Conflict and Proximity

One thing that is often discussed in research of the Near Eastern Neolithic, is the fact that the emergence of sedentary villages would have required new mechanisms of conflict resolution as communities could no longer afford to ‘vote with their feet’ and fission in response to conflict.  Investment in place meant that larger groups of people would have required ways of dealing with interpersonal conflict in a way that allowed them to maintain cohesion within the community.

Archaeologists have looked to many different lines of evidence to discover these mechanisms, but most arguments come down to the idea that integration within Neolithic communities removed conflict and diffused tension.  Mortuary practices have been suggested to have been managed in a such a way as to refer back to common ancestors, emphasizing familial ties within communities.  Increased representational art is argued to have been used to materialize identity, and therefore provide a mnemonic device when meeting people or distant acquaintances to indicate how these people ought to be treated. Even my previous discussions of Neolithic communal buildings emphasized how shared experiences within the structures would have created cohesion and community.

In my mind, all this shows that as archaeologists, we have a bias towards explanations of cohesion and integration that remove conflict.

Other fields have different perspectives though.  For example, an interesting criminology article argues that the actual act of conflict and conflict resolution is an important part of the creation of community (Christie 1977).  The argument of the article focuses on the fact that the modern justice system has removed the victim’s right to participate, making criminal proceedings between offender and the state, with the victim having no ownership or participation in the outcome.  This means that the judicial proceedings do not provide closure for the victims, and generally do not work to rebuild relationships between the victim and offender.  The involved parties are segregated, and kept from interacting.  Regardless of the outcome, the involved parties will rarely enjoy the type of relationship that existed prior to the event.

This does not create community.

Similarly, Jared Diamond in The World Until Yesterday talks about how the modern system benefits society by breaking the cycle of retaliatory violence, but at the expense of emotional closure and reconciliation.

Community therefore means conflict.  Small communities, where inhabitants live in close proximity to one another, cannot segregate themselves from people with whom they have conflict.  People need to take ownership of their problems and be intimately involved in their resolution.  This means that public space needs to be one of the places that individuals and groups can use to resolve conflicts, and will also be one of the spaces where conflicting parties will come into contact regularly.

Along these lines, I read an editorial that discussed the usefulness of public space for bringing conflicting elements of a community into proximity with one another at Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto.  This editorial discusses how rough conversation and family-friendly activities moderate one another within the park, and how despite not fostering direct interaction between groups that could in other circumstances be in conflict, the park provides opportunities for these people to be in proximity to one another and develop community relationships.

This acceptance of the importance of conflict and the importance of tension for drawing the variability and strengths out into a community is something that I think we should keep in mind for discussions of early Neolithic communities, both in the Near East and elsewhere.  We as archaeologists can perhaps become blinkered in our desire to find mechanisms of maintaining community cohesion that eliminate conflict, but in reality, community cohesion would have been forged and maintained with conflict.  Community space must be understood in these terms.

Further Reading:

Christie, Nils.  (1977) “Conflict as Property” The British Journal of Criminology 17:1 (1-15).

Kuijt, I. (2000). “People and Space in Early Agricultural Villages: Exploring Daily Lives, Community Size, and Architecture in the Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 19: 75-102.

Kuijt, I. (2000). Keeping the Peace: Ritual, Skull Caching, and Community Integration in the Levantine Neolithic. Life in Neolithic Farming Communities: Social Organization, Identity and Differentiation. I. Kuijt. New York, Kluwer Academic: 137-164.

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