We ploughed, then scattered

First Farmers
March 3, 2006

Forty-two years ago, Peter Bellwood and I led an expedition to Libya, hunting Roman roads in the Tripolitanian hinterland. Afterwards, we went our separate ways, he to become a pioneer of Polynesian then Indonesian archaeology, I to the New World. He recalls our jaunt as one of the stimuli that sent him off "to remote and exciting places", and the breadth of his experience is reflected in this dense but accessible book.

First Farmers requires intellectual resilience, especially when Bellwood goes into linguistics and genetics, but for most pedagogical purposes it will stand alone and add real depth to our understanding of what Gordon Childe dubbed the Neolithic Revolution. Bellwood notes the "immense significance" of this economic and social transformation in creating the world today: "Our language families, our agricultural systems, even our races reflect the impacts of early agricultural dispersals very visibly indeed, even millennia after the events... This is one arena in which (archaeology) can broadcast its significance. Prehistory at this scale is more than just the sum of an infinitude of archaeological and ethnographic situations: it involves a different vista on humanity."

True to his word, Bellwood scans the emergence of farming societies since the last Ice Age, from China to Peru. His major argument is that disparate disciplines can be jointly focused on the problem: while archaeology forms the bulk of the evidence, the comparative linguistics of recent societies can adumbrate relationships between past peoples, skeletal morphology brings in their physical remains, and archaeogenetics looks at gene flow across continents.

In most instances, Bellwood finds that the middle way is the most compatible with the evidence. Thus in discussing the Neolithic expansion in Europe, he examines both the view that immigrant farmers spread their genes and lifestyle all the way to Ulster by "demic diffusion", and the counter-position that indigenous Mesolithic hunter-gatherers acquired the new technology by propinquity to Mediterranean cultivators and spread it by acculturative example. The evidence from linguistics - the origin of the Indo-European languages in Anatolia - and genetics, in terms of mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome distributions, has been used to support both positions. Bellwood concludes that migration occurred, but that on present evidence the genetic input of these pioneers into modern Europeans is between 20 and 30 per cent: much of our makeup comes from our Palaeolithic ancestors.

The complexities of early Indian and East Asian farming are ably explained, with subsequent expansion from China through Taiwan into Indonesia, then east across the Pacific to Easter Island (also west to Madagascar, so that Austronesian languages spanned more than half the equatorial circumference of the Earth). This is Bellwood's home turf, and it is the best account in print.

This book is a superb advertisement for archaeology as part of a multidisciplinary approach to the problem of how, where, when and why our ancestors settled to plough and pasture.

Norman Hammond is chairman of the department of archaeology, Boston University, Massachusetts, US.

First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies

Author - Peter Bellwood
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 360
Price - £65.00 and £18.99
ISBN - 0 631 20565 9 and 20566 7

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