Neolithic Households Houses and Links to Economy

One of the key ways to explore issues of governance in Neolithic communities is to explore how households served as arenas for everyday life, such as with ritual practices and collective labor. Specifically,I think that future research will benefit from renewed attention to how Neolithic social practices might have been focused on either individual households, or the broader House as a social and economic unit (Levi-Strauss 1983).For the most part discussions of Neolithic social organization remain focused on the scale of the community, rarely addressing the existence of the household or House as a social and economic unit. While there are exceptions, most research has focused on how to differentiate between nuclear or extended family households as a form of classification. One alternative to this perspective is to explore the possibility that Neolithic social frameworks were organized along lines similar to a House Society (Levi-Strauss 1983). Levi-Strauss (1983:174) defines the House as "a corporate body holding an estate made up of both material and immaterial wealth, which perpetuates itself through the transmission of its name, its goods and its titles down a real or imaginary line, considered legitimate as long as this continuity can express itself in the language of kinship or of affinity and, most often, of both."In this context, then, the House emphasizes elements of temporal continuity, the hereditary transfer of valued property and authority, and the strategic exploitation of the language of kinship and affinity, existing simultaneously as a social, ritual, and economic unit. Moreover, this social and economic unit can be composed of multiple residential units dwelling in separate structures and can serve as a physical and symbolic place of origin for fictive and real ancestors. In considering how communities and living units were structured, this perspective challanges archaeologists to define and explain the building blocks of social and economic relations within Neolithic communities.

Furthering our understanding of the links between economic and social change at different points in the Neolithic is likely to become another important avenue for research in the future. In the broadest of scales, we can note that the initial development and later entrenchment of food production must have radically altered the nature of ownership, labor, and civic organization in Neolithic communities. In the case of large agricultural communities, especially of the later periods, organizational changes might have occurred in the nature of agricultural labor in certain periods of the year, such as harvesting crops in the fall. This raises the question of whether this labor was organized along community or household lines. Increases in the scale of some communities, especially those that might have been the focus of regional economic or ritual activities, might have required multiple households, or even communities, to combine forces to meet the challenge of some project, such as the construction of the PPNA tower at Jericho or harvesting of temporally limited food resources. Who, for example, organized peopletoundertake farming, planting, herding, and harvesting? There is no question that these issues are central to our understanding of how economic developments, such as the appearance of domesticated plants and animals, and how the control of these resources would have been linked to social changes.

Despite all that archaeologists know about Neolithic subsistence practices, we have a very poor understanding of the social aspects of Neolithic economic practices, such as the production and distribution of shell and stone beads or other nonlocal objects. With the exception of the sourcing of obsidian in the Near East, researchers have only a limited understanding of the sourcing of nonlocal materials and have yet to examine how trade and exchange might have been organized. Future scholars will, for example, have the opportunity to explore how to envision Neolithic communities from select periods as being socially and economically independent, or if physically separate communitis were highly interlinked through household marriage, economic practices, and ideological beliefs. It will be important, moreover, for us to understand how leaders or households might have controlled trade. The resolution of such topics is pivotal to understanding the nature of social systems in the Neolithic and the broader trajectory of human development in the transition from foragers and cultivators to agriculturalists. Collectively,these studies highlight the importance of future studies exploring Neolithic social relations through a variety of artifact classes, integrating our understanding of economic practices with that of social organization, and the need to develop more sophisticated models to explain the dynamic nature of civic and ritual leadership.


As seen in this volume, archaeologists are making important strides forward in the task of reconstructing Neolithic social organization. This volume certainly provides us with a more detailed understanding of some of the complexities of the archaeological record of the Neolithic of the Near East and challenge us to view the Neolithic as an economic event and to explore the interrelationships between the development, entrenchment, and expansion of systems of food production with the nature of social organization at the household, kin-group, and community levels. An improved awareness of the nature of Neolithic social organization will require broad consideration of interrelated lines cf archaeological evidence at different scales, including regional settlement patterns, systems f regional trade and exchange, contact within and between different regional communities, the nature of shared systems of belief and ritual at the regional scale, consideration of regional and community architectural systems, and the nature of mortuary practices. Synthesis and interpretation of these diverse archaeological patterns will also require consideration of complementary and conflicting aspects of behavior within these communities. These rich lines of archaeological evidence contribute to our broader anthropological understanding of issues of social agency, household compositions, and ritual practices, and aid us in exploring the complex, rewarding, and challenging interface of archaeological data and anthropological theory and the links between different forms of human behavior and material culture in the past.

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