‘Revolutions So Remote’: Revolutionary Thinking and Archaeological Inquiry

This piece is a part of our ongoing series, entitled “Rethinking the Revolutionary Canon.” 

By Catherine J. Frieman

The Marxist archaeologist V. Gordon Childe was among the highest profile archaeologists of the twentieth century. In the words of his latest biography, he was “a revolutionary intellectual—a thinker about revolutions and a revolutionary thinker.”[1] Although Childe was raised and educated in Australia, his scholarly interest focussed on prehistoric Europe, in particular the origins of the Indo-European language (and, people). His interest was wide-ranging and his knowledge deep. Few then had, or now have, his grasp of the specificities of prehistoric sites and material culture from Anatolia to Ireland.

Childe introduced the idea of prehistoric revolutions in 1934. The beginnings of agriculture, he argued, were among “the greatest of moments, that revolution whereby man ceased to be purely parasitic.”[2] Two years later, his widely read book Man Makes Himself brought prehistoric revolutions to a popular audience.[3] Since then, the idea that revolutionary change occurred at specific points in the past has been adopted into common wisdom and scholarly discourse, unfortunately with little reflection on the assumptions about people, technology, and social change that underlay this concept.

In Man Makes Himself, Childe proposed that prehistory could be understood as a series of revolutions driven by economic innovations. Changes such as new subsistence practices (i.e. domestication) or the invention of novel technologies (i.e. irrigation, metal, literacy), led to substantial demographic, political, and social changes. He drew a direct parallel between these prehistoric changes and the apparent cultural and technological upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, arguing that this demonstrated the deep roots of social evolutionary models of human progress. His “Neolithic Revolution” began with the cultivation of grains like barley and wheat (“the foundations of the economy”[4]) in Mesopotamia and spread outwards from there, instigating revolutionary change in all the regions it reached. He assumed prehistoric people were minimally creative, so his model posits centers of invention only in particularly dynamic regions.

The assumptions Childe made—that conservatism is normative in small-scale societies, that inventions are few, that subsistence and technology shape social structure—were common-wisdom in the anthropological and archaeological milieu of the early twentieth century. They emerge from and reinforce social evolutionary models in which societies progressed through delimited stages of organization: savagery, barbarism, civilization. Each stage was defined by progressive levels of political and technological development. Egalitarian hunter-gatherers evolved towards villages of subsistence farmers, and finally to stratified urban bureaucracies.[5]

Childe argued that archaeological ages (the Neolithic, Iron Age, etc.) were equivalent to economic stages, “ushered in by an economic revolution of the same kind and having the same effect as the ‘Industrial Revolution’ of the eighteenth century.”[6]

This early example of Big History profoundly impacted how we understand the distant past. Not only was Man Makes Himself widely read among archaeologists of Childe’s time, but it was a popular success. The Neolithic Revolution remains in the public imagination (although, Scott[7] has recently assayed an assault, albeit one rather limited by over-generalized, Eurocentric models) and is still regularly taught in schools as current research.[8] To this day, the idea of agriculture as a key inflection point in human history, a marker of sophistication and technological progress, is so ingrained in the contemporary historical imaginary that Aboriginal author Bruce Pascoe’s suggestion that Indigenous Australians practiced cultivation and landscape management[9] has been met with widespread harassment, racist vitriol, and disbelief.[10]

In archaeological circles, a continued adherence to Childe’s revolutionary models has caused considerable attention to be paid to the hows and whys of these revolutionary cusps, leading to the accumulation of increasingly thick datasets centered on early agriculture (as well early metal, proto-urbanism, and a variety of other key technological or social innovations).[11] The results point to a much more complex and diffuse pattern of domestication than previously assumed, with few obvious points of invention.

Instead of a parsimonious model in which agricultural practices were only infrequently invented, crop species appear to have been multiply domesticated over protracted periods of time with many more points of localized invention.[12] Genetic and archaeo-botanical studies indicate that cultivation—sometimes leading towards domestication, sometimes abandoned prior to the development of a fully agricultural economy—was a common practice.[13] And yet, the idea of a revolutionary “Neolithic” cusp with distinct homelands of invention persists, and archaeologists continue to publish what they deem to be evidence for its earliest appearance in one region or another.[14]

Certainly, the ongoing hunt for earliests and firsts is another aspect of revolutionary thinking in archaeology. The oldest or first example of a given tool, site, or technology regularly appear in high-impact journals and attention-grabbing headlines. They are treated as tantalizing traces of the moment of invention—the revolutionary episode that spurs major change. As I suggest elsewhere, this way of thinking persists in part because it is low-hanging fruit, requiring little interpretation or critical thought to indicate significance: “by dint purely of existing and of having been identified and dated, [firsts and earliests] myth-bust. They create new and older histories—of technological practice, of religious belief, of territorial occupation—that automatically debunk accepted and widely promulgated narratives that were, themselves, based on the idea that the absence of evidence was meaningful in that it indicated an absence of people, practices, materials, etc.”[15]

Archaeological knowledge production, as it emerged in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe, was entangled with a wide range of contemporary beliefs about human society, technology, and gender.[16] As Montón-Subías and Hernando have recently noted, this means that much of our interpretative framework, being Eurocentric, remains rooted in this foundation.[17] This relates to revolutionary models on two fronts: first, we have been largely uncritical of the idea that some technologies or social structures are naturally more functional or fit than others; and, second, we retain an interest in identifying homelands or points of origin.

Both of these are problematic. The social evolutionary models Childe adopted treated industrialized Europe as the epitome of civilization and assumed west Eurasian society to be more dynamic and technologically superior to non-European ways of life. Adas argues that this same set of assumptions, when bound up with ideas of religious and racial superiority, formed the core of an “ideology of dominance” that justified colonial and imperial expansion.[18] The hunt for origins and homelands is similarly deeply embedded in archaeological thought. Early twentieth-century archaeologists believed the movement of people underlay the spread of innovations and that these people were identifiable because ethnicities or races were distinct and bounded.[19] The migrations of particularly technologically advanced peoples were key historical events, and searching out the homelands of these people was a major pre-occupation of many of Childe’s contemporaries, among them high-profile Nazi archaeologists.[20]

However, as even Childe recognized,[21] innovation and invention are both long processes. Only infinitesimal fragments are visible archaeologically. This is a problem, because chasing these earliests and firsts tell us nothing at all about past people, their lives, beliefs, or practices except that a specific thing, technology, or type of site was available to them. Nor do they offer insight into the process of innovation—as much social as technological—or specific trajectories for future developments in a given region or period.

Fundamentally, the “Neolithic Revolution” represents a limited, post hoc assessment of technological and social change. We shear off the mess and complexity of the entangled relationships that underlie innovation and assume that some changes—cultivating plants, making metal tools—were more significant than others, because they are significant to us. Childe’s concept of prehistoric revolutions offered a powerful synthetic tool for assessing the complex and variable archaeological record, but it also echoed and reinforced longstanding ideas about European dominance, innovativeness, and creativity. Like many revolutions, this one ultimately served (in a rather paradoxical fashion) to entrench longstanding, deeply conservative values by establishing the supposedly superior dynamism of the prehistoric people of west Eurasia and the representativeness of the Eurasian archaeological record at the expense of the vibrance, contradictions, and variability of the global past.

Catherine Frieman is an associate professor in European archaeology in the School of archaeology and anthropology, Australian National University. Her primary research interests include innovation and conservatism, and she is a material culture and technology specialist with a particular specialism in stone tools. She currently holds a DECRA fellowship to study continuity and resistance via the archaeology of prehistoric Cornwall, and is Lead CI of an ARC Discovery project looking into human mobility and the diffusion of innovations in prehistoric Iberia and the Pacific.

Title image: Covers of Childe’s Man Makes Himself.

Further readings:

CHILDE, V. G. 1936. Man makes himself, London, Watts & Co.

IRVING, T. 2020. The Fatal Lure of Politics: The Life and Thought of Vere Gordon Childe, Melbourne, Monash University Publishing.

SAVILLE, A. (ed.) 2009. The Legacy and History of V. Gordon Childe. European Journal of Archaeology 12(1-3).

SHERRATT, A. 1989. V. Gordon Childe: Archaeology and intellectual history. Past & Present, 125, 151-186.

TRIGGER, B. G. 1980. Gordon Childe, revolutions in archaeology, New York, Columbia University Press.


[1] Terry Irving, The Fatal Lure of Politics: The Life and Thought of Vere Gordon Childe (Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, 2020), 372.

[2] V. Gordon Childe, New Light on the Most Ancient East: The Oriental Prelude to European Prehistory (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1934), 1.

[3] Man Makes Himself (London: Watts & Co, 1936).

[4] Ibid., 60.

[5] Childe built explicitly on anthropological as well as Marxist research here, leaning on: L. H. Morgan, Ancient Society (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 1985 [1877]); Edward Burnett Tylor, Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization (London, 1865); Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Penguin Classics (London: Penguin Classics, 2010 [1884]).

[6] Childe, Man Makes Himself, 35.

[7] James C. Scott, Against the Grain a Deep History of the Earliest States, Yale Agrarian Studies (New Haven: Yale University Press,, 2017).

[8] e.g. NCC, “History Programmes of Study: Key Stage 3. National Curriculum in England Statutory Guidance,” National curriculum, Schools: statutory guidance and School and college qualifications and curriculum (London: Department of Education, 2013).

[9] Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture (London: Scribe Publications, 2016).

[10] Rick Morton, “Bolt, Pascoe and the Culture Wars,” The Saturday Paper, 30 November – 6 December 2019.

[11] For a rather summary overview of the breadth of the early agriculture literature, see the special section “Rethinking the Origins of Agriculture” in Current Anthropology 50, no. 5 and special section “The Origins of Agriculture: New Data, New Ideas” in Current Anthropology 52, no. S4. Numerous monograph length treatments of early agriculture studies are available—both regional and synthetic approaches. Among these, quality texts include Tim Denham, Tracing Early Agriculture in the Highlands of New Guinea: Plot, Mound and Ditch, Ucl Institute of Archaeology Publications (London: Routledge, 2018); Peter S. Bellwood, First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005); Graeme Barker, The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why Did Foragers Become Farmers? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[12] Dorian Q. Fuller, “Pathways to Asian Civilizations: Tracing the Origins and Spread of Rice and Rice Cultures,” Rice 4, no. 3 (2011); Dorian Q. Fuller, George Willcox, and Robin G. Allaby, “Cultivation and Domestication Had Multiple Origins: Arguments against the Core Area Hypothesis for the Origins of Agriculture in the near East,” World Archaeology 43, no. 4 (2011).

[13] Dorian Q. Fuller, et al., “Convergent Evolution and Parallelism in Plant Domestication Revealed by an Expanding Archaeological Record,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, no. 17 (2014); Luc Vrydaghs and Tim Denham, “Rethinking Agriculture: Introductory Thoughts,” in Rethinking Agriculture: Archaeological and Ethnoarchaeological Perspectives, ed. Tim Denham, J. Iriarte, and Luc Vrydaghs (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2007).

[14] e.g. Ben Shaw, et al., “Emergence of a Neolithic in Highland New Guinea by 5000 to 4000 Years Ago,” Science Advances 6, no. 13 (2020).

[15] Catherine J. Frieman, An Archaeology of Innovation: Approaching Social and Technological Change (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming).

[16] Margarita Díaz-Andreu García, A World History of Nineteenth-Century Archaeology: Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). 369

[17] Sandra Montón-Subías and Almudena Hernando-Gonzalo, “Modern Colonialism, Eurocentrism and Historical Archaeology: Some Engendered Thoughts,” European Journal of Archaeology (2018).

[18] Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men. Science, Technology and Ideologies of Western Dominance (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1989).

[19] Catherine J. Frieman and Daniela Hofmann, “Present Pasts in the Archaeology of Genetics, Identity, and Migration in Europe: A Critical Essay,” World Archaeology 51, no. 4 (2019).

[20] Bettina Arnold, “The Past as Propaganda: Totalitarian Archaeology in Nazi Germany,” Antiquity 64, no. 244 (1990).

[21] Childe, Man Makes Himself, 81.

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