The Neolithic Revolution from a Different Perspective

The standard civilizational progress narrative perpetuated by the culture historians of decades past states that humans through their ingenuity and mastery of their surroundings, were able to domesticate plants. This allowed for sedentary societies, food surpluses, population, growth, specialization, the state, and all of these increases in complexity until we eventually reach “Civilization.” Controlling the plants brought us to where we are today. That phone in your hand, your car, your air conditioner, your Adderall, and your online PDF of the archeology textbook are all products of plant domestication. Controlling this “lower” form of life freed you from the “barbarities” of hunting and gathering.

An illustration depicting the Neolithic Revolution and the rise of sedentary societies. (History Channel)

But was our domestication of plants really a good thing? Dr. Diana Shard of the Bologna Institute for Studies in Social Archaeology argues against the standard narrative. She claims that “man the hunter had been free; man the farmer was in chains” (Shard 165) Her main argument relies on the inequalities produced by agrarian societies. Women were given less status (Shard, 169), large-scale war became possible (Shard, 170), and the newly defined domestic relationship between humans and animals was detrimental. (Shard, 169).

Who wins In the agricultural world, if not the humans? Shard argues that it is the domestic animals as “men became their servant.” (Shard, 167) This may be true to a certain extent. However when viewing the Neolithic revolution through the cultural lens of the domesticated plant (assuming they have a culture), one can see that they are the true victors. Humans have spread their seeds across the entire world and helped them achieve success. Maize and potatoes which started out as American crops are vital in European and African Diets. All around the world we have cleared other plants and removed competition to allow these plants to succeed. According to the USDA, in 2019 the United States of America was home to 143,000 square miles of corn. This is approximately the size of the state of Montana which is the fourth largest state. 

The sun setting over a cornfield in Iowa (USDA)

We have worked hard since the end of the last ice age to ensure the success of these plants. If the goal of life is reproduction and the survival of offspring, domesticated plants have an effective strategy. In non-human Archeology, we are encouraged to change our perspective in order to mitigate our human bias. When we see the world through the eyes of maize, humans work for us, breaking their backs to ensure our survival, being seasonally rewarded with food to eat.

Further Reading:

Interesting corn statistics. Scroll to the bottom of the page for even more statistics.

Neolithic Revolution information

Neolithic revolution information with an unfortunate National Geographic paywall. If you open an incognito mode tab, you should be able to bypass the paywall.

Works Cited:

Capehart, Tom and Proper, Susan “Corn Is America’s Largest Crop in 2019” Economic Research Service in Research and Science. Accessed 25 Oct. 2023

Shard, Diana. “The Neolithic Revolution: An Analogical Overview.” Journal of Social History, vol. 7, no. 2, 1974, pp. 165–70. JSTOR, Accessed 25 Oct. 2023.

The Importance of Pre and Post Colonial Sources in Mesoamerican Cognitive Archeology

Discovering how people once thought is vital in contextualizing the events which unfolded in the past. Learning the rhetoric and philosophies of past people can inform the motivations and ideology which may have contributed to the manner in which events occurred. At a glance, this issue may look like it should be left entirely to historians as thoughts seem to leave no trace in the archeological record. Afterall, you can not dig a 50 centimeter by 50 centimeter sampling hole and find a thought floating around in there.

 What an archeologist can uncover in a sampling hole are symbols (which are pretty darn close to thoughts). A symbol is an object, Item, or idea which represents something else. An archeologist in the Yucatan peninsula might uncover a “yellow glyph” and identify it as the Maya symbol for south. (Miller and Taub 65-67) All human cultures are full of symbols, and very few if any are universal to all cultures. Mesoamerican religions offer strong depictions of serpents as revered gods (Miller and Taub 149) whereas Abrahamic religions are more likely to associate snakes with feared “devil.” It is the job of the archeologist to look past their own cultural symbols in order to decipher past ones.

These Symbols represent different directions. (Miller and Taub, 67)

During the conquest of the Americas, many Spaniards lacked the moral relativism to appreciate the culture of Indigenous Mesoamericans. Mesoamerican texts were labeled as idolatry and were burned. Information regarding thousands of years of recorded religion, culture, and ideology were engulfed by flames. Only fifteen pre-contact Mesoamerican books survived the conquest (Turner, 4). Despite this scarcity caused by Colonial atrocities, much can still be learned from these pre Colonial sources.

A wonderful example of this is the oldest surviving book in the Americas, the Códice Maya de México. Dated to 1051-1154, this document measures the movement of the planet Venus, revealing information about Mayan astronomy and mathematics through the way in which they were able to measure planetary movements. These movements are also contextualized within Mayan religiosity. 

On page 7 of the codex Venus’s 8 day period of disappearance is represented by Mayan numeral 8 () on the top left corner of the codex (also a symbol!). It is thought that Venus enters a “supernatural realm of jade and sunlight” depicted by a lance holding deity beside a “tree whose branches produce precious round jewels” Venus then returns on page 8 as the morning star (Turner, 76). Although the Mayans had a different writing system, a base 20 counting system, and a pantheon of unique deities. It is still possible to understand their symbols and the roles they played within their society. This example regarding pages 7-8 of the codex is only a sample of what we can learn from pre Hispanic books. 

Page 7 of the Codice Maya De Mexico (Formerly known as the Grolier Codex)

While much can be deciphered from the few remaining pre Colonial books, Archeologists and historians also rely heavily on post contact sources while still thinking critically about the biases held by their authors. Bernal Diaz Del Castillo’s Narrative, for example, can tell us much about Aztec foreign relations with neighboring groups. Besides travelogues, ethnographic sources were also made. Book 10 of the Florentine codex by Fray Bernadino de Sahagun has a list of Aztec Tlatoani and the townships conquered during the reign of each of them. Book six of Sahagun’s codex revolves entirely around Aztec rhetoric and moral philosophy making it extremely useful in understanding Mesoamerican thought. Archeologists must combine knowledge from both types of sources in order to get a clearer image of the past.

Florentine Codex - Wikipedia
A page from the Florentine Codex with images and Nahuatl writing.

Today, the internet presents exciting new opportunities for Mesoamerican cognitive archeology. The Getty Museum is set to launch the Digital Florentine Codex, an innovative and intuitive new way to study that source. The codex will include searchable terms, glossaries, lesson plans, and references to other sources including pre Hispanic ones. By combining pre contact and post contact sources, Mesoamerican thought can be better understood, allowing archaeologists to discover the hidden meaning among symbols lying between the stratigraphic layers of Mexico and Central America. By unearthing lost cognition and increasing its accessibility we can begin to counteract the cultural genocide perpetrated by Spanish colonization.

Works Cited (I have a physical copy of both of these books. If anyone wants to borrow them email me at

Turner, Andrew D. “Códice Maya de México: Understanding the Oldest Surviving Book of the Americas” Getty Research Institute, 2022, Los Angeles, California. 

Miller, Mary. Taub, Carl. “An Illustrated Dictionary of The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and The Maya.” Thames & Hudson, 1993, New York, New York.

Online Sources

Getty page for the digital Florentine Codex

Library of Congress HD images of the Florentine Codex

An amazing visual source for understanding Tenochtitlan

Britannica encyclopedia source on general Mayan hieroglyphs

New York Times source on the codex