The transition from a subsistence economy based on hunting, fishing and gathering to a production-based economy with the domestication of animals and plants, began in the 9th century BCE. This transition, known as the Neolithic, led to a sedentary lifestyle with the gradual integration of innovations, such as ceramics and polishing. These processes, while not necessarily concomitant, occurred simultaneously in different areas of the globe.
The Musée de l’Homme has one of the largest African Neolithic collections outside Africa. Asia and the rest of Europe are also represented. This, combined with the collection from mainland France, makes for a global cross-section of the Neolithic. The collections enable us to retrace the rise of a production economy in Africa and more specifically in the Maghreb and the Sahara. Théodore Monod and Henri Lhote, among others, brought back major series that have contributed to our knowledge of these regions. From Asia come items such as the shell heaps of Samron Sen in Cambodia that date to the Bronze and Iron Ages and were collected by Henri Mansuy and Dr. Paul Roux. These collections sometimes issue from the edge of the historical period, enabling us to draw ties with sample sub-contemporaneous materials from the ethnology collections.
In the 1930s, in order to create the future Musée de l’Homme, the prehistory collections that had been kept in the anthropology gallery and at MNHN laboratories were pooled with those of the former Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. The collections of the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris (SAAP) and the Ecole d’Anthropologie were incorporated into the MNHN’s in 1932, and those of the Société préhistorique française (SPF) in 1954 and 1980. Since then, growth has slowed due to the fact that excavation finds are kept near the site of discovery. Similarly, finds unearthed during excavations conducted jointly by Musée de l’Homme research teams and local teams in the Southern Hemisphere remain in their country of origin.
Some artefacts are re-examined using physicochemical methods. Characterization of the nature of organic carbon using stable isotope analysis in the Tassili ceramics brought back by Henri Lhote has revealed that wild grains were used for grease removal and as food for humans and animals beginning roughly 8000 BCE. Analysis of the composition of metal daggers and beads, from the barrows of the Lozère area in France, which belonged to the Prunières collection, allow for improved characterization of the region’s artisanal production and the confirmation that these pieces date from the Chalcolithic and the early Bronze Age (2600 to 1400 BCE). Similarly, a study of the composition of glass beads from other Lozère barrows dating from the late Bronze Age (1880-1400 BCE) suggest that they probably came from the Frattesina deposit located in the Po estuary, Italy.