Sedentism - The Ancient Process of Building a Community

Who Decided it was a Good Idea to Stop Wandering and Move into Town?

Reconstructed Pit Dwelling, Sannai Maruyama
Reconstructed Pit Dwelling, Sannai Maruyama. nyaa birdies perch

Sedentism is the term archaeologists use to describe how it happened that people decided to live in groups for long periods of time. Settling down, picking a place and living in it permanently for at least part of the year, is partially but not entirely related to how a group gets required resources--gathered and grown food and stone for tools and wood for housing and fires.

Hunter-Gatherers and Farmers

Traditionally, anthropologists defined two lifeways for people beginning in the Upper Paleolithic period.

The earliest, hunting and gathering, visualized people who were highly mobile, following herds of animals such as bison and reindeer or moving with normal seasonal climatic changes to collect plant foods as they ripened. By the Neolithic period, so the theory went, people domesticated plants and animals, necessitating permanent settlement to maintain their fields.

However, research since the first discussion of Neolithic societies were identified in the 19th century suggests that sedentism and mobility--and hunter-gatherers and farmers--were not as straightforward as the terms implied. Since the 1970s, anthropologists use the term complex hunter-gatherers to refer to hunter-gatherers who have some elements of complexity, including permanent or semi-permanent residences. But even that doesn't encompass the variability that is today apparent: in the past people changed how mobile their lifestyles were depending on circumstances--sometimes climatic changes, but a range of reasons--from year to year and decade to decade.

Identifying Sedentism Archaeologically

Identifying permanent communities is not as easy as it might seem. Houses are older than sedentism, of course: residences such as brushwood huts at Ohalo II in Israel and mammoth bone structures in Eurasia occur by about 20,000 years ago. Houses made of animal skin, tipis or yurts, were the homestyle of choice for mobile hunter-gatherers throughout the world for an unknown period of time before that.

The earliest permanent structures, made from stone and fired brick, were apparently public structures, ritual places shared by a mobile community, like the monumental structures of Gobekli Tepe, the tower at Jericho, and the communal buildings at Jerf el Ahmar and Mureybet. Residential areas and such things as nontransportable tool kits, cemeteries and storage don't appear until the Early Natufian period.

Some of the traditional features of sedentism are large scale food storage and cemeteries, permanent architecture, increased population levels, non-transportable tool kits (such as massive grinding stones), agricultural structures such as terraces and dams, animal pens, pottery, metals, calendars, record-keeping, slavery, feasting. But--all of these features are related to the development of prestige economies, rather than sedentism, and most developed in some form prior to permanent year-round sedentism.

Natufians and Sedentism

The earliest potentially sedentary society on our planet was the Mesolithic Natufian, located in the Near East between 13,000 and 10,500 years ago. However, much debate exists about the degree of sedentism. Natufians were more or less egalitarian hunter-gatherers, whose social governance shifted as they shifted their economic structure.

By about 10,500 BP, the Natufians developed into what archaeologists call Early Pre-Pottery Neolithic, as they increased in population and reliance on domesticated plants and animals and began living in at least partially year-round villages. These processes were slow, over periods of thousands of years and intermittent fits and starts.

Sedentism arose, quite independently, in other areas of our planet at different times: but like the Natufians, societies such as Neolithic China, South America's Caral-Supe, the North American Pueblo societies and the precursors to the Maya at Ceibal, all changed slowly and at different rates over a long period of time.


This glossary entry is a part of the Guide to the Characteristics of Ancient Civilizations, Ancient Farming, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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