Sustainability, culture change, inequality and global health are among the much-discussed challenges of our time, and rightly so, given the drastic effects such variables can have on modern populations. Yet with many populations today living in tightly connected geographic communities—cities, for example—or in highly networked electronic communities, can we still learn anything about societal challenges by studying simple farming communities from many thousands of years ago? We think there is much to learn, be it Malthusian pressures and ancient societal collapse, the devastating effects of European diseases on indigenous New World populations or endemic violence in pre-state societies (e.g. Pinker 2012). By affording a simpler, ‘slow motion’ view of processes that are greatly accelerated in this century, the detailed, long-term record of the European Neolithic can offer insight into many of these fundamental issues. These include: human adaptations to environmental change (Palmer & Smith 2014), agro-pastoral innovation, human population dynamics, biological and cultural development, hereditary inequality, specialised occupations and private ownership.