Risk and ‘gifts’: surviving the Neolithic by mutual insurance

by Edward Pegler on 1 June, 2012

Why pioneers of Neolithic agriculture needed to be linked in to the wider Neolithic world, and what they did with ‘gifts’

I need to work on my punchlines

“a neolithic economy offers no material inducement to the peasant to produce more than he needs to support himself and his family and provide for the next harvest. If each household does that, the community can survive without a surplus”      Gordon Childeº

Risk is under constant discussion in the present. Limiting risk is at the heart of both economics and insurance (although apparently it doesn’t always work). From asteroid impact to little Sean stapling his thumb while at school, risk is something that we’re all encouraged to assess.

In prehistoric archaeology risk tends to be discussed not so much as a topic but as something only occasionally of interest or relevance. A quick search of the words ‘Neolithic’ and ‘Risk’ on google throws up Neolithic archaeological sites now at risk from development or, perhaps more interestingly, the risk of conflict¹.

What I’m more interested in here is the Neolithic risk of settlement failure, even without conflict or aggression, and what Neolithic people could do to mitigate it.

Neolithic isolationism

Gordon Childe, in his many books, viewed the Neolithic as a very different time from now (see the quote above). He thought of Neolithic communities as being largely isolated from each other and self-sufficient. I suspect that most sensible archaeologists don’t agree with this view now (although the continuing tendency to a national view in much Neolithic archaeology is a sort of continuation of this belief).

Renfrew, Cann and Dixon’s classic 1960’s studies of the origins and distribution of obsidian around the Aegean showed how, even in the early Neolithic, long distance exchange between groups was going on, even if in a disorganised fashion². Childe was aware of such exchange, but thought of it as either unusual or an insignificant flow of luxuries.

I suspect that, rather than being insignificant, this contact between communities through exchange of gifts may have been fundamental in preventing disaster. To illustrate the point, I offer a couple of simplistic, if ridiculous, stories in which you, dear reader, are the main character.

Story 1: Little house on the Anatolian prairie

Fifty years ago (in the Neolithic, that is) your mother and father set up a new farm away from their parents’. “Leap-frogging” onto an alluvial fan with a suitable supply of water, they grew wheat and barley. For forty seven years things went well. They raised a family, eight of you, six of whom survived, three sisters and three brothers. Luckily, you all got on really well. The farm grew enough wheat and barley for the family’s annual needs and even grew a surplus which could be stored.

And every year your family’s farm produced a surplus. Every year, the surplus from a couple of years ago, looking a little tired, would be thrown out and replaced by the fresh, new surplus, thus guaranteeing two years’ grain supply in times of need. Your family could probably have taken up a sideline in farming vermin if they’d wanted. But why complain when things were this good.

Now your mother and father are dead. Your two younger brothers have gone off with two of your sisters to start up new farms out west. You and your remaining sibling have had two disastrous years of farming through no fault of your own. Each spring has brought no rain and each summer too much. The crops have failed three times. The two year surplus was enough to get you through the first two years. This year, starving, you’re about to pack up anything you can carry and head back to where your parents came from.


Of course the case above is ridiculous and extreme. There would be other families with you on that alluvial fan, all sharing the risk and increasing genetic health. In any one year the community’s other families might be luckier, giving you and your (now more healthily unrelated) spouse food and grain for planting, lowering your risk of failure through the community’s spirited action.

In the future (we’re still in the Neolithic, by the way) the use of animals, improved crop strains and technologies such as irrigation will have decreased a pioneer community’s risks further. But, even so, it’s only a matter of time before that chance series of bad years will cause the whole community’s crop to fail for several years. This is no strategy for long-term success in colonisation.

Reducing risk through inter-community insurance

There are obvious reasons for exchange between communities in the Neolithic. The movement of daughters was probably a common way to maintain genetic health between communities. Salt was necessary for inland communities. Small quantities of new grain strains, even animals, must have been brought in to communities through exchange. Ideas and influences would have been picked up through casual chat between individuals from different communities or from the female incomers.

In fact there must have been some sorts of mutually agreed, neutral market places, even between antagonistic communities, where such exchanges could take place. What objects were exchanged is not always easy to tell, but perhaps different communities grew some different things.

However, I suspect that the transfer of large quantities of grain or livestock between communities was probably necessary only in times of crisis and such crises were inevitable eventually. This presents an obvious problem, for large-scale food transfers would not be likely to be through goodwill, as might be the case with individuals within a community. After all, why should another community give food to a potential rival.

Offhand, I can think of three methods of food transfer: First, such transfers could have been done through brute force. Steal the other community’s crop and you have a crop. Such things undoubtedly happened –  the world is a nasty place. However, as a long term policy this was only likely to have made things worse, through an escalation of defence and warfare, increasing hostility and isolation, and decreasing both communities’ chances of survival.

Second, transfer might have been through ‘indentured’ labour, where members of the starving community would work for the other community in exchange for food. However, the problem here is that the community with food didn’t need any work done. They already had enough food. What, indeed, was in it for them?

Third, food could be ‘lent’ through a kind of ‘gift giving’ in one of the earliest forms of insurance I can think of. I will run with this in my second ridiculous story.

Story 2: Man makes himself a deal

Your village has a grain surplus. A neighbouring village is needing food due to a local flood. There’s no reason not to part with some of the grain surplus… apart from it being yours, that is. The headman of the neighbouring village is aware of your lack of fellow feeling toward his village. He comes with a group of his men in supplication.

Standing before you, he holds out a stone of no particular intrinsic worth and says, “My friend (why is that enough to put you on edge?), this stone is valued by my community for its life-giving properties. Will you accept this in exchange for some of your food? If, at some time, you yourself are short of food and we have a surplus, then you can give us back the stone and we will give you all the food you need.”

You look at the stone. It really is nothing special. It obviously hasn’t done them much good. Is he having you on?

“Er, sorry, no… not for that thing,” you tell him. The headman and his group wander off.

A week later they return. This time the headman holds out a bead of turquoise of such exquisite beauty that you can’t help but gasp. “Will you accept THIS in return for food?” he says.

“That’ll do nicely!” you say.


There are so many interesting avenues and implications here for this scheme that my head reels. First up, the chances of finding archaeological evidence for such trade is negligible. This is because people are very unlikely to throw away such valuable stones or bury them with loved ones. They may have hidden them, but they would need to be retrievable. After all, these were their insurance policies against the bad years. This excuse for the absence of evidence is always useful in any of my arguments.

Second, the version I have described is one of relatively equal status, in which no party will make on the deal in the long term. However, this is unlikely to have always been the case. Some villages, closer to mines perhaps and better endowed in ‘gifts’, might have been able to bargain, ‘selling’ exotic stones at a higher rate than the rate for ‘buying’. In this scenario all communities would still be better able to weather the vagaries of Neolithic seasonal variation. However, some communities would be even better able to than others.

Third, individual ‘gifts’ would come to have different values in this insurance exchange system. The rarest would have the greatest insurance value, but also would tend to guarantee the fairest exchanges. And such personally neutral ‘gifts’ would also be exchangeable with other groups, not just with the original swapsters. ‘Gifts’ would, in fact, tend to be have greatest values travelling in a direction away from their source. These ‘gifts’ would now be commodities of a sort, appearing to show evidence of intentional trade.

Fourth, what I’ve described is at a village level, a form of community insurance. At what point in prehistory might individuals, by such action,  become involved in personal ‘insurance’ or wealth accumulation? Certainly, once carts and animal traction came into existence, this could lead to almost professional ‘insurance’ operations independent of communities, where individuals or small groups took on the role of brokers, exchanging their store of valuables for grain or other foodstuffs, or even other valuable ‘gifts’, over wider regions. Secondary products revolutions could then have rather different effects on society than they are generally assumed to have.


1 – The distribution of Neolithic pioneer farming communities

I suspect that pioneer communities had to be located in very particular environments to survive. As any archaeologist knows, they had to be located in places where there was a sufficient supply of water for crops and animals at the right times of year. Early settlements in the Levant and Anatolia are located on alluvial fans, presumably for this very reason.

However, early settlements also needed to be located in places within a chain of connection with other communities. These chains would naturally be located along preferred routes through the landscape, as was observed by Andrew Sherratt³. Any settlement sighted at a location isolated and awkward to get to, no matter how good the land, would be subject to failure eventually.

Like the parable of the seed, scattered communities might initially appear willy-nilly across the landscape. However, only those communities in the right places would survive and thrive. I suspect that this is the reason why the spread of farming across Europe was not really like an expanding bubble but more a case of spreading tendrils (this contradicts some of my earlier thoughts).

2 – The role of Neolithic insurance and ‘prestige goods’

I suspect that exchange of ‘gifts’, items of rarity and beauty, with or without function, would have been much more extensive in Neolithic farming communities than is currently realised. Greenstone, obsidian and rare copper items and turquoise beads found in Neolithic settings may be the tip of the iceberg.

Such items could be ‘purchased’ for quantities of surplus grain in good years and ‘sold’ for vital quantities of grain in bad years. Such exchanges would have been either equal or unequal depending on the nature of the items exchanged. The grain might never travel that far. However, the ‘gifts’ could travel, by hand to hand exchange, over much greater distances, their value increasing with distance from their source, even though no deliberate trade was involved. The involvement of food surplus may explain why such prestige items, even if uncommon, are still far more visible in Neolithic than in Mesolithic or Palaeolithic communities.


Bogucki, P. 2011 How Wealth Happened in Neolithic Central Europe, Journal of World Prehistory 24, p107-115.

ºChilde, V.G. 1942 (revised 1954) – What happened in history, Penguin, p 67.

¹Clare, L. 2010 Pastoral Clashes: Conflict Risk and Mitigation at the Pottery Neolithic Transition in the Southern Levant, Neolithics 1/10, p13-31.

²Dixon, J.E., Cann, J. R. & Renfrew, C. 1968 Obsidian and the origins of trade, Scientific American 218, p38-46.

³Sherratt, A. 2005 The Origins of Farming in South-West Asia, Archatlas.


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