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First Farmers: the Origins of Agricultural Societies, by Peter Bellwood. Malden (MA): Blackwell, 2005; ISBN 0-631-20565-9 hardback £60; ISBN 0-631-20566-7 paperback £17.99, xix+360 pp., 59 figs., 3 tables

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2007

Peter Bellwood
School of Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia;
Clive Gamble
Department of Geography, Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, Surrey, TW20 0EX, UK;
Steven A. Le Blanc
Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138 USA;
Mark Pluciennik
School of Archaeology & Ancient History, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester, UK;
Martin Richards
Genetics and Genomics Research Group, Institute of Integrative and Comparative Biology, L.C.Miall Building, Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK;
John Edward Terrell
New Guinea Research Program, Field Museum of Natural History, 1400 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60605, USA;


There can be no doubt that Peter Bellwood's First Farmers is a major new statement which presents a robustly expressed solution to one of those classic problems which provides a benchmark for theorization and justifies archaeology as a field. But agreement stops there. Few academic books published recently have evoked such highly charged reactions. On the one hand, First Farmers has impressed many critics, reached audiences far afield from traditional archaeological readerships, and garnered major book awards from professional bodies such as the Society for American Archaeology. On the other hand, it has been subjected to a level of concerted criticism rare in the academic world. As the reviews below show, it has clearly hit a nerve; the gloves are off.

First Farmers polarizes scholars in complex ways. Much recent work on agricultural origins, particularly in Europe, has had a strongly indigenist and particularistic tone, averse to mass movements of peoples and ‘grand narratives’ in general. But even advocates of grand narrative in general may take exception to Bellwood's ‘language dispersals’ thesis. Similarly, the very attempt to bring together linguistic, genetic and archaeological data in an account of the past is controversial to some, but even those who aspire to this kind of interdisciplinary synthesis rarely agree on how it can be carried out.

Neither the book nor its critics here are likely to be the last word on the subject. But whether one agrees with it or not, First Farmers is a welcome addition to the agricultural origins scene, which, at least in Europe, has been evolving over the last two decades towards a sort of eclectic middle-ground consensus in which difference of opinion is accommodated by eschewing bold generalization.

Review Feature
© 2007 The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research

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