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2009 Rhind Lecture 1: From economic to social and cultural revolution

First lecture by Professor Trevor Watkins of the 2009 Rhind Lectures, entitled “New Light on the Dawn: a new perspective on the Neolithic Revolution in Southwest Asia”.

The 2009 Rhind Lectures, entitled “New Light on the Dawn: a new perspective on the Neolithic Revolution in Southwest Asia” and presented by Emeritus Professor Trevor Watkins, Honorary Professorial Fellow of the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, were the first to be recorded by the Society.

2009 Rhind Lecture 1: “From economic to social and cultural revolution” by Prof Trevor Watkins

Recorded in the Royal Society of Edinburgh auditorium at 6pm on 3rd April 2009 using Camtasia software from Techsmith

Since Gordon Childe wrote of a Neolithic (or Agricultural) Revolution, the investigation of the origins and beginnings of agriculture at the east end of the Mediterranean have preoccupied generations of archaeologists, driven advances in archaeological method and theory, and generated new specialisations, such as archaeo-botany and archaeo-zoology. But just as there is more to the Industrial Revolution than technological innovation and the re-ordering of the economy, so there is more to the Neolithic Revolution than the adoption of crop cultivation and the herding of animals. In the final Palaeolithic and early Neolithic of Southwest Asia we can watch the emergence of large-scale, permanent village communities, displaying extraordinary architecture, sculpture and symbolic practices.

The question that Robert Braidwood first posed half a century ago – “Why then? Why not earlier?” – continues to challenge us, whether we are thinking of the adoption of farming practices, the formation of permanent village communities, or the extraordinarily rich symbolic expressions. Recent advances in the application of evolutionary theory to cognitive psychology and cultural theory: can be related to the material worlds that these communities created for themselves.  We can see how people at that time began to live in a new way, because only then did the nature of their human cognitive and cultural faculties make it possible. We can explore the conceptual complexities of the formation and maintenance of these new communities and the intense and extensive networks in which they engaged; and we can set these innovations at a critical point in human cognitive and cultural evolution. The unique skill evolved by our species, Homo sapiens, lies in the use of fully symbolic culture, whether as modern language, or in art, or architecture, or science. What we see in this remarkable process is the emergence from deep prehistory of communities of people who were essentially modern and like ourselves.

Gordon Childe’s theory of a Neolithic Revolution set off a quest for the beginnings of farming in southwest Asia. Until recently, less attention was paid to the innovations of sedentism and village life, which preceded the adoption of farming practices. In southwest Asia we can now see the adoption of farming as the essential consequence of earlier developments, rather than the foundation of a new revolution. Robert Braidwood left us with what I describe as ‘the killer question’: however we define these crucial developments in human history, why did they occur then? why not earlier? With the recent advances in cognitive psychology, philosophy and social sciences, we can set about identifying the cognitive and cultural advances at the end of the Pleistocene and the beginning of the Holocene periods that allowed the formation of the novel human communities that emerged in southwest Asia at that time.