The Invention of Prehistory and the Rediscovery of Europe: Exploring the Intellectual Roots of Gordon Childe’s ‘Neolithic Revolution’ (1936)

  • Maxime N. BramiEmail author


This article re-examines the ‘neolithic revolution’—Gordon Childe’s great contribution to prehistoric archaeology. Childe first articulated his model of three revolutions in history—neolithic, urban and industrial—in 1936. Many authors have sought to understand it in the light of subsequent archaeological theory; here I proceed differently. A broader appreciation of the context in which Childe operated, in Britain and the rest of Europe, is necessary if we are to grasp fully the content of his model and the theoretical strands that influenced it. This article aims to elucidate the Neolithic as a historical construct and Childe’s archaeology as a continuation of his politics. The facts are viewed from four perspectives: (a) personal, with biographical information about the young Gordon Childe; (b) institutional, through a description of the 1920s research landscape in London; (c) ideological, through an attempt to retrace the European Weltanschauung; and (d) conceptual, with a discussion of the ‘neolithic revolution’. Childe’s love-hate relationship with Germany and Austria heavily influenced his model, which is essentially a grand synthesis between the Kulturkreislehre (of Gräbner) and the Dreistufenlehre (probably of Karl Bücher, through its critique by the Functionalists in London). The model’s revolutionary structure comes from dialectical materialism. All three main building blocks of the ‘neolithic revolution’—diffusionist, evolutionist and Marxist—ultimately derive from the great nineteenth century German historical tradition. An anti-fascist his entire life, Childe tried to rescue German ideas in face of the impending catastrophe—Hitler’s arrival to power, and the destruction of Central European intellectual traditions.


Prehistory Europe Gordon Childe Neolithic revolution History of anthropology Diffusionism 


Dieser Artikel unterzieht die „neolithische Revolution“, Gordon Childes bedeutendster Beitrag zur prähistorischen Archäologie, einer erneuten Untersuchung. Childe hatte sein Modell von den drei historischen Revolutionen—die neolithische, die urbane und die industrielle—zum ersten Mal im Jahre 1936 artikuliert. Viele Autoren haben versucht sein Modell im Lichte neuerer Forschungsarbeiten zu verstehen. Hier gehe ich anders vor. Eine Beurteilung des breiteren Kontextes, in dem Childe sowohl in Großbritannien als auch im übrigen Europa tätig war, erschien notwendig, um den Inhalt seines Modells und den Einfluss der verschiedenen theoretischen Strömungen auf seine Schriften zu verstehen. Dieser Artikel lässt das Neolithikum als historisches Bauwerk und Childes Archäologie als Fortsetzung seiner politischen Tätigkeit erscheinen. Die Fakten werden aus vier verschiedenen Blickwinkeln dargestellt: a) individuell, basierend auf biografischen Informationen über den jungen Gordon Childe; b) institutionell, durch Beschreibung der Forschungslandschaft Londons in den 1920er Jahren; c) ideologisch, durch den Versuch die europäische Weltanschauung wiederherzustellen; und d) konzeptuell, mit einer Diskussion über die „neolithische Revolution”. Ich zeige, wie sein Hass-Liebe-Verhältnis zu Deutschland und Österreich sein Modell stark beeinflusst hat, das im wesentlichen eine große Synthese zwischen der Kulturkreislehre (nach Gräbner) und der Dreistufenlehre (möglicherweise nach Karl Bücher, über die Kritik durch die Londoner Funktionalisten) ist. Die revolutionäre Struktur des Modells wiederum stammt vom dialektischen Materialismus. Zusammenfassend lassen sich alle drei Hauptbausteine—Diffusionist, Evolutionist und Marxist –, die die „neolithische Revolution“ausmachen, direkt oder indirekt aus der großen deutschen historischen Tradition des 19. Jahrhunderts ableiten. Childe, der sein ganzes Leben lang Antifaschist war, versuchte die deutschen Ideen, vor der bevorstehenden Katastrophe zu retten, nämlich der Machtergreifung Hitlers und damit der Zerstörung mitteleuropäischer intellektueller Traditionen.


Cet article propose un réexamen de la ‘révolution néolithique’—la contribution majeure de Gordon Childe à l’archéologie préhistorique. Childe a élaboré son modèle des trois révolutions dans l’histoire, à savoir néolithique, urbaine et industrielle, en 1936. Beaucoup d’auteurs ont cherché à comprendre ce modèle à la lumière de travaux théoriques plus récents. Ici j’ai procédé différemment. Une appréciation du contexte plus large dans lequel Childe a fonctionné, à la fois en Grande-Bretagne et dans le reste de l’Europe, a paru nécessaire pour bien comprendre le contenu de son modèle et l’influence des différents courants théoriques sur ses écrits. Cet article fait apparaître le Néolithique comme une construction historique et l’archéologie de Childe comme le prolongement de son activité politique. Les faits sont présentés sous quatre angles différents: (a) individuel, à partir d’informations biographiques concernant le jeune Gordon Childe; (b) institutionnel, à travers une description du paysage intellectuel du Londres des années 1920; (c) idéologique, par une tentative de reconstitution de la Weltanschauung européenne; et (d) conceptuel, avec une discussion de la ‘révolution néolithique’. Je montre comment la relation ambivalente de Childe à l’Allemagne et l’Autriche a fortement influencé son modèle, qui est essentiellement une grande synthèse entre la Kulturkreislehre (de Gräbner) et la Dreistufenlehre (probablement de Karl Bücher, à partir de la critique des fonctionnalistes à Londres). La structure révolutionnaire du modèle provient à son tour du matérialisme dialectique. En somme, les trois éléments –diffusionniste, évolutionniste et marxiste—qui constituent la ‘révolution néolithique’, proviennent directement ou indirectement de la grande tradition historique allemande du XIXe siècle. Antifasciste toute sa vie, Childe a tenté de sauver les idées allemandes de la catastrophe à venir, à savoir l’arrivée au pouvoir d’Hitler et, avec lui, la destruction des traditions intellectuelles d’Europe centrale.



Many of the ideas of this paper were formed while teaching archaeological theory with Tim Taylor and Kerstin Kowarik at the University of Vienna. This was a liberating experience at a time when I most needed new directions. David Shankland is, in a way, the person who initiated this research about 10 years ago, when I was a student at Bristol, by impressing on me that social anthropologists never talked about ‘diffusion’, not even in their textbooks. I have always thought that taboos were made to be broken, and I hope that I can be forgiven for using the word diffusion and disclosing the circumstances of its remarkable fall from grace: I blame Malinowski, but Childe conspired! Part of the research was conducted in London with a small library grant from the RAI (The Royal Anthropological Institute—David C. Pitt Library Fellowship, 2018). The ghost of Childe still haunts the books, which deserve to be consulted more often. At UCL, I met a Childe fanatic, Katie Meheux, who knew at least ten times more than I did about him and those around him. We both saw Childe for what he was: a radical thinker. I sometimes felt like I appropriated him from her, but I know that she will not mind, because Childe belongs to us all now. I thank Nicole Kerschen, who not only brought me into this world—literally, she is my mum—but who crucially helped me to crack one of the more impenetrable German concepts, Kulturkreislehre. Somewhat worryingly she seems to have adopted the whole frame of mind now and I would not be surprised to see a string of papers published on Europeanization of social policies as culture circles. Katie Meheux, Antoine Muller and David Shankland kindly sent me detailed feedback on an earlier draft of this article and helped a lot in making my argument clearer and more convincing. Many other people have contributed directly or indirectly to the success of this article: Joachim Burger, Timothy Champion, Chris Hann, Herbert Lewis, Katharina Rebay-Salisbury, Stephen Shennan and Ulrike Sommer. I bid a fond farewell to my old tribe in Vienna: B.M., S.E., D.M.B., D.B., S.B., S.C. They were often on my mind when I was writing. And I wish to dedicate this study to the 56% who voted for other candidates than Hitler in the German federal election of March 1933. Not all were on the wrong side of history.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Palaeogenetics Group, Institute of Organismic and Molecular EvolutionJohannes Gutenberg University MainzMainzGermany

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