing and preserving the fish.  Many fish were stored for the winter, which was a time of collective residence, rest and intense socializing and ceremonial activity.

Storage was for consumption in the leisure time of winter, when nature did not provide as much food as in the other three seasons.  During their leisure hours, besides socializing and participating in ceremonies, the Amerindians of the coast worked on their canoes, large fish weirs, smokehouses, sheds, drying racks, tables and their homes; but in an unhurried fashion rather different from the frenzy of capturing the fish as they made their runs up the rivers of the Northwest Coast. 

They also constructed large cedar boxes, carefully carved and sewn together so tight that they held water and were used for cooking by dropping hot stones into the water. They were also used for storage of oil, berries, seaweed cakes and other preserves, as were earthen cellars (Stewart 1994:145).  And they carved those now famous sanctified totem poles.

In the late spring, the economic cycle would begin again.  In this summer/winter movement, the psychological core of the Northwest Coast Amerindian existence, was in the coastal winter village, where the ancestral house and its attendant totem poles were located and where most ceremonies were performed.  In the summer, when they traveled, they lived in less permanent structures.  Revealingly, the Kwakiutl had a pithy saying: “the summer is secular, the winter is sacred” (Boas 1966:172).

But privilege and stratification lurked in the great runs of fish.  In this economic round some households accumulated great wealth, while others did not.  The natural environment of the Northwest Coast offered abundance for some, with unpredictable fluctuations for others.  In some key fishing locales, and in certain seasons of good fish runs, resources were abundant; while in others they were comparatively scarce.  This differential was made all the more severe because some families created a built environment in key fishing spots that gave them an economic leg up. 

The wealthy households had enormous stores of dried fish and eulachon oil, the primary sources of wealth along the coast.  This economic differential occurred because of the fact that some original settlers to the area established ownership of key fishing venues along the prime salmon- and eulachon-run rivers.  By building substantial fish traps in these areas they were able to amass vast hoards of fish and oil, while those without such key fishing holes were left with marginal fishing. 

Large stores of fish and oil gave the wealthy households an economic advantage in several ways.  With extra dried fish and/or eulachon oil they could more easily trade for desirable items in the interior e.g., furs, blankets, obsidian and metals.  Secondly, they could sell their harvests to those coastal people in need.  Some households along the rivers periodically experienced bad runs of fish and needed to buy food.  Thirdly, in the great potlatch ceremonies common to people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, wealthy households could gain great prestige and power (see: Case 4.10).  Success in the potlatch ceremonies gave wealthy households an unequal advantage in gaining political ascendancy and community influence.  Abundance and surplus gave a new twist to the act of giving.  Those with excessive wealth could convert material goods into prestige and political clout by giving it away, or in some extreme cases, destroying it.  Some even killed slaves in order to elevate themselves (Leland 1997: Chapter 8).

If there were advantages to becoming wealthy in the Northwest Coast, there were disadvantages as well.  Not only were there social responsibilities to kinsmen; but highly productive localized fisheries were natural targets for raiding parties (Barnett 1968; Gunther 1972; Drucker 1963; 1965; Maschner 1997).  Such raiders were always in search of booty and slaves; but true warfare also existed, the basis of which was the desire to drive out or eliminate a household with prime fishing territory (Drucker 1955:136).  Warfare is part of the legends of the area and archaeologists have uncovered evidence of defensive sites going back about five thousand years, as well as weapons and body armor made of wooden slats bound by sinew. 

A wealthy household that could not maintain its integrity against aggressive neighbors was sure to be driven out.  Leading men countered such aggression by building defenses, keeping arms and making political and military alliances.  Their aim was to protect their stores of fish and oil and their prime fishing locations.  In the Northwest Coast, as elsewhere, stores of wealth were prime targets of warriors, raiders and invaders (Martin & Frayer 1997).




Certainly, sedentary living goes hand in hand with storing food, but there are many ethnographic examples of peoples who live in permanent villages and who participate in the house-field complex and who have not been able to develop social complexity beyond the level of a kinship order.  Historically greater complexity usually occurred when there is a storable-stealable-surplus that stimulated aggrandizers to develop an institutional frame that mediated the community’s process of engaging nature.  On the other hand we have historical examples of other kinds of stimuli that awakened aggressive men and led to the formation of chiefdoms e.g., in pre-colonial Africa the arrival of Europeans desirous of purchasing slaves set off a series of events that cause many sleepy communities to become slave raiding machines e.g., the Niger Delta states in West Africa.  The rise of Bonny, for example, led to a state through which 20,000 slaves a year passed (Mendonsa 2007:286-287).  Prior to European demand for slaves their tiny surpluses of wealth did not ignite the passion for dominance that came once a really grand form of wealth was available – captured slaves taken from the Igbo hinterlands. 

We can say that sedentism was the bedrock of storage and the accumulation of significant wealth was the fuel for warfare.  Peter Wilson (1988) noted that the move from mobile hunting and gathering to settled farm life was significant:


The adoption of the house as the permanent context of social and economic life also marks a major development in cosmological thinking.  Open societies have available to them as tools for thought language and such features of the natural environment as animal, landmarks, topographies and the like.  But their artifacts are limited by the need for portability, and their nomadism restricts the range of communication of their art somewhat.  With settlement comes a proliferation of material culture and with the house is made available what has proved to be the most powerful practical symbol until the invention of writing.  In many domesticated societies the house is appropriated to mediate and synthesize the natural symbols of both the body and the landscape.  At the same time it provides the environment and context for social life.  The adoption of the house and the village also ushers in a development of the structure of social life, the elaboration of thinking about the structure of the world and the strengthening of the links between the two (quoted in Renfrew 2007:121-122).


But again, sedentism and the storage of wealth are bedfellows and Professor Renfrew (2007:122) notes this when, referring to village life, he says: “Here the accumulation of wealth becomes an obvious possibility.  The way is open also to the appropriation of property and to differentiation in terms of property: the roots of inequality.”  Food production was a concomitant of much sedentary life, a process that led to a profound change in lifestyle (Hodder 1990).

Let us say that it is significant wealth that stimulates aggressive men to develop structures to control the flow of wealth in society.  Sedentism facilitated the possibility of creating stores of wealth and those stores often did come to be controlled by chiefs; but there was another factor in history that was a concomitant to storage – warfare.  Historically, once there was significant wealth stored in permanent communities there were aggressive men who wanted to take that wealth.  Some of them were have-nots – roaming bands of barbarians who lived off the spoils of war; but others were wealthy kings who simply wanted more power, prestige and property.  What we can say is that sedentism, storage and warfare went hand in hand throughout history.  Each, in its own way, contributed to the rise of complex political economies in the past.

The Amerindians of the Northwest Coast were hunter-gatherer-fishers that developed a storage technology, warfare and became highly stratified; but most of the storing societies in history were farmers.  Agriculture is a seasonal activity in most environments, requiring storage of food for the off-season.  This required early farmers to increase their built environment, producing grain bins, jars, clay-lined pits and similar means of storing grains and legumes.  Food production also led people to settle down to a fixed habitat that provided arable ground and the post-Agricultural Revolution growth of population also contributed to sedentism since groups could not move about as was previously the case.  The house/field complex became a reality in the Agricultural Revolution.

Eventually people came to live in villages with stores of valuable food.  Shortages of land and food would have naturally led to disputes, a situation exacerbated in mixed farming[1] communities where people had domestic animals that were inclined to eat crops.  Also, it is highly likely that food shortages in ancient times would have increased conflict in communities.  There is evidence from the animal world that the competition for food can lead to aggressive behavior, even among siblings.  In some cases wild animal siblings kill each other to increase access to food when shortages occur (Halloway 1974; Drummond & Chavelas 1989).

Animal herds were one way to hedge against shortages of food, especially highly desirable animal protein.  Most farmers wanted animals, not only for their meat; but also for their milk and skins that could be used for clothing, tent coverings and even shields.  Consequently, people had to deal with the conflicts produced by having domesticated animals.

In my research in Northern Ghana I found that conflict sometimes broke out between farmers when the domestic animals of one family wandered into the farms of another and ate their crops.  In the early Neolithic no doubt similar disputes had to be managed, which required institutional mechanisms for dealing with conflict.  In many cases, as with the people I studied in Northern Ghana, these disputes were largely handled by headmen of kin groups; but chiefship was also a solution, as we will see in chapter 5.

Domestic animals may cause problems; but they are also forms of storage.  They are “calories on the hoof,” so to speak; while granaries holding grain, peas or beans are another way of storing calories.  In my studies of farming in Northern Ghana, Sisala farmers grew yam tubers, which had the advantage of not requiring storage, as they could be left in the ground until needed and they could be easily carried back to the village in small amounts.  The threat of theft was sometimes dealt with by one member of the kin group living at the farm, which because of free-roaming goats and sheep in the village, had to be in the distant bush. 

Both yams and grains were also protected by ritual means, no doubt fabricated by early farmers as a supernatural means of deterring human thieves.  These safeguards involved magical symbols and shrines placed in the fields to prevent thieving.  Storage of grain was different.  It had to be transported from the farms to storage bins in the village where it could be more adequately protected from thieves, insects, rodents and mildew.  Therefore, growing grain crops produced security but also transport problems.  Foragers could more easily bring their food back to camp as needed without such problems, since food was consumed more or less immediately.  Farmers had many more issues revolving around the transport and storage of food.

In mixed-farming communities with domesticated animals there were other issues.  In Ghana I saw some groups who tethered their animals in order to have their crops grow close to their dwellings; but that required a great deal of labor.  Animals had to be moved several times during the day.  Most chose to have their fields at a distance in order to have free-roaming goats and sheep.  This then produced a transport problem, solved in Northern Ghana by human labor, that is, women carrying containers of maize, beans, millet and guinea-corn back to granaries in the village.  Sort of an interim solution was to have small, wattle-fenced kitchen gardens next to the house out of which a family could eat some food without going to the farm to procure it.  That cut out some of the transport problem; but also required labor to construct and maintain the wattle-fences.  Furthermore, in my village there were several clever goats who seemed highly skilled in finding holes in the garden fences, which became a source of conflict between villagers.

Paleolithic foragers had no fertilization problem; but Neolithic farmers did.  Fixed fields without periodic fertilization lose their productive power over time.  There were two solutions:  apply manure or other means of revitalizing the soil on fixed fields; or move the fields periodically.  Most early farmers chose the slash-and-burn mode of farming, in which farmers cut brush and small trees in order to plant their crops.  In Ghana, Sisala farmers piled brush up against larger trees to burn them and then hacked at the charred wood to eventually topple the tree; but that could sometimes take a year or two, so they mostly farmed around large trees.  The slash-and-burn method produces a form of fertilizer in the ash created by burning; but it is one that cannot be sustained on cleared land indefinitely, so fields must be moved after a few years.  The problem was this: villages were difficult to move but fields could more easily be moved.  The general solution used by most early farmers was to rotate satellite fields around a fixed village, the same method still used by the Sisala in Northern Ghana.

The point is that the switch from foraging to farming produced massive transformations in lifestyle, changes that increased labor time, a drawback that was offset by the fact that farming produced more food, which could be stored against future shortages. 

But storage produced other difficulties for the early farmers.  Stores had to be managed and protected, creating organizational requirements that would have profound impact on the way humans were able to live as the Neolithic progressed.  The management of stores, disputes over food and other exigencies – such as the need to defend against raiders – brought leadership to the fore and gave aggrandizers an opportunity to establish themselves as headmen of various sorts.

Those few groups who continued to follow the non-storing foraging way of life did not develop hierarchical leadership; but farmers and herders did because, unlike simple foragers, they had to protect and manage their stored calories, a vital hedge against the real threat of hunger.

In spite of the need for renewing the soil by adding manure or intercropping, around 7,500 B.P. some farmers in Europe developed fixed-field farming coupled with herding cattle – a mixed farming mode.  Animal manure enabled fields to be more permanent.  The best-known early European farming culture is from Germany along the Middle Danube called Bandkeramik.  They also kept sheep, goats, dogs and pigs.  These farmers had to work hard to produce a surplus; but did so and became rather wealthy, so much so that, as time went by, and the Bandkeramik culture spread through Europe, they had to create defensive earthworks to protect their stores. 

They were also one of many early Neolithic peoples who interacted and traded with each other (Bogucki & Ryszard 1983) and apparently some of the interactions were hostile.  Not only were stores of crops vulnerable; but the Bandkeramik people kept large numbers of cattle and other livestock, which are especially vulnerable to theft, since they can more easily be driven away than stealing large stores of grain or legumes, which would have to be transported.

As Bandkeramik splinter groups migrated looking for land on which to settle, they searched for loess soils amenable to the use of hand-held hoes (Howell 1987).  Wherever they settled, they established villages with nearby fenced plots, which they maintained by fertilizing with cattle dung and domestic waste.  Fixed farms and sedentary residence lent itself to the development of inheritance from one generation to the next.  As Bar-Yosuf and Meadow (1995:41) note regarding Natufian societies in the Levant, “agriculture both depended upon and intensified a concern for real as well as productive and alienable property – a concern that was the essential foundation for the development of complex urban societies in the region during subsequent millennia.”

By adopting the sedentary fixed-field mode, these early farmers sowed the seeds of segmentation and hierarchy.  In the midst of an egalitarian culture, some family farms would naturally be advantaged, while others would have bad harvests or be forced to eek out a living on inferior soils.  This had to have put pressure on generalized reciprocity, which could more easily be practiced in a foraging context.




Case 1.6.  Emergent Complexity among Ancient Bandkeramik Farmers of Europe


The Bandkeramik culture was a new farming society that was producing food at the household level; but with cooperation between various descent groups within the settlement.  They helped one another to build houses, erect enclosures and guard cattle (Thomas 1987).  In this kin-based society there was a complex network of social relations that was developed to control productivity.  Kin units were becoming self-centered, while overall cultural values still lauded sharing between kin groups.  The new economic way of life, however, was straining old communitarian values.

The Bandkeramik are especially important to my theory of the rise of aggrandizement in storing societies in that this corporate kinship structure that developed in the fixed-field farming context was a springboard for the rise of individualism, as we shall see below.

Their corporate nature is evidenced in the archaeology of the Bandkeramik because about 6,500 B.P. these Neolithic farmers began burying their dead within distinctly marked kin units, indicating a notion of linearity consistent with the fact that their residences were longhouses (Hodder 1990). 

By about 4,800 B.P. another change in burial customs took place in the Bandkeramik of Central and Eastern Europe.  There we see, for the first time, individual burials.  This would seem to indicate that the previous group-based ethos was being replaced by new beliefs that were beginning to applaud individual achievement, power and prestige (Shennan 1993).  Brian Fagan (1995:273) writes:


By being buried separately, in a burial adorned with elaborate grave furniture, a prominent elder could take on the role of sole male ancestor, the fountain of authority over land ownership, a role now assumed by his successor.  Inheritance of land and wealth was now legitimized.


These elaborate grave goods also honored men who acted in life as warriors.  They included weapons such as daggers, swords, battle axes, as well as fine copper ornaments and drinking cups.  Clearly, personal achievement was now associated with aggressive males who were likely involved in expanding trade, defending villages and very likely aggressive warfare.  Luxury artifacts obtained by trade or war were becoming symbols of power and prestige.

Personal achievement was given a further boost with the development of plow agriculture (Sherratt 1981).  Around 4,600 B.P. the widespread use of the plow enabled production to go forward with fewer fieldworkers, releasing aggrandizers from the task of manual labor and freeing them to pursue power, prestige and property through control of trade, the assemblage of power structures and the domination of other people’s labor.  So in place of the dominance of corporate kin groups there arose a new social order – the chiefdom – in which individual success, prestige and the inheritance of land had become the ideal norm.  The twin technologies of the plow and storage bin were working against personal freedoms in the Bandermilk culture.




We see an evolutionary trajectory from communitarianism to corporatism to privatism in the Bandermilk case and at work in our study of prehistory and history.  Even in early farming societies of the Neolithic, groups were still basically egalitarian, with the family as the basic productive unit forming the center of a web of intricate ties and reciprocal social relations that united people, often around an ancestor cult (Champion et. al. 1984); but the seeds of new political institutions were being sown at the same time early Neolithic farmers were sowing their first emmer, barley and flax. 

In Europe giant stone structures called megaliths were being constructed that are a reminder that political developments were afoot in the early Neolithic.  These massive stone structures and chambers, Stonehenge in England being the most famous example, took a great deal of organization and direction to construct.  There are over 900 known stone circles in Britain, indicative of widespread organization (Wainwright 1989:12).  A henge monument is defined as “a circular area of variable size enclosed by a bank and a ditch, the former normally sited outside the latter and broken by one or more entrances” (Wainwright 1989:14).  Other monuments of ceremonial circle type, such as Standton Drew and Cefn Côch, are similar but lack the presence of a bank or ditch.

These massive undertakings seem to indicate that aggrandizers were coming to the fore to construct these edifices and their attendant symbols and cosmologies.  They did this to enhance their power and control, or that of their kin units, most likely in the form of supervised periodic rites eulogizing community ownership of the land and worship of communal ancestors. 

These efforts were not trivial pursuits.  Stonehenge, for example, was initially an ancestral burial ground that required at least 30 thousand worker-hours to complete (Chippindale 2004).  But these megaliths were more than shrines to the dead.  They were also community focal points supervised by leaders who built and maintained them, presiding at the ceremonies held there.  These were gigantic materializations of economic and spiritual power and prestige for those who supervised such worship.  They are lasting reminders that early Neolithic leaders were on the rise, using manifestations of power and ritual to coalesce their rule over communities.  Later in history these same yearnings would be expressed in the pyramids of Egypt, the step-temples of Mesoamerica, the Mo‘ai statues of Easter Island and the Great Zimbabwe (Case 1.13)

A megalith like Stonehenge was a process, not an event.  Stonehenge took some 1,500 years to construct under the supervision of a series of leaders.  Around 5,100 B.P. it began as a ditch in which the builders placed worked-flint tools and the bones of deer and oxen.  The bones were old and had been scrupulously cared for prior to burial.  About a hundred years later Stonehenge had regularly-spaced posts that formed an enclosed cremation cemetery.  By about 4,600 B.P. the builders abandoned the use of timbers and replaced them with stones, which were worked and reworked through the Bronze Age (ca. 3,800-2,700 B.P.). 

Stonehenge and the many other European megaliths were clearly important focal points for élites, some having power symbols carved in the stones e.g., crooks and axes.  They reinforced political, economic and ritual power of those who supervised the building and worship at such places.

Some authors have noted that mortuary services held at such monumental manifestations of linkage to the occult world functioned to establish, maintain or increase group solidarity by highlighting real or perceived links between living individuals and important groups and their dead (Rayner 1988).  Certain rituals, such as cranial deformation, skull caching and plastering, were likely ways in which certain living individuals felt it advantageous to highlight the lives of specific dead kin or previous leaders (Kuijt 2002:83). 

Thus we can think about mortuary rituals as focusing on the community or the individual; but my point is that aggrandizing individuals would have used the community aspect of ritual at monumental sites to elevate themselves in the process of seemingly highlighting the whole community.  Communalism would have been a convenient shield behind which they could maneuver themselves into the authoritative limelight.


[1] People having both domesticated plants and animals.

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