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(L31) Hunter-gatherers, farmers and the long Neolithic

Convenor: Bill Finlayson, Council for British Research in the Levant

Discussants: Graeme Warren, University College Dublin; Tobias Richter, Copenhagen University; Lisa Maher, University of California, Berkeley

Abstract: 21000 to 8000 years ago in SW Asia hunter-gatherers transformed into farmers, with research focus on the substance base, diverging from current anthropological perspectives focussing on hunter-gather ontologies. Should archaeologists start from social categorisation and what can anthropology learn from this long transition?

Keywords: Palaeolithic to Neolithic, SW Asia, subsistence, analogy

Format: roundtable with topics briefly introduced by speakers

Precirculated papers: background papers and informal discussion papers


The long Neolithic in SW Asia runs from 21,000, with people uncontroversially described as hunter-gatherers, to 8,000 years ago with people called farmers, with in-between terms employed to categorise societies and economies (complex hunter-gatherer, hunter-cultivator, low-level food producer). Early steps in economic intensification are interpreted through analogy with societies from the anthropological present, forcing societies categorised as hunter-gatherers to be understood in terms of hunter-gatherer ethnography, defaulting to 1970s ethnography: the heyday of the economic categorisation of hunter-gatherers. Defining prehistoric hunter-gatherers using economic data leads to divergence with modern cultural anthropology, which recognises that subsistence is a poor labelling category and focusses on ideology. Are SW Asian archaeologists looking at their evidence the wrong way, and would it be better to commence from data that provide social and ideological evidence?

Does archaeological evidence support the idea of a hunter-gatherer mode of thought continuing as economies change, allowing low level food producers to be interpreted as if they were hunter-gatherers, or does the quest for the origins of farming lead to over-interpretation of the significance and meaning of the social changes occurring? The search for origins produces a teleological approach that leads us to recognise the “end of hunting and gathering” while people are still doing things that fall well within the parameters of modern hunter-gatherers. The economic “purity” expected of ancient hunter-gatherers to avoid re-categorisation is not applied to modern hunter-gatherer societies, and many prehistoric  “farmers” might well be categorised as hunter-gatherers today. Is there a fundamental mismatch between the modern, anthropological usage of the term hunter-gatherer, and its archaeological definition and what implications does this have for contemporary hunter-gatherer studies?

We welcome anthropologists and archaeologists, working in any part of the world from prehistory to today, to join this discussion which will be guided by prepared introductions by speakers.



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