Carr on Gilligan, 'Climate, Clothing, and Agriculture in Prehistory: Linking Evidence, Causes, and Effects'

Ian Gilligan
Karen Carr

Ian Gilligan. Climate, Clothing, and Agriculture in Prehistory: Linking Evidence, Causes, and Effects. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Illustrations, graphs, charts. 361 pp. $34.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-108-45519-0; $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-47008-7.

Reviewed by Karen Carr (Portland State University) Published on H-War (February, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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Ian Gilligan’s reconceptualization of how and why agriculture emerged at the end of the last Ice Age is a welcome addition to the field of prehistory. Gilligan proposes that textiles played a considerably more important role in this process than is usually acknowledged. I could not agree more. As Gilligan points out, early farmers grew not only wheat, rice, corn, and sorghum but also a lot of cotton, flax, jute, and hemp. While the crowded field of men studying the Ice Age and the transition to agriculture has mainly focused on why people transitioned to growing their own food instead of gathering it, Gilligan plausibly suggests that the first farmers might have been choosing to grow fiber for clothing and only later added food.[1]

Gilligan gives us an excellent summary in chapter 10 of the issues around food and the transition to agriculture. Here, too, I agree: prehistorians do not yet have a coherent, convincing explanation for the transition to agriculture, or the development of sedentarism, or the development of inequality and hierarchy. As he says, archaeologists do not even agree on whether these three events were related to each other, as each of them seems to sometimes have developed independently of the other two.

But I cannot follow his argument farther than that. Gilligan cites a 2002 article by Jared Diamond in his explanation of “the stupendous stupidity of agriculture” (p. 132), and indeed, Gilligan’s argument from this point on reminds me of Diamond’s earlier Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), in that it provides a convenient rationale for why today’s white men control wealth and power.[2] Like Diamond, Gilligan implies that the world’s inequalities are an accident of geography. People who stuck out the last Ice Age in the North were forced to wear tunics and pants sewn from skin and fur—his “complex clothing”—to keep warm. Afterward, as the weather got hotter, skins and furs proved too sweaty. But these people had gotten used to wearing clothing both for modesty and as an indicator of social identity. Rather than simply undressing, they sought out summer clothes. They started to farm cotton and bast fibers (like linen), and they domesticated sheep for their wool (which Gilligan thinks they did produce at this stage).

Gilligan suggests that the separation from nature engendered by wearing tunics and pants led these people to start living in houses, to become sedentary, and ultimately to prefer walled towns. Wearing clothing, in his view, may even explain the Neolithic population explosion, the end of egalitarianism, and the rise of materialism and hierarchical societies. Does this necessarily lead us to think that “once we possess complex clothing, we can conquer the whole world, including the polar zones—we gain access to every climate zone on the planet” (p. 64)? I find it hard to reconcile Gilligan’s idea that “the final step occurs when shame somehow becomes necessary for society—and society becomes civilized”—with naked men working in twentieth-century coal mines, on the one hand, and government beatings of abaya-covered women in Saudi Arabia, on the other (p. 65).[3]

Many small issues in this scenario, taken together, cast doubt on the whole. First, were people really so unused to showing skin that they were willing to take up farming in order to provide themselves with clothes? July and August daytime temperatures in, say, northern France at the coldest part of the Ice Age may have reached about 60 degrees Fahrenheit (about 18 degrees Celsius).[4] Not only can Tierra del Fuegans go without clothing at that temperature, but so, too, apparently can today’s undergraduates. As I write, the main quad at Brown University is full of sunbathers in tanks and shorts. At the latitude of France, Iran, or China, summer temperatures may not have required clothes even at the height of the last Ice Age.

Second, Gilligan suggests that early farmers needed clothing to display their social identities. Early people certainly used their bodies for this purpose, through tattoos, scarification, or body paint. Ice Age people decorated their clothing instead. In the Paleolithic burials at Sunghir, in northern Russia, people wore tunics, pants, and caps elaborately embroidered with thousands of tiny bone beads. On the other hand, Elizabeth Barber’s well-known Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years (1994) proposes that women in the Ice Age wore string skirts—over otherwise naked bodies—to demonstrate their readiness for child-bearing (as noted by Gilligan, p. 128), and more recent work by James Adovasio and Olga Soffer (The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory [2007]) backs this up. Tattooing remained common in northern Asia well into the Iron Age and beyond.[5] In Peru, people used indigo and ochre to dye cotton as early as 4500 BC but nevertheless continued to get elaborate tattoos right up to the eleventh century AD.[6] But if Neolithic people were still getting tattoos and wearing string skirts and loincloths (as depicted at Göbekli Tepe, as Gilligan notes), then surely they did not feel that their bodies always had to be covered.

Furthermore, the bast fibers (like linen) that early farmers wore did not take dyes well and were usually left undyed or simply bleached white. In cultures like Egypt and Sudan, where people wore mainly linen, they still relied on jewelry (as Barber says) and on tattoos to convey social information. Nor did people give up wearing hide clothes at the end of the Ice Age; Ötzi the Iceman—who was also tattooed—wore not only a fur coat and pants but also leather underwear for his walk in the high Alps in late spring or early summer around 3300 BC, in the early Bronze Age.

As Gilligan is aware, Barber, Adovasio, Soffer, and others have found increasing evidence supporting plant fiber textile production during the Ice Age. Soffer may have found evidence that some Ice Age objects were spinning and weaving tools. Whether people commonly wore textiles during the Ice Age remains an open question, but they certainly did not need to get the idea of wearing fibers as a leap from furs, like wearing a fur coat without the skin, as Gilligan suggests. And if woven clothes replaced hide clothes for modesty as the weather grew warmer, we might expect people to have worn the same tunic and pants as before in lighter materials. But instead, people gave up wearing pants entirely. Bronze Age clothing consists, as Barber points out, of a light fiber tunic, a belt, and sometimes a wool wrap.[7] In Bronze Age Mesopotamia, most men seem to have worn only a sheepskin kilt, “when they wore anything at all.”[8]

Gilligan suggests that wearing clothing led people to live in houses and to build town walls. “Sedentism, like agriculture, was connected with people who had clothing. The clothing involved was mainly complex: that is, clothes that routinely cover and effectively enclose the human body.... sedentism is an externalized form of clothing” (pp. 209-10). Yet in Indonesia, in Kongo, in Zimbabwe, and in Cambodia (Gilligan’s example), people whose ancestors had never lived in cold climates nevertheless became sedentary, built houses, and even built stone walls around their villages. The people of Mbanza Kongo did not wear fitted clothes in the 1500s, but they did live in mud-brick houses, in a town with rectilinear streets and walls. On the other hand, many people whose ancestors had lived in cold climates, in Mongolia and Europe, did not start farming when the Ice Age ended, nor did they become sedentary.

Gilligan goes on to suggest that the Neolithic population explosion could be a consequence of this newfound commitment to modesty. He suggests that early weaning, by reducing the contraceptive effect of nursing, “might be the reason why women got pregnant sooner” (p. 192). He thinks that modesty might have dissuaded women from nursing: “The real problem with breastfeeding may relate more to its pleasurable and sensual aspects, making it more problematic to feed older infants and children in this manner” (pp. 193-95).

But if Ice Age women became more modest when they started to wear more clothing, perhaps about 30,000 BC, why did they continue traditional lengthy breastfeeding in cold weather for twenty thousand years, only to give it up when the weather got warm again? And if people were disturbed by women breastfeeding in the Neolithic, why had this not bothered them in the Ice Age? In any case, the contraceptive effect of breastfeeding does not really last to include six-year-olds. Breastfeeding does not make much difference to fertility after the first six months, as shown in Gilligan’s table 9.3. And given the lack of Neolithic taboos against infanticide, if parents found themselves having more children than they wanted, why would they not have simply abandoned them?

Barber suggests that women had more children intentionally, because they needed them to help with farmwork and because of the increased danger of dysentery and other diseases in settled communities.[9] Perhaps at this point we could find a way to combine Barber’s ideas with Gilligan’s and suggest that early farmers produced more children not to farm food but to produce more cloth? Possibly what was worth investing in was not producing clothing for your own group to wear but producing fancy textiles that could be traded to other groups, or to hierarchical leaders of other groups. Barber’s description of the elaborate textiles found at Catal Huyuk, “both wide and narrow plain-weave fabrics, weft twining of two sorts, fringed edges, rolled and whipped hems, and reinforced selvedges,” and the availability of donkeys as pack animals suggest possible production for sale.[10] Perhaps people had formed a habit of selling furs in the Ice Age and turned to textiles when the large fur animals went extinct? We know that by this time people were trading shell beads and obsidian points, so trade in textiles might also have been important. In this scenario, more children would mean planting and harvesting more flax, more carding, more spinning, and ultimately more textiles to sell.

The role of enslaved labor and trade will be a fruitful direction for future work in this area. Barber knows that in the Bronze Age enslaved women produced many—perhaps most—textiles, working in large workshops where dozens of women alternately spun linen and wool with drop spindles and knelt to grind grain. But she gives us an excessively sunny view of Neolithic textile production, with women working together on elaborate fancywork as the children played at their feet.[11] Gilligan hardly considers textile production at all, even though the vast majority of the work in textile production comes after the harvesting is done: retting, harvesting dyestuffs, preparing dyes, carding, spinning, weaving, and then sewing. He does not discuss modes of production or methods of distribution. And yet can we really be so sure that economic modes so common in the Bronze Age did not exist at all in the Neolithic?

Gilligan’s work also suggests other new avenues for future investigation. Future work might look into the role of straw and wicker. By the Neolithic, we know that people were using straw to thatch houses, wipe up messes, sweep floors, and sip beer. And they were also weaving straw into baskets, mats, cleaning pads, and shoes. For all we know, it was this plentiful supply of straw that encouraged the development of textiles for clothing, rather than the discomfort of wearing skins on hot days. In addition to straw, people wove wicker into chairs, tables, fences, traps, cages, and racks. What is the relationship between this and woven textiles?

Another avenue for future research lies in the non-clothing uses of textiles. Wider looms allowed people to manufacture textiles for use as sails, tents, sheets, curtains, and packaging, for example. Neither Barber nor Gilligan address this question, but the development of the early Holocene textile industry may have been driven as much or more by these uses as by the need for clothing.

There is also still much to do before we will really have included the entire world in our thoughts about early textile production and the transition to agriculture. Gilligan does not take into account the widespread use of cotton and agave cloth in Native American towns in North America, which did not result in inequality or materialism in those towns. He does not discuss the use of cotton in Sudan and along the coast of East Africa, or in West Africa and the Sahel. This research still remains to done and might change our view of the causes and effects.

A few smaller comments: the novel Lord of the Flies (1954) does not involve a nuclear holocaust but an unnamed earlier conflict. Future writers on this subject will probably wish to avoid Gilligan’s use of photographs of unclothed indigenous Africans and Australians without names or any indication of their consent. It is also unfortunate to start a discussion of Australian and African customs with the header “Lagging behind Europe” (p. 89).

The decision to create a more readable text by having extended notes at the end means a lot of flipping back and forth and the risk that readers might dismiss an argument that would have been more convincing with the notes. The quality of production is uneven. Graphs and charts are often reproduced from earlier studies, and their source is sometimes unclear; the chart of clothing types that includes girdles and slips cannot really have been created in 2006, as cited (p. 60)? Photographs throughout are often poor quality and, between that and the issue of unclothed Native people, would better have been left out. Gilligan's text is readable and the writing lively, with clear and useful headings and subheadings.

Overall, Gilligan has given us a provocative book that pushes us in the right direction. More work remains before we know to what extent his ideas are justified, but it is past time that archaeologists took textiles as seriously as Neolithic farmers did.


[1]. Gilligan’s bibliography includes about twenty full-length books on this topic, all in English and all but one of them by men. It would have been nice to see at least Daniela Hofmann and Jessica Smyth’s edited collection, Tracking the Neolithic House in Europe: Sedentism, Architecture and Practice (New York: Springer, 2012), or perhaps a mention of Marija Gimbutas’s work, like The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe: 6500-3500 BC (1974; rev. ed., Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). But the Holocene horizon is a male-dominated domain.

[2]. Jared Diamond, “Evolution, Consequences and Future of Plant and Animal Domestication,” Nature 418 (August 2002): 700-7; and Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997).

[3]. Brian Elliott, Yorkshire Mining Veterans: In Their Own Words (Barnsley: Wharncliffe, 2005).

[4]. Peter U. Clark, et al., “Global Climate Evolution during the Last Deglaciation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109, no. 19 (May 2012): E1134-E1142.

[5]. Elizabeth Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994), 131.

[6]. Moche Mask and Mummy, in Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric A. Powell, “Ancient Tattoos,” Archaeology (November/December 2013): 44.

[7]. Barber, Women’s Work, 68.

[8]. Barber, Women’s Work, 133.

[9]. Barber, Women’s Work, 76.

[10]. Barber, Women’s Work, 167.

[11]. Barber, Women’s Work, chap. 7, 86-87, 103.

Citation: Karen Carr. Review of Gilligan, Ian, Climate, Clothing, and Agriculture in Prehistory: Linking Evidence, Causes, and Effects. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL:

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