When, almost a century ago, Raphael Pumpelly put forward the ‘oasis theory’ for the origins of farming in the Near East, his was one of the first in a long series of explanations which looked to environment and ecology as the cause of the shift from hunting and gathering to cultivation and animal husbandry. Pumpelly envisaged climatic desiccation at the end of the last Ice Age as the primary factor, forcing humans, plants and animals into ever closer proximity as the arid zones expanded around them. Subsequent fieldworkers took the closer investigation of environmental changes as a key aim of their research, both in the Near East and elsewhere, and this has remained a fundamental theme in theories for the emergence of agriculture. More recent advances in our understanding of environmental change have placed particular emphasis on the cold Younger Dryas episode, at the end of the last Ice Age. The impact of this sudden reversal of climate warming on the complex Natufian hunter-gatherers of the Levant may, it is argued, have forced or encouraged these communities to explore novel subsistence modes.
Not everybody accepts such a chain of reasoning, however, and in The Birth of Gods and the Origins of Agriculture, French archaeologist Jacques Cauvin rejects this emphasis on ecology and environment as the cause of change. Instead, he argues that primacy should be accorded to a restructuring of human mentality from the thirteenth to the tenth millennium BC, expressed in terms of new religious ideas and symbols. Cauvin's book, originally published in French in 1994 under the title Naissance des divinités, naissance de l'agriculture, adopts an ideological approach to explaining the Neolithic which is at odds with many traditional understandings, but which resonates closely with the idea that the Neolithic is much more than an economic transition, and coincided with a transformation in the world view of the prehistoric societies concerned. The present English translation appeared in 2000, and is based on the second French edition (1997) with the addition of a postscript summarizing relevant discoveries made since that date.
Owing to illness, Jacques Cauvin has been unable to contribute to this Review Feature as had been hoped, but we are fortunate that his translator, Trevor Watkins, has agreed to draft a response to the comments made by our invited reviewers. These include Ian Hodder, whose own work on the Neolithic transition has been influenced by Cauvin's research, and Ofer Bar-Yosef and Gary Rollefson, both specialists in the prehistory of the Levant. At Dr Watkins' suggestion, the introductory piece which opens the Review Feature is a translated extract from Jacques Cauvin's contribution to a similar review treatment in Les Nouvelles de l'Archéologie (No. 79, 2000, 49–53). As our reviewers make clear, the significance of the book, and the debate which it has initiated, will make it akey text for many years to come.