Grounding the net: networks, environments and material culture in the Epipalaeolithic and early Neolithic of the Near East

This source preferred by Fiona Coward

Authors: Coward, F.

Editors: Knappett, C.

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Place of Publication: Oxford, England

ISBN: 978-0199697090

The Epipalaeolithic and early Neolithic are often considered highly significant periods in the development of human culture. Traditionally, research into the period has focused on changing subsistence and economic strategies including increasingly sedentary lifestyles, and the adoption of new subsistence practices involving closer control of plant and animal species that ultimately resulted in genetic changes now described as ‘domestication’. However, more recently attention has shifted to the social implications of these developments (e.g. Kuijt 2000a). Changes in architecture and the use of space (Banning & Byrd 1989; Byrd 1994; Kuijt 2000b; Goring-Morris & Belfer-Cohen 2003, 2008); burial practices (Byrd & Monahan 1995; Goring-Morris 2000; Kuijt 2000c; Hayden 2004; though see also Belfer-Cohen 1995); art and symbolism (Bar-Yosef & Belfer-Cohen 1999; Cauvin 2000; Watkins 2004a) and material culture in general have all been hypothesised to indicate, and indeed to constitute, significant changes in social life (see e.g. Kuijt & Goring-Morris 2002 and papers in Kuijt 2000a for discussion) at this time. Indeed, the shift to settled, agricultural village life is often held to represent the foundations of a way of life that still characterises modern Homo urbanus (Runciman 2005, 29, 130-1; Watkins 2004a, 16; Cauvin 2000, 72), a majority urban-dwelling species (UNFPA 2007) living at extremely high densities in agglomerations frequently numbering millions of individuals.

However, criticisms of this neat origins myth of modern city life (e.g. Gamble 2007; Coward & Gamble 2008; Coward 2010a) have emphasised the need for these hypothesised changes in social structure over the course of the Epipalaeolithic and Early Neolithic to be more robustly demonstrated using large, empirical datasets. Research exploiting the potential of social network analysis to address these issues has indeed generally supported a model of social change at this time (Coward 2010a, b, in press), but has also identified the process as a much longer-term one than previously thought (e.g. Coward & Gamble 2008; Coward in prep). In addition, it has highlighted some specific aspects of the process which require closer attention – in particular the role that material culture plays in the geographical scaling-up of social relations, and the significance of geography for the structure of social networks.

This paper will focus on the latter of these issues. It will first briefly discuss the basis for empirically studying social change using SNA to analyze patterns of material culture distribution in order to infer social relations between and within groups in prehistory, then review previous work in this area before focusing on this issue of the significance of geography for the structure of social networks by examining the interaction between material and social networks over the course of the Epipalaeolithic and early Neolithic. In particular, I will focus on one significant aspect of the scaling-up of social systems that may have occurred over this period – that of the increasing supplementing of relationships based largely on geographical proximity with largely, if not completely, a-spatial ‘weak ties’.

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