The Elements of Evolution – Settlement


The transition from mobile Paleolithic to sedentary Neolithic life ways may be the most significant behavioral “revolution” in human prehistory. When hunter-gatherers domesticated plants and animals and congregated in larger settlements, they were laying the foundations for the development of complex urban societies and our modern world system. ~ American anthropologist Richard Yerkes

As with other animals, humans first settled in places of natural abundance. Prosperous hunting and gathering begat a growing population.

Hominids had doubtlessly been residing in natural shelters, such as caves, since their emergence. When the first hominin homes were constructed remains controversial. The earliest dwellings would have been made mostly of wood, thereby decaying without much of a trace. Evidence indicates that some homebody Homo erectus lived in stone huts in northeast Africa 400,000 years ago. Many populations established sedentary communities before the advent of agriculture. Semi-permanent dwellings have been found that are 35,000 years old.

 Dolní Vĕstonice

Dolní Vĕstonice is in southern Moravia, in the Czech Republic – situated at the confluence of 2 valleys, located along a stream. It was once a migration route for woolly mammoth. A tribe of Cro-Magnon appreciated that for both meat and material.

Dolní Vĕstonice was settled 29 TYA. The village thrived for thousands of years. Homes were constructed. One building was first dug out from a slope. Then a roof was supported with timber set into postholes. Walls were made of packed clay and stones. Animal skins sewn together were occasionally used to create partitions within a hut.

Mammoth bones were sometimes used to construct houses, and for fences. Huts congregated together within a fenced enclosure. A hut might house 20–25 people. Homes were heated by hearths which were the center of family life.

Flint tools were produced. Mammoth bone and ivory were also employed to craft various implements.

A kiln was used for firing clay. The clay was not just mud from the stream. Earth was carefully mixed with powdered bone to spread heat evenly, to fire the clay into a rock-hard material. Pottery was reinvented 9,000 years later in China.

Residents made ceramic figurines of animals and humans, some of which were ritualistically broken. Stylized female figures were repeatedly made. These Venuses likely had symbolic meaning.

Mammoth ivory was carved into figurative shapes. Portraitures were engraved.

Residents plaited baskets and wove fabric from plant fibers. Looms were used to make cloth.

The culture there was facilitated by the fact that people were living longer. The elderly were highly influential in society. Grandparents assisted in childcare.

Numerous artifacts show the practice of shamanism. The remains of one elderly woman’s burial indicates her being held in high spiritual esteem.

Residents buried their dead with ceremony: painting various body parts and packing along artifacts. One child was buried with a necklace of fox teeth, the skull covered with red ochre, with the body beneath mammoth shoulder blades. Families were interred together.


Pits were sometimes dug to start a housing project, as it was less effort to build down rather than up. A semi-subterranean settlement of 50 circular 1-room huts at Mallaha, in the northeast tip of Israel, started 12 TYA using this technique. Mallaha residents subsisted on fish from nearby Lake Hula, along with gathering and hunting. No evidence of agriculture or animal domestication has been found.

The rise of home construction followed development of labor-saving tools that rendered the task economically efficacious. Axes able to cut wood spurred settlement development. Sleeping indoors became increasingly popular. Fresh water, fertile fields, nearby fishing, and ample game decided settlement locations. By 7.5 TYA, all the cultivable zones in the Fertile Crescent were inhabited by sedentary agriculturalists living in villages.

Prior to the advent of agriculture, early villages died out when they exhausted local resources. The resettlement cycle repeated until crop cultivation and trade rendered location at least as important as natural resources.

 Abu Hureyra

Abu Hureyra in the Euphrates valley (now Syria) was occupied 13 TYA: a village of small huts, cut into the soft sandstone of the terrace there. Huts were supported by wooden posts and roofed with reeds and brushwood. There were underground food storage compartments.

In its 1st incarnation, Abu Hureyra was a village of a few hundred hunter-gathers at most, living off local game, fishing, and gathering wild plants. Gazelle migrated through during the summer. Year-round were sheep, cattle, and onager (wild Asian ass). Smaller food animals included birds, fox, and hare.

The area began to dry out as the climate changed. Wild seeds were gathered in response to a steep decline in the wild plants that had served as staple foods. From these seeds came gardens of cereal grasses, including rye.

The severe climactic conditions brought on by the Younger Dryas forced abandonment of Abu Hureyra 10.1 TYA. Drought had disrupted gazelle migration, devastated local populations of game, and decimated forageable plant food sources. Survival meant a more mobile existence.

Abu Hureyra went unoccupied for 500 years. Then people returned, building mud brick houses, creating a settlement 10 times as large as before: one of the largest at the time in the Middle East.

The 2nd occupation came with people growing crops, but not yet having domesticated animals. That too came in time: herding sheep and goats. In the meantime, gazelle were again hunted, as were other local animals.

Settlement at Abu Hureyra was not to last. The village was again abandoned 7 TYA.