More than just porridge: old materialism and the macroarchaeology of the Neolithic Revolution

Joe Roe

Paper presented at 13th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, Copenhagen, 2023.

Part of a workshop on “Untelling the Neolithic of Southwest Asia”, convened by Tobias Richter and Martin Renger.


Nearly a century after the theory was first articulated, the Neolithic Revolution seems all but buried under the weight of new evidence and critique. We now know that the agricultural transition in Southwest Asia was protracted and dispersed; that permanent settled societies may have brought agricultural economies into being, rather than vice versa; and that prehistoric social, cultural and material forms were ‘complex’ long before the first grains were sown. But “the coming of the Neolithic was never as boring as just the invention of porridge” (Sherratt 1995). For Childe and other Marxist theorists, what made the Neolithic a revolution was the revolutionary social consequences that a change in the mode of production implies – regardless of the pace, pattern or lived complexity of the transition. In this paper, I will make the case that the ‘Neolithic phenomenon’ remains an, if not abrupt, then revolutionary episode in human (pre)history, one that must be rooted in material conditions and macroscale cultural processes. Drawing on Perrault’s (2019) macroarchaeology framework, which emphasises exploring macroscale patterns and processes fitted to the quality of the archaeological record, I attempt to resuscitate Childe’s Neolithic Revolution as a set of descriptive and explanatory hypotheses regarding the reconfiguration of Neolithic people’s relation to economic production and the long-term socioeconomic changes this set in motion.


  • Perreault, Charles. 2019. The Quality of the Archaeological Record. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Sherratt, Andrew. 1995. “Reviving the Grand Narrative: Archaeology and Long-Term Change.” Journal of European Archaeology 3 (1): 1–32.