The Stone Age Mindset

Nathan C. J. Hood

Over the last few weeks, I have been exploring Orkney. It is a cluster of small islands that are located an hour north of mainland Scotland by ferry. One of its most striking features is that it is home to several Neolithic tombs, stone circles and domestic complexes. These monuments were built between 3000 and 2000 BC, around 5000 years ago. That means that some of these structures are older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. It is not only the age that is significant, but the density of buildings is unique. Orkney has hundreds of these prehistoric sites, many of which you can enter. They have survived because they were made out of stone. While most Neolithic buildings were formed out of materials that have since degraded, such as wood, the stone on Orkney was easily crafted into slates that could be used for construction. This means that Orkney is an archaeological gold mine. Thousands of artefacts have been found in these ruins. The architecture and objects of the past can hint at what life was like for our ancient ancestors. Without written sources, a great deal of guesswork and imagination must be used to interpret these findings. Any claims made about the people and their society are at best suggestive readings. With this in mind, the monuments of Orkney can tell us important things about the foundations of our society. In so doing, they can instruct us as to how these primordial peoples built physical, social and cultural structures. They can indicate how they overcame the eroding power of entropy.

The Neolithic men and women of Orkney were part of a large-scale transformation in human living. For most of human history, we have been hunter-gatherers. Living in small-scale groups, we foraged for roots and berries, fished the rivers and seas, and pursued the boar and deer. With crude bone and stone implements (microliths), such as arrowheads, we saw to our immediate needs with skill. Communities were mobile, following their food according to the seasons. For the best part of 300,000 years, humans existed as a part of the natural order. They operated within the ecosystems of nature as one predator among many. While many have characterised this ‘state of nature’ as ‘nasty, brutish and short’, it seems that ancient hunter-gatherers were relatively healthy in the years prior to the Neolithic revolution. Skeletons show that they lived longer, suffered fewer ailments and were taller than their farming descendants. This may have been because they had a varied diet that was, for the most part, based on a reliable set of food sources. Moreover, the Mesolithic peoples made jewellery and created cave paintings. They were not grugs. They were sophisticated and intelligent.

Around 10000 BC (fairly recent in human history) an ‘agricultural revolution’ took place. Beginning in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East before spreading throughout Europe and East Asia, communities began to farm. They grew crops and domesticated animals. We no longer were participants in a natural system. Now we remade the world for our benefit. As our food source remained in one place, Neolithic peoples lived a sedentary life. They abandoned the nomadic and, in some places, foraging and hunting. Polished stone and bone tools (axes, maces, needles etc.) enabled them to construct more elaborate buildings and to make ornaments. Farming gave them time to engage in these crafts. Fewer people could produce more food as farmers than a community of hunter-gatherers. The surplus food meant that fewer people were needed for food production. They could then spend their time on non-food labour, contributing to the group in new ways, such as by making pottery, crafting tools, building tombs or conducting rituals. The agricultural revolution not only changed the way we produced food. It also facilitated the formation of societies wherein several members engaged in cultural activities.

In Orkney, the agricultural revolution came later than elsewhere. While the Copper Age had already begun by 4500 BC in the Fertile Crescent, domesticated animals appeared on the islands only around 4000 BC. It is not clear whether they were brought by newcomers to the lands, indigenous populations or a mixture of both. Either way, new ways of life began to emerge. The land was suitable for growing crops and grazing herds, while the seas provided an abundance of fish and bird life. Farmers supplemented their new sources of food with hunting. They made ample use of the animals they controlled and caught. Beyond food, they used their skins and bones for a range of purposes, such as a cow’s shoulder blade as a shovel and the bone of a gannet for tattoo work. Though some may have continued to live by the old ways, they were ultimately beaten by their adapting neighbours, whether by force or by the attractiveness of these new Stone Age societies.

Though much has changed since the first farmers arrived in Orkney, there is substantial continuity between us and them. We share the same social structure. A portion of the group produces food through agriculture and pasturing, enabling the rest to engage in other activities. Though industrialisation has increased the scale and efficiency of food production to a global level, this has only increased our ability to sustain populations who are not themselves involved in the supply or transportation of food. The existence of the sports star, the e-celebrity and the journalist is maintained by the agricultural production and networks that are in play. Such roles could not exist in hunter-gatherer societies wherein every member must contribute to the finding of food. In this way, we can see modern society as an expansion or extension of the Neolithic farming community. Put another way, though contrasting in size, they are the same kind of social order. The main difference between us and them is that the Neolithic lived in what Ferdinand Tönnies coined a Gemeinschaft, a ‘community’ based on kin or shared belief/affections that is grounded in personal interactions, roles and relationships. We live in a Gesellschaft, a ‘society’ that is structured around impersonal bureaucratic and managerial modes of relationship and action.

That the modern world is just an outworking of the way of life established by our farming ancestors can be seen in the houses preserved on Orkney. On the West of ‘the Mainland’, the biggest of the islands, there is a settlement called ‘Skara Brae’. Situated next to the coast, the village was covered in sand until one day a storm uncovered the remains. It consisted of a dozen or so houses connected by a stone-covered corridor with a workshop just outside. This small village was settled, abandoned and rebuilt over hundreds of years. It was unusual for the New Stone Age insofar as most people lived in homesteads, perhaps suggesting that the inhabitants were an elite group somehow connected to the Stone Circles and Henges that are not too far away. The houses that they had are in many ways similar to our own. Though they had only one room, it was divided by stone walls and doorways into different compartments. A hearth in the middle provided light, warmth and cured meats which were hung from racks overhead; stone walls marked out spaces for sleeping and storage; a ‘dresser’ made of stone shelves held objects; water troughs were built into the floor; and a toilet, linking up with a drainage system taking waste to the sea, was given space. I think a Neolithic person would be able to understand the different parts of a modern house with only a little explanation as we have just expanded the size and changed the methods by which we secure heat, warmth, light, sleeping space, toilet space, food/water and object storage. It makes sense that this is so as they were the primordial origin of our way of life.

No one knows with any certainty why an agricultural revolution took place 10,000 years ago. But that has not stopped archaeologists and economists from speculating. Some have argued that climate change, natural disasters and tectonic shifts have led to food shortages. These forced groups to seek more reliable food sources, arriving at agriculture. Others suggest that the competition between hunter-gatherers led to an exhaustion of the food supply. Bigger groups will necessarily dominate the smaller ones in the battle for territory and resources, thereby leading to a situation where the ecosystem is over-exploited. Agriculture offered a surplus of food that could be enjoyed by many groups provided that they had access to fertile land. This perhaps leads to the simplest reason: farming is more efficient than hunting or gathering for the production of food. It requires less labour and creates a greater quantity than is possible by foraging or hunting. This would be an attractive prospect. Moreover, it frees up members of the community for other tasks and, as such, allows for the development of cultural activities. Furthermore, a more efficient means of producing food enables the growth of the population, thereby securing the legacy of the kin. 

Whatever the reason, the monuments built in Orkney leave traces of the Stone Age Mindset. They give us clues as to why these people embraced agriculturalism. To get there, we must first picture the traits of the Mesolithic man and woman. Thom Hartman has suggested that attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is an inheritance from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In their societies, ‘hyperfocus’ (an intense concentration or visualisation on a topic or task that is a core part of ADHD) would have been highly advantageous. They could stay absorbed in the task at hand for extended periods of time, enabling immediate responses to prey and predator alike. Moreover, a short attention span for things that do not interest the individual would have been helpful as they would be more alert to changes in their surroundings, thereby helping them to hunt and avoid danger. Hartman goes on to suggest that while these traits were ideal for ninety per cent of human history, with the agricultural revolution such traits were no longer needed. Those who had them were not well adapted for such societies. In support of Hartman’s claims, Tim Callaway has observed that in contemporary nomadic communities, hyperactivity and impulsivity, core aspects of ADHD, are extremely helpful.

The Neolithic age is characterised by low time preference. Farming is a drawn-out enterprise. As opposed to being in the moment and acting on instinct, Orkney’s first farmers engaged in discursive thought to develop plans that spanned several months or years. Then they grew food over many months so that it could be stored and, thus, eaten later. Doing so sacrificed the possible gains that could be made by hunting or foraging in the present. But it enabled them to achieve a more bounteous reward in the future. The farmer lived a life that encompassed more than the immediate now. They had an appreciation for and an experience of the relationships between the past, present and future. They understood the dynamic between continuity and change. This allowed them to create their own system of food production that operated and lasted for centuries. It enabled them to establish a new order in nature.

The same was true of the Megalithic structures. At either end of the Ness of Brodgar, there are two stone circles. The Ring of Brodgar would have had 60 stones surrounded by a ditch that was 3 metres deep, 9 metres wide and 380 metres in circumference. These stones were brought from across the islands to the site between 2500-2000 BC. To the south lie the Stones of Stenness, possibly the oldest henge site in Britain, being built around 3100 BC. It originally had 12 stones, each thin and pointed, with some reaching 5 metres in height, encircling a hearth. For people with stone and bone tools, the digging of the ditches, the crafting of these stones so that they would not crack and the transportation of them across the islands would have been a monumental task. The same is true of the ceremonial complex that sits between the two rings. Several large and unusual structures have been found that do not seem to have been houses given the absence of domestic waste. They could have been ritual sites used infrequently during various festivities. They included a 4-metre-wide wall, a 16-ton stone roof and buildings with multiple hearths. None of these projects could be done in a short time. They required extensive labour over many months, years and (possibly) generations. Only a community with low time preference would and could build these monuments.

The Orcadian farmer’s preoccupation with time was reflected in the kinds of things that they built. It has been suggested that the Ring of Brodgar maps out solar and lunar cycles. Many of the chambered cairns (tombs) also have astronomical significance. Most are structured so that they have a small entrance tunnel that one must crawl through in order to reach the central chamber. Several are positioned so that at certain times of year the light of the sun will flow down the corridor and into these pitch-black spaces, illuminating the interior. The most famous example of this is the impressive Maeshowe, a mile south of the Stones of Stenness. About 700 metres away sits the Barnhouse Stone, a standing stone that is aligned with the cairn’s entrance. At the Winter Solstice (21st December), the Sun’s rays strike the top of the Barnhouse stone, thereby redirecting the light through the lengthy tunnel into the 4-metre-high chamber of flat slab stones. It lights up the back wall in the darkness of winter, the blackness a prominent reality in the far north where Orkney is situated. 

The chambered cairns leave traces of the Stone Age Mindset. Within these stone buildings, there was usually a central chamber. Some were divided into parts with standing stones that separated the space into compartments. Others had side chambers that could be crawled into. Communities would place some of their dead within their walls. Not everyone had the privilege of being laid to rest here, implying that it was for the elite. Initially, the body would be placed in one of the side chambers. It would be left to rot. When the flesh had disappeared, the bones would be moved and the skull set alongside others lining the walls of the tomb. As time passed, it is likely that older bodies were removed to make space for newer internments. It is not known why the Neolithic built these chambers or what they did inside. Some have suggested that they were markers of territory. Several are placed on hillsides above Neolithic settlements, perhaps offering a visual indicator that the current inhabitants have a right to the land as their fathers and mothers had worked it before them. Whether this is true or not, the builders put themselves into a relationship with the past. They marked out the land where they had come from. They also established a connection with the future as they set in stone the trajectory by which their descendants would relate to them. The chambered cairns were an ever-evolving tradition, with the canon of the ancestors changing as space was made for new arrivals, thereby altering the historical record with new meaning. The inner sanctum was a place, separated from the present, where the living could preserve their relations with the dead.

While most theories about the agricultural revolution focus on the advantages of farming, what is interesting about Orkney is that chambered cairns were some of the earliest structures to be built. Many were punctuated by periods of abandonment and reuse. Nevertheless, those who first shifted from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle dedicated themselves to the construction of these tombs. It is commonly assumed that the turn to farming came first and then the cairns. This is because farming was necessary for the building of such places as the surplus in food allowed people to spend time on such projects. But another way to read it is that there was an impulse within the Neolithic individual towards an expansive perception of time. This new awareness underpinned both their agricultural and social activities. It may have even been the case that they adopted farming because they wanted to build a cultural tradition in stone. At the very least, the drive towards a low-time preference was bound up with the construction of spaces that had no direct benefit for the community’s production of food or for the fulfilment of basic necessities. They felt that it important to spend their time and labour on something that had more significance than immediate satisfaction, something that transcended the present now. They worked in service of something bigger than themselves.

There was a cost to the agricultural revolution. Skeletons show that Neolithic farmers were, on average, several inches shorter than their hunter-gatherer forbears. Their teeth showed signs of disease, with Orcadians typically suffering from scurvy. This was in contrast to the Mesolithic nomads. As such, the average age of death for a farmer was 25, while for a hunter-gatherer it was the early 30s. A starchy diet meant that Neolithic farmers had a vitamin C deficiency. More tightly clustered, their settlements may have been breeding grounds for diseases. Additionally, they may have become alienated from the natural world. While the hunter-gatherer operated within a natural ecosystem, the farmer created an artificial system for the production of food. They had conquered nature, they stood over and against the natural order. This estrangement was a necessary byproduct of abstracting and repurposing plants and animals for humanity’s gain. The duel consequences of suffering and alienation may have been implicit in several mythological origin stories. Hesiod describes the earliest ages of mankind as being free of toil and suffering, men eating fruit from the trees. In our current era, precipitated by Pandora opening the box, men must toil for food. In the Book of Genesis, God created humanity. The original couple were allowed to eat from every green plant or tree in the world barring the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When Adam breaks this commandment, God curses him to get his food ‘through painful toil’ and planted fields.

While the agricultural revolution may have left deep scars, it was the primordial singularity from which our civilisation grew. It built the order that has expanded and contracted over the millennia. In our age, we are witnessing the collapse of the structures established by Neolithic peoples. Our essential services are strained. Entropy is rife. While there may be many factors at play, I think a large part of it is that we have abandoned the Stone Age Mindset. We are a high-time preference people. Advertisers encourage us to spend our money now so that we can gratify our immediate desires. In a culture where most people show signs of pathological narcissism, there is an obsession with feeling good and getting approval, both things that are to be felt in the present now. Social media intensifies these behaviours. Democracy incentivises politicians to chase after short-term policy and media wins so that they can boost their ratings for the next election. It discourages embracing projects that have long-term goals with more bounteous results unseen by today’s voters. Boomer liberalism and critical theory deconstruct the past so that we live for today and only today. A people with no history has no future, as indicated by a decline in birthrates, a delight in destructive behaviours and the apocalyptic fervour of our age. Even necessary skills degrade as we bypass years of technical training and justify this decline according to various ideologies. The long-term thinking and planning required to build and sustain an agricultural society such as our own is completely missing. 

Until we have a richer relationship with time, entropy will win. To stand against disintegration requires a perception of more than the present, a drive to build something bigger than ourselves, and a willingness to sacrifice present goods for later more bounteous rewards. In other words, it requires a return to the vital source of our society. We must return to the Stone Age Mindset.