Are we what we eat? The Southwest Asian ‘Neolithic Revolution’ as macroarchaeological theory

Joe Roe

Paper presented at the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) Annual Meeting, Budapest, 31 August – 3 September, 2022.


V. Gordon Childe’s theory of a ‘Neolithic Revolution’ cemented the Neolithic of Southwest Asia as one of the key episodes in the cultural evolution of our species – ground zero for a new socioeconomic system that went on to transform prehistoric societies across Eurasia. Nearly a century of subsequent research has greatly expanded our knowledge of the sequence and nature of the Southwest Asian Neolithic, yet in many ways we seem no closer to a definitive model of the causes and consequences of this new economy than we were in Childe’s day. Indeed, the very concept of a Neolithic Revolution has accumulated such a weight of critique and modification that it seems all but buried: we now know that that, far from being a sudden spark of genius, the advent of agriculture was highly dispersed and protracted; alternative explanatory narratives have de-centered the development of agriculture as the primary driver of social change; and there is increasing scepticism that there was anything special or ‘revolutionary’ about the Neolithic at all, compared to periods before and after.

In this paper, I attempt to resuscitate the Neolithic Revolution within Perreault’s (2019) macroarchaeology framework. I argue that, due to its roots in historical materialism, Childe’s original formulation is a model of prehistoric social change that is still plausible—and plausibly tested—against the archaeological record. It can be seen as a set of interlinked hypotheses regarding a) the reconfiguration of Neolithic people’s relations to economic production in response to external and/or internal drivers; and b) long-term economic and social changes this set in motion. And crucially, while many contemporary approaches to the Southwest Asian Neolithic suffer from, to use Perrault’s terminology, ‘underdetermination’, we can derive from these hypotheses a set of ‘smoking guns’ that we could reasonably expect to see in the regional archaeological record.


  • Perrault, Charles. 2019. The Quality of the Archaeological Record. University of Chicago Press.